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If You Lived Here, You’d Be Cool by Now

Ever get the feeling that the New York of your dreams is happening elsewhere? These days, the half-life of a hot neighborhood can be measured in mere weeks. To find the optimal balance of commodious bistros, tasteful urban decline, and cheap(ish) rent before it disappears, run like hell to...Jersey City?

Oasis Café  

*Sorry to get you all out of breath. You’re already too late.

Perhaps you are happy in your neighborhood. Perhaps you are ensconced right where you are. Perhaps you never indulge the stray notion that maybe it’s time to pull up stakes and move to Brooklyn or, if you live in Brooklyn, maybe you should check out Astoria or Jackson Heights. Perhaps your interest is not roused by each new story of the underground loft parties in Bushwick, or that very reasonably priced warehouse conversion in the South Bronx (sorry—SoBro), or that awesome and as-yet-undiscovered pocket of Red Hook with that one really great new restaurant. In which case, good wishes to you, and move along. There’s nothing for you to read here.

See, once upon a time, it was easy: If you’d always dreamed of living in New York City, all you had to do was move to New York City. Your decision of where to live once you got here was primarily a function of economics (what you could afford) and community (who you were, who you wanted to become, and who you wanted to hang around with). Beatniks? Please make your way to the West Village. Fancy pants? They’re holding a space for you on the Upper East Side. Immigrants? You’ll find a familiar and populous neighborhood already established. Artists? Take your pick of cheap, available space. Manhattan is only twenty square miles, but there was room enough for everyone.

Then not that long ago, maybe fifteen years back, something happened. As New York became more prosperous and more glamorous and less dirty and less scary—morphing from the bankrupt city of The Warriors and Escape From New York in the seventies and eighties to the glittering city of Sex and the City and Friends in the nineties—more and more people came to pursue the dream of New York, and so the dream itself became more and more elusive. Manhattan became overcolonized, then overpriced. Its internal boundaries bulged, then burst. Old neighborhoods became financially inaccessible, so new ones were carved out. Now the Upper West Side is swallowing Harlem. The flow from Brooklyn to Manhattan has reversed course. The meatpacking district, once synonymous with “the district in which meat is packed,” became synonymous instead with cool, then not cool—and it all happened in about three weeks. “Downtown” has gotten so skittish that it’s hopscotched from the East Village to Soho to Tribeca to the Lower East Side, before eventually packing up and marching right across the bridge to Williamsburg.

Phrases like “Brooklyn is the new Manhattan” and “125th Street is the new Soho” have become a regular part of the conversation, creating a double-ended sense of disorientation: Not only is one place now cooler than you assumed, but the other one’s no longer as cool as you thought. In his quasi memoir Nobrow, John Seabrook sounded a familiar lament: “By the time I was ready to buy an apartment, Soho was too gross, too ruined by commercialism,” he wrote. “I ended up buying in Tribeca, where in my own way, I try to make the present feel like the past. To me, Tribeca is like Soho before the money took over.” And he wrote this six years ago, not twenty. Now Tribeca’s the most expensive Zip Code in the city—the money’s taken over—and somewhere else, someone’s out there looking for the new Tribeca (Dumbo?) and trying to make that present feel like the past as well.

As a result, even dug-in New Yorkers suffer from a kind of neighborhood ADD, perpetually suspecting that their dream of New York, whatever that might be, is happening elsewhere—not in another city, but in another borough, another neighborhood, another block. This is driven in part, of course, by money—priced out of Manhattan, you turn to Brooklyn; priced out of Brooklyn, you turn to Queens—but also in part by that anxious feeling you get when you’re attending a great party, but you can’t help hearing that there’s a louder, more raucous party going on down the hall. The reason many people come to New York, after all, is to marvel at its glories and revel in its parade of daily wonders. But to live here now is to endure a gnawing suspicion that somebody, somewhere, is marveling and reveling a little more successfully than you are. That they’re paying less money for a bigger apartment with more-authentic details on a nicer block closer to cuter restaurants and still-uncrowded bars and hipper galleries that host better parties with cooler bands than yours does, in an area that’s simultaneously a portal to the future (tomorrow’s hot neighborhood today!) and a throwback to an untainted past (today’s hot neighborhood yesterday!). And you know what? Someone is. And you know what else?