On the True Cost of Living in New York and the Problem with New York Exceptionalism

It is a widely acknowledged truth that living in New York is expensive. But even though you’d have to be living under a rock in some desolate stretch of the Badlands in order not to have heard about New York’s priciness before (if you live under a rock in New York, you’re probably paying $2,000/month for that privilege, so, like, you know about it already), the cost of living in this city is still an evergreen topic for the media. And this makes sense! After all, nothing is more interesting to New Yorkers than 1) money and 2) living in New York and because living in New York costs a lot of money those are kind of the same thing. Well, I guess leaving New York is pretty interesting to New Yorkers but because most of the writing about leaving New York is really about living in New York and why people can’t anymore, i.e. money, the whole thing is really just another example of a New York city-money oruoboros that is a weird if compelling combination of sickening and exhilarating; exhilarating because this is our life, you know? Of course we’re invested in this kind of conversation! And sickening because this is our life, you know? How can this be our life. We really don’t know sometimes. We really don’t.

All of which is to say, there have been a couple new articles floating around lately about “the true cost of living in New York” and how “you can’t afford to live in New York City,” which seem designed to shock the reader with such already well-established (i.e. super-obvious) facts like how buying an apartment here costs a lot of money and city income taxes are high and groceries are pricey and movies are $14-a-pop, as compared to $10 in other parts of the country. And let’s not even get into how much more it costs to go bowling here. (No, really, let’s not! Who goes bowling on the regular anyway?) These articles are usually inherently ridiculous and sensational, partly because of the things they don’t mention, like the fact that average salaries are higher here, and partly because this method of addressing New York’s very real economic inequality problems is superficial at best and demeaning to the thousands upon thousands of people who live here and are struggling for reasons that have literally nothing to do with the fact that movies are $4 more expensive here than they are in Philadelphia.

But perhaps the reason articles that address issues of inequality like this are so absurd is that they inspire other articles, ones that defend living in New York for reasons that are, well, lame. (I mean, if “stoops” is why you spend 50% of your monthly income on rent, you might want to think long and hard about what it really is that you expect your stoop to give you. And, you know, you might also want to think about the fact that “stoops” are identifiable with certain parts of New York, yes, but by no means all of it.) The main reason, though, that the articles which defend New York go beyond simply being lame and actually enter spurious territory is because they rest on an argument that is thought to be as undebatable as the fact that New York is expensive, namely, that New York is exceptional. This is a problem.

The issue with treating New York’s exceptionalism as being indisputable has nothing to do with New York not being a special place. Much like, oh, so many culturally and ethnically diverse urban areas, New York has a spirit and energy that at times feels palpable. It’s a magnet for young people looking to launch their careers in industries as varied as art, film, music, writing, politics, finance, and medicine; it’s also a place that more and more of those young people choose to stay and raise families in, and ultimately retire. And all of this is great. It really is. And it’s great to have access to things like 24-hour bodegas and 24-hour mass transit options and food delivery and, uh, “culture.” Oh, not because nowhere else in the country, let alone the world, has those things, more because New York does them really well, and we already live here, so why not celebrate those things, right? Well, maybe not! Maybe not.

The thing that I’ve noticed lately about people celebrating New York’s exceptionalism, is that the people who are doing it? Are already living in New York, and they’re already invested in living here, so they almost have no choice but to celebrate it. They haven’t just drunk the Kool-Aid, they’ve bought it… in bulk. It might be true that New York (or at least parts of it) are not fully covered in chain stores and restaurants yet, but pretending that if you don’t live here you’re automatically consigned to being an Olive Garden-eating zombie isn’t just an obvious fallacy, it also promotes the idea the that part of the reason New York is so amazing is because it’s expensive. In effect, it ties in New York’s exceptionalism with its hefty cost of living price tag by arguing that the reason New York is so great is because we can buy lots of things here at any time we want to! But it also ignores the fact that New York’s exceptionalism is as unequally distributed amongst New Yorkers as just about every other facet of New York life is. In fact, just about every positive quality one can ascribe to this city is generally one that is primarily enjoyed only by its most privileged residents. And this is why dismissing claims about how expensive New York is with comments about how New Yorkers are lucky to be here because they’ll have front row seats for the “class revolution [which] will definitely start here” go beyond mere flippancy and become downright insulting. There are indeed many reasons why New York is a worthwhile place to live despite how costly it is, but those reasons are—and must continue to be—more than just an architectural feature on townhouses. The reasons must revolve around things like developing an infrastructure which can keep up with population growth while providing all residents (not just the richest) with services and fighting for income equality and affordable housing and the protection of small businesses —all the types of things that can make New York really exceptional in a way that having an abundance of stoops never will. Only then New York’s high costs will be a price worth paying, being the birthplace of the Cronut just doesn’t cut it.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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12 COMMENTS

