The Disillusioned Tortoise (An Essay)

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To know me is to know that I have long been a methodical type of person… The tortoise in the race with the hare… Slow and steady wins the race right? This explains why I am also a very driven person when I set my mind to something, which is the reason I hold the following quote very close to my heart.

New York City is a drug to which I am hopelessly addicted and seek no treatment

When I first came up with the quote above several years ago, it spoke to my deep, down to the core belief that New York City was my destiny, my own version of paradise. I have long held half-jokingly and half-seriously the viewpoint that I am a native New Yorker who was mistakenly conceived, born, and raised in California. As a child, I would read my mother’s Architectural Digest or Apartment Life magazines featuring interesting and fabulous apartments in New York flooding my brain with fantasies of life there. I would also watch television shows set in New York City and try to imagine what it must be like to live there. My favorite sit-com was Barney Miller because it was set in a police precinct in Greenwich Village and they would always feature wild, zany, and delightfully obnoxious characters portraying ordinary New Yorkers (I came to find out all of those wacky people exist here). I knew that one day, somehow, some way, I would eventually find my way to a life in Manhattan. In the intervening years as I moved to Seattle, then Portland, back to Seattle, and then to Chicago, it didn’t matter where I lived, I always looked towards and longed for a life in New York.

Eighth Avenue at night.

Eighth Avenue at night.

But to know me is to also know that I have spent a large portion of my life living in fear of New York City. I can’t quite explain it, but I was terrified of and completely intimidated by the overwhelming bigness of it all. By the time I finally arrived for my first visit to New York City with my best friend Stefan, it was 2002, I was in my mid-30s and already had a few years of life in Chicago under my belt. Looking back, I can of course laugh at my fears about the city. There was absolutely nothing I needed to be afraid of, and that first visit turned out to be the most amazing five days of my life up to that point.

My best friend for more than 20 years. I miss you so much… (Nikon D80, 2009)

The following year, Stefan (a native New Yorker) moved from Chicago to Brooklyn, followed by me flying to NYC a few times a year to camp out in his teeny tiny Brooklyn Heights studio while spending my days wandering the streets of Manhattan. Each time I came, I dreamed about moving here only to travel back home to my very comfortable life in Chicago. Because fear…. Fear of hardship always got in the way while I rationalized all the reasons why I needed to stay in Chicago.

Then at the age of 41, I got lucky! I was laid off after 6 plus years at my job. The best possible thing to happen to me as the lay-off came with a healthy severance package. Suddenly with some money in the bank, I set aside my fears and made the decision to sell my loft and prove that I was ready for New York City. I arrived in the summer of 2007, just months before the economic collapse. For the very first time in my life, I no longer wanted to live anywhere else.

Tenth Avenue Taxi Garage (Nikon D80, 2010)

The old saying of “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” about New York is so very true. After nearly ten years, I can reflect back and see how I took on the challenge, and through a lot of hard work, perseverance, and effort, I have not only made it here, but made it well. I am living better than I ever have.

So why all this back story? Well, as amazing as my New York dream life is, time and external events have taken their toll on me. The city I moved to in 2007 was not the city I dreamed of as a child back in the 1970s and 80s, but I embraced it with acceptance and open arms, mostly out of exuberance for having fulfilled my dream as well as ignorance to just how different it was from what I dreamed it would be.

Hot Dog Vendor, Seventh Avenue and 31st Street (Nikon
D80, 2010)

My first few years in the city were filled with wonder and amazement… I got to live in paradise. I remember wandering the Village with my camera at night (view more night images here), or taking the subway to some random stop (mostly in Lower East Side, Chinatown, or SoHo) and then just walking home, varying my path each time to discover something new. Stefan and I would go to random places around the city and explore different corners and crevices. We fed off of each other in our love for this city. At night, we would venture out to the bars in the East Village, West Village, and Chelsea and relish all that is interesting about New Yorker. It was a magical place to me.

