Leaving New York, Never Easy
Some of you may have taken the hints, some of you may have been told in person. For everyone else, here’s the news: At the end of August my family and I will be leaving New York City and moving upstate, to the Catskill Mountains.
The reasons are many, but they all come down to that one well-worn New York City phrase, quality of life, and the fact that we can get a better one by leaving the city behind. With the arrival of baby Noel, we are simply too crowded in our Park Slope house, and rather than attempt to move up the New York City property ladder, we prefer to cash in our investment and get ourselves a sizeable amount of space – both interior and exterior – in the country. My wife is working full time looking after Noel and Campbell and we all want her to be able to do so in comfort, rather than under the cramped conditions we currently endure. We’ve been in love with the Catskill region for many years and have had a ‘weekend’ and ‘writing’ home up there for the last three of them. The scenery is stunning, the outdoor opportunities are many, and there’s a large arts community within which to settle and make (more) friends. The local schools are good, and Campbell is particularly excited about starting his 5th grade at the Elementary School in Phoenicia, nestled against a mountain backdrop, straight after Labor Day.
So that leaves me. After 39 years of big city living, 22 of them in London and 17 in New York (not counting two baby years in Yorkshire), can I really make the change?
I can’t wait. I’m the one who instigated this. New York City can be the most fabulous place you could ever ask to call home, as long as you have the spare time, or the disposable income – or preferably, both – to take full advantage of all its offerings. In my late twenties, un-married and living in Manhattan, I was in that position and lived it to the limit: barely a day went by when I didn’t gaze up at the skyscrapers and proclaim , “I love this place.” But as one of my 40-something 5-a-side playing English expat dads said the other week, and he too is thinking of the move, “If you no longer have time to take advantage of everything the city has to offer, you start asking yourself why you’re spending the money to live here.”
That’s how I’ve felt in recent years, my generally effusive tone on iJamming! not withstanding. Gigs, clubs and bars are notoriously late-night affairs here, and my work and my family and my health all pay the price should I stay out and up to enjoy them. DJing until 4am ruins me for an entire weekend, which is unfair on those around me, and the pay is too little to make that sacrifice worthwhile. And for all that I relish my status as some kind of elder statesman, long-term scenester, respected figure-about-town or whatever else I hear said about me, there comes a point where hanging out for the sake of it makes you an embarrassment. (That’s something I don’t want to hear said about me.)
A few months back, with our house on the market, I deliberately took in six gigs in five nights to see if it provoked second thoughts about leaving that all behind. It didn’t. Much though I enjoyed the shows on offer that week, I felt like I’d seen several of the bands already – as in, twenty-five years ago – and yet none of them delivered the same emotional impact as bands did when I was that much younger. Given that I no longer professionally review gigs for a daily paper, going to them is more a matter of habit than a necessity. In the meantime, I want to write more of substance, produce more of substance, and enjoy more family time of substance.
It’s impossible to do that from our current set-up in Brooklyn. I pulled off the Moon book with wife and baby in background as I essentially had no choice, but once Posie got a new job, my own work suffered immensely: parental commitments to a toddler cut my work-time in half, and I then had to give up large parts of the lengthy school holidays due to my wife’s employers’ ludicrously short vacation allowances. There were friends and neighbors who seemed to think that I was a stay-at-home dad, rather than a self-employed writer working from a home office, and the interruptions were so endless that I only managed to finish my novel Hedonism by leaving town and borrowing someone’s place in the Catskills during the work week. (Clearly, that experience had a strong effect on me: we bought our own place up there just a year later.) Other self-employed writers in a similar position will know that this is not sour grapes, nor hollow gripes: attempting creative work from home as a parent is truly, really, absolutely bloody difficult. Perhaps even impossible. In our new set-up, I will be working out of an entirely different building, commuting to my own office. It’s not before time.
