Steven Heller | Essays

Reverse Migration: A Growing Pain

“I love this dirty town.,” the ruthless fictional tabloid gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (played by Burt Lancaster) says in a scene from my favorite New York film The Sweet Smell of Success. Well, I love this dirty town too.

Born on the Lower East Side and bred in Stuyvesant Town until seventeen when I moved to my first grungy apartment in Greenwich Village, I was of a generation that never considered moving to any of the outer boroughs and from an early age rarely left Manhattan Island (except to visit my grandparents in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium). Among a handful of schools, I went to P.S. 40 and J.H.S.104, both still standing just two blocks from my current office at New York’s School of Visual Arts (where I had enrolled for a year after being booted from New York University in 1969). At twelve I worked in the art department at New York’s Bergdorf Goodman, and at thirteen at the ad agency for Russ Togs; at seventeen I began designing pages for New York underground newspapers; for 33 years I was a senior art director at The New York Times. I am a rock ribbed, original New Yawka.

For this reason, as we begin to re-enter a season that experts predict will have pandemic spikes, it pains me to admit: I do not want to come back to my beloved New York City.

Once, I could not live without Manhattan, now I don’t think I can stand the sight of it. After 9/11, as Milton Glaser declared, I ♥ NY more than ever. But since mid-June, after COVID-19 locked us down and knocked many of us out, I have been living in a virtually corona-safe bunker in Northern CT. This week, however, the time has come to return to Manhattan for the rest of fall, winter, and into spring. The stress of returning to New York is wreaking havoc on my mind and body.

It used to be I could only stay in the country for a week, at most, before needing my New York City fix. After the shutdown, my wife and I responsibly stayed shuttered in our apartment for thirteen weeks (Zooming incessantly for work) before migrating north (and Zooming even more). Now, having spent the end of spring, all summer and early fall here, E.B. White’s 1949 essay Here Is New York, which I just reread, has deeper resonance and prescience for me than when I read it after 9/11:
“New York has changed in tempo and temper during the years I have known it,” he wrote. “There is greater tension, increased irritability . . . The normal frustrations of modern life are here multiplied and amplified . . . and there is greater speed . . . The subtlest change is something people don’t speak much about but is on everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history is destructible, A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of cheese can quickly end this fantasy, burn the towers, crumble bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions.”
When Covid-19 hit New York it was like a no-man’s land cum battle zone. From March 13 to June 15 we shut ourselves off physically from everything and everyone. Prior to the last two weeks in June we cautiously left our apartment only three times for ten minutes each time. Close friends had evacuated; our son was self-quarantined in Brooklyn nursing a mercifully mild case of the disease, and two weeks later, when he was well again, he wouldn’t visit lest he expose us to the virus. We stubbornly clung to the idea that as hardened Manhattanites (enduring blizzards, blackouts, strikes and, worse, the horror of 9/11) it was our duty to stick it out. But the forced isolation, even in the perceived comfort and enforced safety of our home, began to erode our resolve.

By June 15 enough was enough! Sadly, for too many people it was also the end. We decided to decamp to the north. I ran through a dozen excuses why it was impractical (indeed cowardly) to pick up and leave, but the rationales never stuck, so reluctantly we migrated like the flocks of grossbeaks, gold finches, cardinals, and bluebirds that made their treks as well. Spring was emerging, trees blooming, plants growing and our resident bear was awaking from his winter sleep. Almost instantly the feeling of guilt that I had betrayed New York City along with the stomach-churning emptiness and daily bout of corona-anxiety started receding. The latter is recurring again.

So, why leave now? We will work remotely when we get home, anyway. But my real life is in New York. There are things to do, doctors to see, lives to normalize (maybe?). We’ve only seen our son twice — at safe social distance — in all these months. We have shared physical space with only two of our closest friends — and although at times Zoom makes social interaction appear human, it is really a poor substitute. What’s more our house gets pretty cold in the mid-Fall and in Winter snow drifts are usually quite high and difficult to maneuver. After the first snow (hopefully on Christmas day), I’m done.

The metabolism of a small town does not compare to New York City either. The small town heart rate is slower. No one fights against health and safety protocols. People are more compliant. Emotionally, everyone seems less anxiety prone. It is not the wilderness. Life goes on. We get Amazon boxes and book deliveries. The food market is only 20 minutes north, its safe and clean, and what they sell is good. So, I ask again, “why not stay in place?”

The answer is simple, I think. This virus is slowly changing our behavior — like the Great Depression changed my grandmother, making her chronically nervous as it ultimately killed the grandfather I never knew; World War II changed my parents in ways I can only imagine. I’ve always loved New York yet for now that feeling is gone. I want to see what actually happens when we settle back. I want to become a New Yawka again.

Posted in: Arts + Culture

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