One of the very few photos of my 225 sq ft fifth floor walk up in the West Village, 2010

A few years in with the rent on my West Village apartment creeping up, I had the incredible fortune of buying a co-op in Hell’s Kitchen. This was a big deal, as one of the fears I had about New York was having to be a renter again. However, the adjustment to living in Hell’s Kitchen near Columbus Circle after living below 14th street was a challenge. The city began to feel different to me, and I was determined to remain in complete denial about it.

My bathtub in my Hell’s Kitchen apartment had the original porcelain handles (iPhone, 2011).

In 2013, I met my now husband, fell in love, and everything changed (isn’t that always the case?). In early 2014 having sold my Hell’s Kitchen co-op, I moved in with him to the upper reaches (almost up to 110th street) of the Upper West Side, a place I had often joked about as being Upstate New York. After our wedding in May, our offer to buy our current apartment was accepted, and thus began Half Classic Six. Our new place as it turned out, happens to be less than a block from his old apartment of the previous 16 years. We moved in with big dreams, many of which have been achieved.

Sixth Ave and 57th Street (iPhone, 2011)

Wow, I really have made it here! I have developed a solid career with a fantastic company (ranked one of the top employers in the US). I met and married my most amazing husband for whom I am extremely grateful. And together, we live (by Manhattan standards) a very comfortable middle-class life as grateful owners of our amazing one bedroom apartment (our Half Classic Six) in what is a very New York neighborhood filled with amazing architecture, grand parks, and buzzing with life and interest. My life by all outward appearances is quite amazing really….

This is one of two photos I had the privilege of showing at an iPhoneography art show in SoHo in 2010.

But with my life now focused on the Upper West Side, midtown and downtown feel further away than ever. I almost never get below 14th street anymore, an area which can be story book beautiful yet gritty and quirky. I ride the subway through midtown almost daily, but rarely take the time to stop and go up to the street. It often feels as though a small part of me has died and been replaced with feelings of disillusionment. For the past few years I have been placing the blame squarely on my moving away from the center of the city. But as I reflect, I must ask myself is this really the reason? Or…. Is there more to it? I now have begun to understand there is… and like New York, it’s complicated.

In the early days of iPhone photography (2009), I was privileged to have this image included in an online post of the New York Times Lens Blog

In the past ten years the number of blocks I must travel has increased, but there have been other factors at play feeding my discontent. The city has always been about change, I can accept that my 1990s fantasies of hanging out at clubs like Palladium, the Tunnel, the Limelight, have long faded away (as have those places). But there was still that element of my fantasy New York when I arrived. The Meat Packing District still had Florent and animal fat on the sidewalks, now it is an upscale urban mall.

As I have watched the money flow in at unprecedented rates, the dynamic of life here has shifted dramatically. Music concerts used to be about going to see your favorite bands, now they are filled with people who are only there to hang out with friends (and drink and talk loudly) and don’t much care to see the performance because they have endless amounts of money and going to concerts is just another thing to do for an evening, not a special event. The divide between the wealthy and poor continues to grow, while the number in the middle dwindles. By New York City standards, we live a comfortable middle class life, but this is becoming more and more difficult to do as the middle class is growing extinct at an alarming rate.

Eighth Avenue as seen from a cab. (iPhone, 2013)

This brings me back to my quote and my problem “New York City is a drug to which I am hopelessly addicted and seek no treatment”. My problem is that my addiction to this city runs very deep down into my core. So deep at times that it colors my view of the world and gives me a false sense of reality. Lately however, it seems this addiction to my beloved city is changing me in ways I am not all together comfortable with. As the city has changed, I now see that I too have changed, and my relationship to New York will never be what it was.

The biggest driver of that change in myself would be the sudden and unexpected loss of my best friend Stefan in late July 2014 (the night of our co-op board interview). He died of a heart attack at age 42. Only a dozen weeks earlier, he was my best man at my wedding. Suddenly my buddy, my confidant, my rock for the previous 20 plus years was gone. As was my partner in crime as we lived life big in the big city. He has been gone for over two years, but I am only now seeing the connection between my New York City dreams and the major role he played in it. When Stefan died, so did a large portion of my dream. Paradise wasn’t the same.