Looking back on our near-decade in Brooklyn, I feel like Posie’s several years back in the rat race were lost time in our lives, and it’s made me much more supportive of the ‘conventional’ family set-up, in which one parents earns for two, and the other one raises a family and keeps a household. But it’s so hard to pull that off in New York City without hefty corporate salaries and perks. We’d prefer then to step back, step out and allow Posie to enjoy Noel’s first few years while also giving Campbell the attention he merits in the short time left before he becomes a teen.
For Posie, then, this is a complete lifestyle change. For myself, it’s not so drastic as I can make it sound. We’ll be living a little over two hours from New York City. I have only just started work on a book about the history of the New York music scenes as told through the neighborhoods from which they arose. (Working title: Walk On The Wild Side. To be published by WW Norton in 2007 or later.) I have also been working with a New York group in a consulting capacity. Both these projects will require me to spend time in New York City. I fully envisage being in town one or two days a week. I hope to really cram in my activities during that time, much as I do when I visit London. I’ll just be a lot more select about the gigs and club nights I attend. I’m trusting that I’ll enjoy New York City a lot more as a result.
Of course, there will be things that I’ll miss. Most of them are here in Brooklyn, especially in Park Slope. And many of them were not on offer when we first moved to the borough. When I was first here, there was nowhere but nowhere to take my laptop and work during the day when I got bored of the view from my office. Now I can access free wi-fi at Gorilla Coffee on 5th, from the brand new Mule on 4th Avenue, or just hang at any number of other cafe-type places within walking distance. I remember in the late 90s going out for a pint with a friend: we had to walk almost a mile to an Irish bar on Flatbush Avenue because the only bar closer to home didn’t have a cellar. Back then the opening of The Gate on 3rd Street and 5th Avenue was a cause for celebration; there’s now at least another dozen casual bars between that place and my home, most of them well worth the time of day (or night). And back when we moved here, there were but a handful of cheap Mexican and pizza joints on 5th Avenue and only three places that qualified as actual restaurants, this in a mile-long stretch that was otherwise occupied by dubiously under-stocked bodegas and otherwise vacant storefronts. A recent thread on the Chowhound outer boroughs board listed a staggering 58 restaurants on the same stretch of 5th Avenue, but as the thread is six weeks old, so is the count. A new eaterie opens every week.
And of course, when we moved here, the gigs all took place in Manhattan, apart from a nascent burgeoning scene in north Brooklyn’s hipster neighborhood of Williamsburg. I never imagined a venue like Southpaw landing within 300 yards of my house; I couldn’t have contemplated being able to walk round the corner and see acts on the level of Luna, The Creation, and The Go! Team. Likewise, I did not expect to be hosting my own club night on 5th Avenue – Step On at The Royale – for a year and a half. That’s one of the fondest memories of living here.
It’s ironic that these improvements in the neighborhood provide both an incentive to stay put and the opportunity to cash out. But the fact is, you can’t have everything in life. So, just as we didn’t move here because of all these amenities, nor should we stay here because of them. Sadly, the same applies to friends: for all that we’re going to miss so many of then, we’ve seen our share of people move on, move out, break up or simply break away from us. You can stay for your own reasons, but you should never stay for other peoples’.
Besides, the neighborhood long ago passed ‘tipping point.’ What I once noted as the gradual influx of “funky white people” has now turned into a deluge of hipsters, who all dress the same, act the same, drink the same and smoke the same; why else have clothing stores Brooklyn Industries, Beacons Closet and Something Else have all grown into Brooklyn-based franchises? The pioneer spirit that made 5th Avenue so exciting five years ago is already a thing of the past: only businesses with serious money behind them can afford the increased rents, and retail prices have gone up accordingly. The restaurants, great though many of them may be, are getting greedy and no longer need rely on word-of-mouth for custom – witness the hysterical reaction of the Bogota proprieter to my comment about his expensive eaterie. And as other working parents know, it’s incredibly hard to justify spending $100 or more at a restaurant when your kids don’t enjoy the experience, baby-sitters cost money, and new clothes for a 10-year old are a seasonal necessity, not a demand of fashion.
