Thursday, October 4, 2007

This is so NOT the American Dream

Every now and then a member of my family will make a comment that - whether explicit or implicit - essentially asks the question, "How can you live in noisy New York City in such a small apartment?" There are times when I ask myself the same thing. But having lived in suburbia both as a child and young adult homeowner, I have to admit that I wouldn't want to live in suburbia at this point in my life. (On the eve of our family's annual Columbus Day weekend trip to Vermont, I should point out that I could move to a small burg in Vermont or New Hampshire and assume the mantle of full-time artist and genttleman farmer while our family raises a few sheep for my wife's knitting/spinning obsession. But I don't see that happening any time soon.)

But back to this issue of living in New York City versus living the "American Dream." Obviously the ideal of owning a home, a little plot of land, a couple of cars in the driveway, cable TV, with a couple of kids in tow is still a powerful symbol for many Americans, particularly those recently arrived. This has been the benchmark for middle class success since the end of World War II, when the GI Bill, easy credit, and the largest expansion ever in new housing stock made it all possible. Fed up with overcrowding and pollution, tens of thousands of New York City residents (like the Levittown family pictured here) abandoned the Big Apple after World War II for the suburbs of Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

But as I've written in other blog entries, that "Dream" is becoming increasingly elusive for a growing "underclass" of Americans who are often marginally employed, lack health insurance, and have somehow missed out on many of the trappings we usually associate with "middle class" life in the U.S. Yet odd as it seems, I like the fact that New York City is so NOT the "American Dream." I like it that I don't have to rely on my car to purchase even basic staples like milk and bread. (When I visit my parents in Virginia, I'm always frustrated by the routine of getting in the car and driving 15 minutes just to do ANYTHING. Walking is not an option.) Indeed, since moving to Manhattan nearly 10 years ago, there have been periods in which I didn't sit behind the wheel of a car for stretches of several months. And I don't miss it. I like the city's diversity. I the like the incredible access to the arts. I like the walkability of the city. And I don't think it's that crowded, in an agoraphobic sense, unless I decide to venture into mid-town with the tourists and business-suit types.

Ironically, some recent demographic studies have shown that Manhattan is becoming a popular retirement destination for people who had left the city for suburbia decades ago. Retirees cite the advantages of good public transportation and nearby airports, access to the best medical care available, and the proximity to museums and the arts.

So as I explain my choices to the family for the umpteenth time, I'm sure I'll have to do it all over again at some point in the not too distant future. New York City is like Mars to them. I honestly think that they would have had an easier time understanding if I had moved to Vegas, because for them Vegas at least has the trappings of suburbia under the gilding of neon.


One Wink at a Time said...

Knowing you to the limited degree that is afforded here, which I think, is well enough to say this... I can't imagine you anywhere else. Except, maybe of course in New England location as you mentioned... I'm guessing that your family thinks they know what's best for you and have a hard time imagining that you might know better?

BooCat said...

I can understand wanting to retire to NYC. For GRITS (Girls Raised in the South) to speak such a sentiment aloud is nothing short of heresy. I am in a house right now that I wish I could swap for an apartment or loft. I have a car that is nothing but trouble on four tires (also trouble) that presents me with a new "stupid car trick" every day, but there is no alternative to owning a car.
Every time I visit New York, I feel energized. It is as if I have plugged into some secret power source. When I leave, I do so with sadness. Don't tell or I will be drummed out of the Mystical S.B. Sisterhood.