Our wedding venue in 2014 had an amazing view of the Empire State Bldg. We shot this on the fire escape.

Now, let me be very clear. My husband is a truly amazing man, and I am eternally grateful to have him in my life. But even though he has lived here for nearly 25 years, our relationship was never as connected to New York City as was my friendship with Stefan. They are very different people, it is as simple as that.

Where does that leave me? Good question! I am a New Yorker, I am sincerely addicted to New York City, and I cannot give it up. But as time goes on, I am sensing that this addiction is starting to take its toll on me. Stefan always used to say that when you live in New York City, you do so, not on your own terms, but at the will of the city. You either accept the will of the city on your life here or you leave.

Chinatown as seen from the Manhattan Bridge (iPhone, 2014)

Despite all of this, life really is amazing here, but it is also at the same time exhausting. The problem is, I don’t want to live anywhere else than New York, and if I were to ever leave, I know that I would miss it dearly.

Slow and steady, tortoise not the hare…. The city has changed, I have changed, and Stefan is gone.

The preceding essay was written in the fall of 2016 and was the catharsis of my accepting that perhaps it was time to be willing to leave New York City. More to come…

[Since arriving in New York in 2007, I have taken more than 100k photos around the city, the images in this post are pulled from my collection.]

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6 Comments
  • Stacy G.
    January 19, 2018

    I enjoyed this essay, Devyn. Your photos are beautiful. It made me tear up. Sub everything that said NYC with California, and our stories are similar. California feels like my home, but I cannot live there right now. Sometimes, I feel very sad about that.

    I’m looking forward to reading about your new adventures. You’ve got some new memories to make. I’m so sorry about Stephan. It must be so hard to lose a friend like him.

    • Devyn
      January 19, 2018

      Thanks Stacy 🙂
      It’s funny, I am a native Californian who never felt I belonged. Whenever I spend time there I relate to it, but never feel at home. Perhaps it is the four seasons I crave?

      I am glad you love the photos. I was scrolling through the thousands of images I have to include for the post, and there were too many to choose from. NYC will always hold a special place in my heart, but realizing that it’s okay to consider other options was a huge breakthrough for me. When I wrote this in October of 2016, I had no idea how things would change in a very short time, but I am very grateful for where things are going…. More to come.

  • Wayne
    January 19, 2018

    Wow…. What a well thought out and introspective piece. Bittersweet and complicated, I could feel your emotional journey. I have a lot of admiration for realizing a catharsis when it is presented. I wish you the very best on your journey and look forward to following along.

    • Devyn
      January 19, 2018

      Thank you!
      When I wrote this in October of 2016, I had no idea of what was to come, but I knew change was in my future. As noted in my post, more to come soon.

  • Nicola
    January 21, 2018

    I discovered your blog while looking at kitchen reno projects. I have followed along as you made progress on your kitchen…..and it is beautiful btw.
    Even though your reno is now done….I find myself coming back to see how you are doing? How the dog is etc lol
    I have never been to NYC but I have been saying to my husband for a while I would love to go and experience it for myself. I’m sure it would be a great shock since we live in a very rural farming community!
    Maybe I will bump into you on the street 😉

    • Devyn
      February 1, 2018

      Nicola, OMG! I so did not see this comment as it went to my spam folder for some reason (Grrr). Thanks for stopping by… Not sure if you have seen the latest post, but we have departed NYC for a new life in an 1850s rowhouse in Philadelphia. [New blog here: http://ourphillyrow.com/ ]

      There will be a new kitchen to do again (in a few years) as well as some other big projects to work on (first big project will be to convert a small bedroom into a master bath/closet). And of course lots of rooms to design and decorate. 🙂

      NYC is an amazing place and will always hold a special spot in my heart, but carving out a middle class life there has become nearly impossible. Philadelphia on the other hand is far from perfect, but it cost less than half of what if costs in NYC for housing and the quality of life here is pretty good (except for the public schools).

      I do hope you will follow along on the adventures at the new (old) house in Philly, and who knows, perhaps you will bump into me in Philadelphia one day.