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