Jun 3, 2014
Not That Kind of New Yorker: Going Home Again
This isn’t literally true; I can recall many pleasant days with my mother, the writer Ellen Willis, exploring Prospect Park during cherry blossom season, getting face-painted with her at PS 321’s street fairs, or sharing an Italian ice at Roma Pizza. Still, for her, Brooklyn was isolating. Brooklyn was provincial. Brooklyn didn’t “get” her. Park Slope wasn’t a place where bohemian writers lived. It was a place of strollers and toy stores and oppressive mortgages, even in the far more humble Slope of the 90s. In one essay from 1999, with a few years’ distance from the borough, she wrote that moving from her rent-regulated apartment on Waverly Place to a co-op in Brooklyn with me and my father was her “induction into the new economic order.” The new place was “forty-five minutes by subway from my old haunts and four times as expensive.” Although she never let on when I was growing up, she fiercely missed Greenwich Village. So when NYU offered her tenure, she jumped at the chance to live in the university’s subsidized housing.
I was 12 when we moved to Washington Square Village, across the street from the Bobst Library. Suddenly, we were right back where she’d experienced the most important events of her life, where she had transformed from a timid, married coed to a 24-year-old divorced grad school dropout, where she had a feminist awakening with the help of the East Village counterculture. She didn’t even seem to mind that her old stomping grounds were already becoming unrecognizable and inaccessible to the creatives with whom she identified. She stayed loyal to her “haunts,” restaurants she’d been going to for decades, like Elephant & Castle or Veselka. She frequented classics like CBGB until the bitter end. She reveled in the fact that she could venture out at three in the morning when she was on deadline and there’d still be a buzz of activity on Bleecker, even if the musicians and artists had long ago been replaced by drunk tourists and NYU freshmen brandishing fake IDs.
Most crucially, she was again within walking distance of most of her friends: colleagues who still worked at the Village Voice, radical feminists who’d purchased giant lofts in Chelsea and Soho in the 70s, political activists with rent-controlled apartments in Alphabet City. My father had resided elsewhere, from Newark to Laguna Beach, and had lived a chunk of his life as an itinerant union organizer—so our city wasn’t the be-all, end-all for him. But for my mother, New York, and specifically Manhattan, was still the center of everything. It was the intellectual hub that had defined who she was, and no other place—not even Brooklyn—could possibly compare. My mother was a lover of lowbrow culture, a nonjudgmental parent, and a writer whose work was drenched with a strong strain of populism. But when it came to New York, she was an absolute snob.
For much of my teens, I embraced this mentality, too. By virtue of its proximity to a dozen subway lines, my apartment was one of the social epicenters among my friends in high school. I’d take long walks around the cobblestone streets to the west, people-watching and buying trinkets. When I went to Mexico one summer, I proudly told everyone I was “newyorquina” rather than “americana.” I marveled to my Brooklyn friends about my new Manhattan neighborhood: they only had Seventh Avenue—I had Broadway and Sixth Avenue and West Fourth Street and St. Mark’s Place!
But then two things happened when I was 22: my mother died, and I graduated into the worst economy since the Depression. The loss of my mother brought on the usual feelings of grief and confusion, but the nostalgic accounts of her life in obituaries brought on an existential crisis about the New York bubble I had grown up in. The city that raised me was now kicking my ass every day; I was bouncing between unpaid journalism internships and long shifts at boozy restaurants, working seven days a week, living in a tiny room in an apartment with two other roommates, feeling further and further from the intoxicating New York my mother had described. I had to get out.
A friend and I decided to go on a months-long, cross-country road trip, ostensibly to write a book about young women and feminism, but also to get out of our comfort zones. Then, high on my newfound knowledge that New York was not, in fact, the only interesting town, I signed a lease in Chicago—a bustling city without the self-regard, the hassle, the pretension, and the price tag of New York. Again and again, I found myself traveling to other parts of the country for work, reporting on communities that didn’t give a fuck about how much my family’s Park Slope duplex would be worth now. I met people my age in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Jackson, Mississippi; and Omaha, Nebraska, who were living out the bohemian ideal of my mother’s imagination. Instead of bragging about my New York roots when I traveled or interviewed for jobs, I made sure people knew I wasn’t one of those New Yorkers who thought they were better and smarter than everyone else. I made a point of name-dropping the best BBQ joint in Tuscaloosa or complimenting the abortion rights activists embedded in Texas—a place, unlike New York, where their passion felt more radical, more necessary.
In the same 1999 essay, my mother wrote that a “culture of austerity”—of rising rents, of plummeting funds for creative careers—has “reinforced the characteristic anti-intellectualism of American culture.” But her premature farewell to dirt-cheap rent and symbiotic intellectual communities belied her New York tunnel vision, her refusal to acknowledge that the sites of cultural ferment will simply be elsewhere: in post-industrial cities, in Southern towns, in rural enclaves. And, of course, in that place you can be while living anywhere: the Internet.
I didn’t remain in exile forever. In 2010, motivated by day-job dissatisfaction and a sudden family issue, I returned to my city. Right now, I live less than two miles from that Park Slope duplex I grew up in. Coming back wasn’t a seamless transition. It was more like a series of little heartbreaks. I learned I couldn’t inherit my grandmother’s limited-equity apartment in Chelsea. My dad moved to a bachelor pad in Murray Hill, leaving me without a homebase in New York. Searching for a market-rate apartment after Chicago’s forgiving prices was gut-wrenching. Since then, I’ve had months where I’ve worried I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent. I have days where I rage about big-box store proliferation and subway fare hikes and $10 well drinks.
But I stay here, no matter how many fantasies I have about buying a $1 house in Detroit. I stay here not because I think it’s the only—or even the best—place to thrive creatively. I stay here not just because my friends and family and a lot of the media are here. I stay because I’m not willing to be pushed out of my own city, even if I never experienced the bohemian-friendly wonderland of which my mother was a part. For the moment, I’m here, but I’m not here the way my mother was. I’m here knowing I may not always be here, remembering that the only way I can keep up intellectually and politically with my generation is if I sometimes get out of here.
My mom knew this deep down. In 1981, she wrote a piece called “Escape From New York,” in which she described a cross-country bus trip spurred by “feeling isolated, spending too much time hiding out in my apartment, wrestling with abstract ideas.” She hits the road with her eyes open, observing the tics of strangers and catching up with old friends who’d eschewed big-city life. Eventually, she grew homesick: “Like a child I want to be home now,” she writes toward the end. I sometimes get homesick in my own city; once in a while, I’ll peer into the window of that childhood duplex, imagining my own furniture there, my own art hanging on the walls. I’ve come to think of that apartment like an old boyfriend: it still exists, still changing without me, doing fine. It’ll always be a part of me, wherever I live. So will the Village. So will my mother.
Nona Willis Aronowitz is the editor of a new collection of her mother’s work, The Essential Ellen Willis.
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