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Exodus

How creative young people are being driven out of Manhattan.

From the November 25, 1985 issue of New York Magazine.


When Becky London was growing up in Philadelphia, she dreamed of becoming an actress and moving to New York. "I wanted to have a place like Marlo Thomas had in That Girl," says London, 27. "I knew I'd have to struggle, and that maybe I wouldn't find my 'dream' apartment. But I figured, how bad could it be?"

London quickly found out. "It's hell out here," she says. After graduating from the Yale School of Drama in 1982, London found an apartment through a roommate service in Manhattan. "I wanted to live alone," she says. "But considering I couldn't afford more than $375 a month, that wasn't even a remote possibility." So London moved to an apartment on West 82nd Street, where there were so many roommates coming and going that the place seemed like a "transient hotel." Whenever London went out of town, the woman who held the lease would sublet her room, even though London was still paying rent. "I put up with this for about a year," she says, "and then I couldn't take it anymore."

London went back to the roommate service. This time, she was paired with a fabric designer on the Upper East Side. "The place was clean," says London, "and the woman seemed nice. Then, on the third day, as I was unpacking my clothes, she walked into my room and muttered something about a mental hospital.

"From then on, it was like a nightmare," she says. "My roommate hardly left her room. Every morning at 3 A.M., she'd open the windows and shout obscenities. I didn't know what to do. I didn't have the money for another security deposit, and I didn't have anywhere else to go." Finally, it became too much. "One night, I woke up and she was standing over my bed, staring at me," London says. "I said to myself, 'Tomorrow night she may have a kitchen knife,' so I fled." London moved in temporarily with a man she had been casually dating. "We certainly weren't ready for a live-in relationship," she says, "but this is what Manhattan does to you."

Within a month, London was back at the roommate service. She says she threatened to sue unless they found her someone "more compatible than a psychotic." Her next roommate was a 35-year-old Vietnam veteran. "The only thing we had in common," says London, "was that I needed a place to live and he had an apartment." Soon after London moved in, she had a shot at a part in a touring Shakespeare company. "I told him I'd pay the rent while I was gone," she says, "but he wouldn't hold on to my room. 'I can't make that kind of commitment,' he said. I told him, 'Look, I don't want to marry you. I just want a place to live.' But maybe that's too much to ask."

Last year, London moved to a small studio in Park Slope. "I was heartbroken," she says. "I felt haunted by the fact that I hadn't 'made it.' But if making it means having an apartment in Manhattan, well, that's not a realistic goal anymore."

In the past few years, a growing number of people have come to the same conclusion—that living in Manhattan is impossible or, at best, improbable. Many are involved in theater, dance, the visual arts, and publishing—fields that rarely pay well, especially for those still on the way up. Without the high salaries of banking, law, medicine, and the like, they can't afford to live here. And if housing costs continue to rise, these people may never be able to afford to come back. "Unless you have a trust fund or a wealthy spouse, you might as well head straight to the boroughs," says Kate Busch, director of development and marketing at A.R.T./New York, a service organization for nonprofit theater.

The city has always lost young couples to the suburbs once they began to think about raising a family, and that is still happening today. But experts say the current exodus is different. Along with the people who have traditionally headed to suburbia, a new group of deserters is composed of single people or childless-couples, many of whom are moving to Brooklyn, Queens, Hoboken, or Jersey City. "We're not looking for a two-car garage and a backyard barbecue," says a 32-year-old screenwriter. "We're looking to survive."

The high cost of housing is the main reason for the new migration. Apartment prices have gone up 25 percent in the past three years, and the trend toward co-op and condominium conversions has made rentals harder to find. The neighborhoods that once offered inexpensive housing—Chelsea, Clinton, the Upper West Side, the East Village—are now prohibitively chic. "When David's Cookies appeared," says furniture designer John Jacobus, who lived on the Lower East Side, "I knew it was time to get out." Jacobus moved to Williamsburg.


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