New York is all about what could be,” says David Cloyd, a 34-year-old musician who moved to the city from Austin ten years ago. “You know: The potential. The possibilities.” He’s echoing, of course, the aspirational mantra that’s lured a million hopeful dreamers to New York before him. And in exchange for this promise of limitless possibility, this tantalizing what-could-be, New York requires of these dreamers that they pursue two simultaneous lives: the romantic, invigorating, spectacular life you imagine for yourself, and the expensive, often dispiriting, intermittently grueling day-to-day life you have to lead in order to keep that dream life alive. This is exhilarating. This is exhausting. This is what New York is all about.
And for Cloyd, at least, all those possibilities finally seem within reach. After moving to Brooklyn, he met his wife, Jaime Herbeck, a managing editor at Picador. He’s been signed to a New York label, Engine Company, and his first album, Unhand Me, You Fiend!, is scheduled to come out in January. Now the couple is thinking about kids. What could be!
Except that this musician, David Cloyd?
Um, he doesn’t live in New York anymore.
He lives in Buffalo.
Until last May, Cloyd and Herbeck were living in Sunset Park, in Brooklyn, and they were barely making it. They ate mac ’n’ cheese for dinner. They couldn’t afford to go out with their friends. They wanted a family, but “there was no room in our Brooklyn equation to have kids unless we put them in a closet,” Herbeck says.
Then one night, Herbeck, who’s 30, found herself browsing online listings in Buffalo. (Why Buffalo? She comes from Buffalo. And like many young Buffalonians, she got out as soon as she could.) “We were like, ‘Okay, the prices are great,’” she says. So they looked at some photos. “And we were like, ‘Okay, they’re really nice apartments. They’re really big. And right by the park.’”
And all of a sudden, they found they were staring at a very different what-could-be life: the one they’d be able to have if they were willing to leave New York.
So they traded their one-and-a-half-bedroom apartment in Sunset Park—the one they describe as “disgusting and so small and just awful,” and for which they paid $1,300 a month plus an extra hundred for a storage space because the landlady wouldn’t let them use their own basement—for a three-bedroom apartment on a tree-lined street with a living room, a dining room, a basement, a front and back porch, stained-glass windows, and a separate office for Herbeck. All that goes for $795 a month, a price that, Herbeck points out somewhat sheepishly, as though she’s revealing a guilty indulgence, is at the top end of the rental market in Buffalo. But can you believe it—an actual office! With French doors that open out to the back porch that she can leave propped open all day. “My old ‘office,’ ” she says, “was a desk crammed into the living room next to the TV.” Now Herbeck can work at home doing freelance proofreading for her old employer while Cloyd teaches music lessons—something he couldn’t do in New York, not with all the competition—and still has plenty of time left over to get his album ready for its release.
In the end, it came down to a simple decision. “Do we want to move to an apartment that’s a lot less space for a whole lot more money, just to stay in New York City?” says Herbeck. “Or do we want to change our lives completely?”
Welcome to Buffalo.
Some people will read this as a story of defeat. They will look at Herbeck and Cloyd and think, They came; they couldn’t cut it; good riddance. That’s also a familiar New York narrative, one that’s especially comforting to those of us who stay and stick it out. Because, sure, stained glass and spare bedrooms are nice and all, but no one moves to New York because they think they’re going to get a great bargain on an apartment. You move here because you want to live in New York City.
But I am here to tell you that this is not a story of defeat. Rather, it’s a story about choices. It’s a story about reaching that pivotal moment when the dream life you imagined for yourself in New York no longer seems attainable or attractive, or simply no longer seems worth the wearying chase. It’s a story, admittedly, about the kinds of people who have the luxury to move away, just as they once had the luxury to choose to move here; that is, people not pulled to one city or another by family obligation or job transferral, but rather by some grander idea of who they are and where they might best fit. (Then again, if you ask Cloyd and Herbeck about their choice to leave, I doubt they’d use the word luxury. In fact, they’d started to worry, back in Sunset Park, that with all their expenses they wouldn’t be able to afford to move at all. That they’d be stuck in New York.)