There is a debate raging among New Yorkers who don’t need to worry about their next paycheque, paying the rent or feeding their children. Naturally, being human we need to find something to fret and argue about — in this case it happens to be a debate on the future of New York City.
On one side are naysayers like James, a comedy club owner who has jumped ship and moved to Florida, but not before penning a LinkedIn post predicting the demise of New York. On the other side is Jerry Seinfeld, a famous comedian who argues that “real, tough New Yorkers” are made of sterner stuff and that we will stick it out and rebuild our city.
Since I too thankfully do not have to worry, at least for the moment, about making rent or putting food on the table, I decided to dive into this debate and offer my two cents.
I fall into Mr. Seinfeld’s optimistic camp about the future of this city, but I’ll add another dimension to the debate that seems to have been overlooked by both camps.
From the early days of 1892, when Ellis Island served as an immigrant inspection station, New York City has been the gateway to the American Dream and it remains so to this day.
How many cities in the world can claim a Spanish Harlem, Little Germany, Koreatown, Chinatown, Little India, Little Italy, a locale known as the Capital of Jewish America, and boast of 800 languages being spoken on their streets?
I have lived in Bombay, Boston, Delhi, Hong Kong, London and Prague but there is something about New York that no other city in the world offers. It is not a tangible thing, but an ethos and a dare encapsulated in the words of Frank Sinatra. “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.”
Even today, 40 percent of our city’s residents are foreign born. To put that in perspective, consider that there are more foreign-born New Yorkers than there are people living in America’s third-largest city of Chicago. Immigrants also own 52% of city businesses, which in 2017 alone contributed an estimated $195 billion to the city’s GDP.
Most immigrants start out sharing a small apartment with two, three or more people. Granted, not all of us come here with the same level of education or resources, but we do share the struggle of scratching, scraping, borrowing and begging to make ends meet at some point in our journey.
Navigating life in this city is not always pretty and it is almost always hard, but it is exactly this grit and determination to persevere that makes the person who is attracted to this city unique. This is no city for the faint of heart. It is not a place where you will find comfort, quiet or sanity. If you want to smell roses, not dead rats, pick another city.
This is the ultimate concrete jungle, and it has a way of making or breaking people. There is no middle ground and no in-between. We fight to get six square inches on the subway. We suspend civility to grab taxis and routinely get into bidding wars when renting apartments. And yes, we live on top of one another because space is a precious commodity here.
Making it here does not mean having a second home in the Hamptons or accumulating vast amounts of wealth. Surviving The City is a badge of honour. It is a testament to intestinal fortitude and the ability to dig even deeper every time the going gets tougher.
Real New Yorkers do not lose hope. They find ways to dig in and then dig out. Just like we did during and after 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, and the Great Recession. While this pandemic will likely be the worst we have seen yet, I believe we will survive it and rebuild.
Sure, as New Yorkers get older or have kids, many move out of the city for practical and financial reasons, but they take their lessons and fortitude with them to other parts of the country. The other unique thing about New York is that even as these older generations move on, they pass the torch to a new generation of wild-eyed, young seekers. Right now there is a kid sitting in Abidjan, one in Funafuti and another in Nagpur dreaming about moving to New York City in pursuit of opportunity and the American Dream.
The soul of hard working immigrants is mixed into the soil and flows through the veins of this city. We come here to build a better life. We do not know the word quit.