  1. So…….what to do?
    EXPAND rent stabilization and rent stabilization protections,
    EXPAND affordable housing …REALLY affordable housing.
    Landlord greed is destroying the diversity, and affordability of this beautiful city,
    both for commercial properties, and the abodes of it’s residents
    And ….raises taxes on the rich and corporate interests who exploit our city and its infrastructure
    but do not give back their fair share to support and maintain it.
    And…..insure a truly living minimum wage in this City, as Seattle has recently led the way, with its Fifteen dollar start in this effort. .
    I don’t want to see New York turn into another Dubai, with 1% SOB’s, proclaiming the wonders of their scam trickle-down economics, as they trickle-down-urinate on the rest of us peons from their mile high balconies.
    This, while the Republican Congress debates lowering their taxes still more,
    and the political system turns more and more into an oligarchy.
    New York’s problems are not isolated, they are a magnified systom of the ills of our society’s ills ..and possibilies ….and hopes… and fears.
    .

  2. New York’s problems are not isolated, they are a magnified symptom of the ills of our society ..and of its possibilies ….and of its hopes… and of its fears.

  3. I found the Jake’s umpteenth nod to the Cronut™in that listicle even more insulting than the one about class warfare; any regular reader knows (or plainly assumes) that all of his writers were gorging on Ansel pastries with the publishing of every article that Gothamist wrote about that bakery, which were many. In my opinion, they had before lost some journalist cred over the years, but his decision last year to support one business so openly was an example of extreme nepotism. Any respect actual writers/journalists had for that site has likely ebbed away as a result.

    I think Jake’s column is supposed to be tongue and cheek, but honestly, this one didn’t make a convincing argument either. I like the thesis, but the attempt to prove it feels unfinished. And by stoops, Jake actually meant community (but he did a poor job of explaining that in any real way).

    Full disclosure: I’m an extremely poor writer, been in Manhattan for nearly 20 years. NYC IS exceptional for us “poors” as well, but not for many of the reasons mentioned here or in the other cited/linked articles. I could write a much more convincing article. Let’s start with sheer serendipity—NYC has it in spades. That’s the spark that we pay dearly for; it’s all in how you use it. But I guess that’s too vague to be actual click bait.

    PS: I use the trademark on THE CRONUT to show how insane it is that Ansel actually TM’ed the name for print. And no, I’ve never had one.

    • Joann, brilliant observation about serendipity. A lot of the superficial things that people “need” from New York are usually related to the potential for serendipity. I truly hadn’t thought about that.

      I think the reason we see so few articles about that is not because it is not click-worthy (though that may be true). I think it’s because people truly just don’t think of it. We think of things like stoops, or small eccentric stores that they discover while on walks, but we don’t realize that what we love most isn’t the architecture, or the things we buy – it’s the element of serendipity.

  4. Yes, yes, and yes. The only thing I’d add is this: in addition to always making the conversation about THINGS YOU CAN BUY, the constant conversations about New York exceptionalism create a twisted, false impression of scarcity and exclusivity. It all contributes to the end result that the author is talking about – that the conversations end up all being about real estate and other things that you buy, and not about people living in a society. People in NY live in a society, just like people who live anywhere else, and when all you talk about is scarcity and authenticity, it gives them impression that people are just a touristic backdrop, and it makes it harder to have genuine conversations about the political and social forces that actually shape a society.

    I’d also like to add something that the author – or any author writing about New York on the internet – probably can’t get away with saying, because it would alienate too many people:

    Most articles about New York exceptionalism are probably written by people who are either wealthy or plan to live here for a few years and then leave. People who have a detached attitude toward the city, where it is a backdrop behind their lives, and not much more. They don’t take New York City seriously because, if you’re rich, you can be insulated from social issues that affect everyone else, and if you’re transient, the consequences of the trends you observe won’t affect you, because you’ll be miles away if the shit hits the fan.

    In short, Kristin Iversen is one of the rare people who writes frequently about New York on the internet, and is neither an aristocrat nor a backpacker, and the way she talks about the city highlights the deficiencies of nearly everyone else.

  5. Yeah, I don’t know. The writer has some good points. (Like how no one goes bowling here. True. But that’s because there is actually stuff to do here, which refutes her dismissal of NYC exceptionalism a little bit, so I guess I can see why she relegates her bowling comment to a parenthetical), but also some really dubious ones.

