I moved from Indianapolis to Brooklyn on crutches, one week before starting my first full-time writing job, and still managed to find a great roommate in a nice two-bedroom apartment the day after I landed. My apartment has a real kitchen, a living room that can hold several people at a time, and I pay less than $1,000 per month in rent. From the perspective of most New York transplants, I have been incredibly lucky. From the perspective of my friends back home in Indianapolis, I’m being ripped off.
But I moved to New York to get ripped off. I’d been visiting friends in the city for years and knew that you don’t come here to become more financially stable. As a writer, you move here for access, art, opportunity, and sometimes, just to say you did. It’s almost cliché to point out that the New York belonging to James Baldwin, Dorothy Parker, or even Fran Lebowitz no longer exists. Still, it’s worth noting that while the city no longer offers gritty, cheap, old-fashioned spirit, saying you’re a writer who lives in New York still means something. For many transplanted artists, even if your city experience doesn’t live up to the dream, there is someone back home who remains infinitely impressed by your zip code. The question is: how long can you afford to impress them?
Back in Indy, I rented a four bedroom pre-war condo with original wood floors and a covered front porch in the historic Irvington neighborhood, named after “Sleepy Hollow” author Washington Irving. The library was right across the street. Within just a few minutes, I could walk to my florist, two thrift shops, my pizza joint, my taco joint, and the record store. I made $30,000 a year, had two roommates, and paid $380 per month in rent. Irvington was a great place to live, but New York offered the chance to be a paid full-time writer, the opportunity to work with a brilliant editor at a growing media giant, and most importantly, an adventure. An extremely expensive adventure, but an adventure nonetheless.
Today, I’ve lived in Brooklyn for one year, and I’ve had the adventure I asked for. There have been literary parties, premieres for HBO shows, concerts in the park, some of the best food I’ve ever tasted, new friends, and even raccoons trying to break into my bedroom through my fire escape. Often I walk through Central Park, take the train to the Cloisters, or have brunch with 10 other brilliant brown women writers and think, I can’t get this anywhere else. My editor told me, “To survive your first year in New York, just pretend you’re in an indie film.” I took his advice, and ran with it. Now, I’m wondering if this movie is over-extending the budget with an overzealous running time.
While I still appreciate my apartment, the reality that my friends back home are buying houses or living in luxury downtown apartments for the same or less money is distracting. A lot has changed in the past year; my long-term partner moved here from Seattle, I left that full-time writing job, and I had my first experience with real grief and ensuing depression when my grandmother passed away. All three of these events forced me to wonder how long I can make this work. Even with cheap rent, cooking for ourselves everyday, and minimal shopping, we are consistently on our last leg in this city. We take long walks through Ditmas Park, dreaming about a house with three bedrooms and two full baths, then stop when we still can’t fathom where anyone finds two million New York dollars to buy a $200,000 Indiana house.
When my boyfriend and I discuss getting married and perhaps having children someday, there’s always a catch at the back of our throats, a space-saver for the phrase, But we can’t do that here. We’re both Midwesterners, with families who mostly stayed in the same state. We both grew up with big fields to play in and trees to climb, experiences that feel essential to the best moments of our childhoods. On Instagram and Facebook we see pictures of our friends’ children at bonfires and sleeping in their own big-kid beds in their own bedrooms. Every time we see a New York parent struggling to carry their child under one arm and a stroller under the other while they walk up the subway steps, we stop to help, then look at each other, our eyes saying what don’t need to say out loud. We can’t do that here.
While my partner and I sit down to re-work our budget for the third time this month, I get an email from a student at my alma mater saying how badly she wants my life. I am not a cynical woman, and I do not believe in crushing dreams, but I want to send her a screenshot of my account balance. I want to ask her what she wants out of life, and if it’s possible that she can find it somewhere that costs a little bit less. Or a lot less. I don’t want to make the decision for her, but I want her to know she’s making a decision. I send back:
- You can be an artist from anywhere. Check out L.A., Austin, Portland, Minneapolis, and New Orleans to start.
- Begin connecting with people wherever you want to live. Even if it’s just on the internet.
- Save up some money. A lot of money. More money than you think you need.
- Being poor is not equal to being artistically pure.
- Visit New York before you move to New York.
- ASK FOR HELP.
When I moved here, my sole focus was exhausting this chance to become the writer I always wanted to be. Now, I have brilliant writer friends who live all over the country with houses and babies and savings accounts. In fact, two best-selling writers I know live in Indiana not too far from my old neighborhood. My partner and I aren’t sure we want to move back to our home state, but we’re certain we can’t afford the life we want in this one. Still, we just re-signed our lease. There’s still something here. Maybe it’s irresponsible, and not the advice I’d give a young me, but – for now, anyway – there are still reasons to stay.
Ashley C. Ford lives in Brooklyn by way of Indianapolis, Indiana. She is a writer, editor, and speaker. She is currently writing a memoir (among other things), and co-editing the anthology Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture with Roxane Gay.