So, and maybe I’m just exhibiting the crankiness that comes with age, I’ll survive outside of our area’s hip factor. What I will miss is the multi-culturalism. There’s a long-standing level of tolerance around what’s sometimes referred to as Brownstone Brooklyn – meaning Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, and Cobble Hill – that’s made this a truly beautiful place to call home. I’ve thrived on the different hues of humanity that greet you every day round these parts, that famed “melting pot” that’s on perpetual display. I’ve loved living on a street surrounded by multi-racial couples of different sexual preferences and multiple religions and, for the most part, to have us all get along so well. I’m honored to have been part of this city during and after 9/11 (though of course I’d have preferred not to have been.) I’ve loved the sense of passion and the mix of kids at Campbell’s school. I’ve enjoyed working at the Park Slope Food Co-Op, for all its chaos. I’m proud to have fought for the survival of the community garden on our block and then to have made use of it for several years. In short, if urban life of the communal, terraced-street sense (rather than the exclusive, high rise, don’t-know-and-don’t-have-time-to-talk-to-your-neighbors) can get much better than this, I’m not aware of it.
The area we’re moving to is not so multi-cultural. But as well as being an area of exceptional beauty – we’ll be living inside the Catskill Park, where there are 98 peaks over 3000 ft high and some 300,000 acres of State-protected forest – – it has its own history of tolerance and creativity. We’ll be living a few miles from Woodstock, the famed town which, of itself, is an uncomfortable combination of ageing tourists and ageing hippies ethics, but which has had a positive lasting influence on surrounding communities over the decades, turning the whole of northern Ulster County into a haven for artists. And by artists, I’m talking not just painters, but film-makers, writers, photographers, musicians, designers. In fact, the road we’re taking to this region is so well-worn that a case can be made for saying that this is where us old music-type people all seem to go when we can’t hack the city pace any more. So let me just put it this way: for all that I love Campbell’s current school in Brooklyn, I’m the only dad in the music biz. At his new school, I know of two others already (one an editor and writer, the other an old friend from England who’s now a successful artist manager), and we haven’t even started yet.
We are thoroughly and truly excited about this. We see it as voluntarily pushing ourselves into a new situation in a life that’s all too short. We make no assurances that this will be permanent; we can see ourselves moving to other places further afield in years to come. The important thing is not to get stuck in a rut, or just to stay put because it’s the easiest option. (And now that we’ve been through the hassles of selling a house and house-hunting, we know that staying put WOULD be the easiest option.) We are incredibly happy and raring to go.
How will this affect iJamming!? The obvious casualty will be the commentary about Brooklyn life. But most readers don’t live in this borough anyway; I can only hope they (you?) will be equally interested in an account of life in our new surroundings. As for the commentary about music, pop culture, politics, sports, food and wine… well,in our global village, we’re all just a broadband connection away from everybody else. With iTunes and its rivals, and all the online magazines and discussion boards, you can acquire as good a collection of music in the country as you can in the city. There may be less gig reviews at iJamming!, but I should have more time for album reviews as a result… Or book reviews; I may now have the time to actually read some of the books I acquire. The Hudson Valley and the Catskills alike are famed for fine food and drink; for arts and crafts; for theater and music. I’m seriously looking forward to an outdoor sports life that includes serious running, swimming and biking (triathlon anyone?), not to mention the hiking and climbing, and even closer and more frequent access to the ski mountains.
The best diarists are those who bring readers into their world. I have, for example, been following the site dooce.com for months now, not because I have any great affinity with author Heather Armstrong’s life as a young mother in Salt Lake City, but because she’s so entertaining and insightful that I feel like I learn something (or at least laugh at something) every time I visit. I make no claims to write at an equal level, but I can try.
This last week of August will be crazy with packing and early September equally insane getting settled. I’ll probably keep posting because it’s an instinctive process, but the writing may prove scattered in tone and content for a while. If you live in NYC, have it known I’ll be hosting a moving sale this last weekend of August to offload many more thousands of CDs, LPs, books and cassettes. (Which, don’t worry, will still leave me with many, many thousands to take with me.) Please feel free to stop on by if you can. Everyone else, I hope you’ll take the journey with us. Online, of course.