    Like this one, from which most of the other bad ones are derived: “Just about every positive quality one can ascribe to this city is generally one that is primarily enjoyed only by its most privileged residents.” Wrong, barf. Yes, there is a disturbing inequality, and things ARE getting out of hand, and bravo on the call-to-arms conclusion—those last two sentences are killer—but getting hyperbolic about this is silly. Assuming that if you move to the ‘burbs you’re going to have to eat Olive Garden is a fallacy, yes, but no, it doesn’t necessarily “promote the idea the that part of the reason New York is so amazing is because it’s expensive.” It just promotes the idea that we have options, and in terms of options, at least for now and probably for a long time, NYC IS exceptional. Rent notwithstanding, if you have to spend a ton of money, that’s on you. Sure it can take creativity or street smarts to make it work, but isn’t that the whole point of why/how NYC is exceptional? Hasn’t that been the case for, like, ever? Because you’re surrounded by that savviness and energy? If it were easy, we’d be any other dumb place where, sure, you can find lots of nice restaurants to eat at that aren’t Olive Garden. (But they ARE all farm-to-table or barbecue, probably, and chances are, not much cheaper than what you’d find here, so what was the point again? Rent, I guess.)

    Also: Who else do you expect to celebrate NYC’s exceptionalism besides the people who already live here? Someone else? If you’re celebrating it from afar, that’s sorta weird, no? Maybe you wrote a “goodbye to all that” essay and you’d be a hypocrite if you returned, possibly. Who knows. “Maybe not!” Anyone who lives anywhere has invested in the place that they live by, you know, choosing to live there, and putting all there stuff there, and getting a job there, and making friends there, etc.. Assuming New Yorkers are any more trapped in their situation and are “forced” to celebrate it any more than folks elsewhere is hooey. It seems the point here is that we shouldn’t celebrate it because it’s too expensive. Which, fine. But that’s been said already and this is one helluva problematic and roundabout way of saying it again.

  6. I’m old enough to remember when most of what people did was complain about how living in New York was so horrible. In the 1970s, most of my friends who grew up with me here were desperate to leave, as were their parents and grandparents — including those who found things to love in the city. Those of us who did leave and came back, though, realize that there are many, many other places to live. Elsewhere in my writing, I’ve talked about how I’ve found the most provincial people I’ve met in the United States are those NYC natives who have never left, even for a couple of years, and who talk about how there’s no place else to live despite revealing shocking ignorance of other cities and regions, the kind of stereotypes that were stale in the Eisenhower administration. I’ve lived in places where everyone who was cool seemed slightly embarrassed about living there — as we in NYC were in the 1970s — and it’s kind of endearing not to be in a place that isn’t so self-congratulatory. For that, I blame the non-native New Yorkers more. You can’t help where you’re born, but some of the people who come here in young adulthood (I emphasize *some*) or even middle age just feel they are so much smarter than anyone else for becoming New Yorkers.

    Still, as a fifth-generation Brooklynite, I have never loved any place as much as Brooklyn. But there are many Brooklyns and there are many Manhattans, Queenses, Bronxes, and Staten Islands.

    • Richard, I appreciate your rejoinder. I’m working on a project that critically analyzes New York exceptionalism. (I’m a native New Yorker too, and I do love the city but I find the exceptionalism problematic for many reasons.) You mentioned that you’ve written about the provincincialism of New Yorkers. Can you direct me to that published material? I’d appreciate it.

    • “These articles are usually inherently ridiculous and sensational, partly because of the things they don’t mention, like the fact that average salaries are higher here, and partly because this method of addressing New York’s very real economic inequality problems is superficial at best and demeaning to the thousands upon thousands of people who live here and are struggling for reasons that have literally nothing to do with the fact that movies are $4 more expensive here than they are in Philadelphia.”
      Inherently ridiculous? Sensational?! What is the real work this blog is doing that’s so much less superficial than other articles in the way of helping the struggling masses?

  7. We had to leave NYC this past summer. My husband and I are native NYers who really couldn’t figure out a way for him to retire in Brooklyn and for us to afford to live. I still have to start driving lessons! I am trying not to overwhelm myself right now though. I was a lifelong renter who now owns a house out of NY state. We got a dog, our dog barks at the deer behind our house. You have no idea how different our lives are now. I assume almost everyone will have to leave NYC and fairly soon. Also, I know everyone says it but MYC is not really NYC anymore.

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