Growing Up New York

Brooklyn, 1980
The L train to Brooklyn, 1980

“I just thought the whole thing was fabulous – what a great childhood you had!,” responded my mom when I asked her why in the world she ever decided to raise her children in Manhattan. In the 1980s. On Eighth Avenue and 53rd Street. “You got to see a side of the world other kids don’t.”

I can’t argue with that, nor am I disappointed with my parents’ decision.

They moved to the West Side from the East 50s in 1974, a decision my mom remembers as inconceivable for most people in her middle-class demographic at the time. My parents were given financial incentives to move west, and took them, settling in a cramped, but new three-bedroom apartment where they remained until financial incentives were offered to get them out of their rent-stabilized apartment just a few years ago.

Now our childhood home is getting a facelift – larger, combined apartments and a roof deck to get that perfectly affluent tan. The price tag has tripled to $6,500 a month.

Like other kids in our demographic, my brother Michael and I were educated on all levels of the socioeconomic spectrum: private school, parochial school and eventually public school.

“That’s why you can travel from the super rich to whatever, you are comfortable at both ends of the spectrum,” my mom continued. “You can talk to Ivanka Trump and the bum on the street.”

The best thing about growing up in New York City? “Having some level of understanding of different people, which is difficult to acquire in most of the country, or world for that matter,” suggested a high school friend. The worst? “The fact that other people don’t have that understanding.”

Ignorance is bliss, after all.

“New York’s got materialism, but also transcendentalism,” said Michael about our city upbringing. “It’s got hate, but it’s also got love.”

A city full of contradictions mimics reality, and it makes those of us reared in that reality cynical at an early age; a cynicism that differentiates us from our city’s newcomers, whose childhoods were tinged with the dream of living here.

“Growing up with the reality of New York versus the dream of it, though, colors everything,” said a particularly observant friend who moved to New York after college. “If you always thought of it as an opportunity, you don’t let the reality get you down; but, if you always lived in the reality, the opportunities can pass you by because you aren’t convinced that they’re there. It’s mind over matter.”

These days I find myself more often in the company of New York’s newcomers then with the brood of troublemakers I grew up with, making me at once a novelty and a narcissist. A novelty because I am one of a rare breed of kids that grew up participating in all levels of the socio-economic spectrum; a narcissist because I can’t imagine a better introduction to society or the realities of life.

Hence my love for Brooklyn.

For all of its gentrification, it is still the New York that I recognize from my childhood. The new boom of babies that have the opportunity to grow up here will conceivably encounter all levels of class and people of myriad backgrounds. For now.

It is also my hope that the young people who move here from all over the place – from whom I’ve learned a tremendous amount from as well – will eventually gain an understanding of the world that is only taught here in our city streets, and remain in Brooklyn to form a new middle-class. That understanding is what makes us one of the most recognizable urbane personalities in the world.

“What people born and raised here understand intuitively and tend to take for granted—the precise paths to glory, the unspoken demarcations of power and status—are secrets that an émigré must puzzle out for himself when he arrives from the sticks,” wrote Kurt Andersen in New York magazine after the death of its founding editor Clay Felker.

For us middle-class city kids, those unspoken demarcations of power and status meant that we experienced the highs, middles and lows of growing up in New York. Of course, there are kids that experience only the highs–Upper East Side private schools–and only the lows–the poverty of public housing–and those will always exist. But the key to this great city is the (diverse!) middle-class which is fast disappearing.

According to a 2006 Drum Major Institute study, 91 percent of New Yorkers believe it is presently harder to enter the middle class then it was in 1996. A recent article about the “reversal of white flight” by Connor Dougherty in the Wall Street Journal declared “Brooklyn has seen its proportion of whites grow to 36.1% in 2006 from 35.9% in 2000–the first increase in white share in about a century.”

Manhattan as I knew it is already a distant memory, with the tides rapidly turning in Brooklyn. The city I know and love has disappeared under the vanilla affluence of outsiders to the extent that my native brethren secretly wish for an economic downturn if only to turn the clocks back to New York’s heyday of cultural authority. An authority that nobody can put a price tag on.

“It was never dull, it was always fun; something happened everyday, there was always a story,” said mom nostalgically. “You gave everything a shot, so there you are. Even though some days weren’t great–but what the heck, those were few and far between.”

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