On Top of the World

“Wait’ll you see this place,” J murmured as the elevator rumbled to the top floor. His nine-and-a-half-month-old son gazed at us from his hip. They were visiting from Munich, where J fled after a traumatic year in the Teaching Fellows.

The elevator landed with a thud, and he wrestled the apartment door open with one hand, revealing a skylit library with 12-foot ceilings and enormous potted plants. “Whoa,” we breathed, calculating how we would fit our lives into what turned out to be a generous foyer. “It keeps going,” J said as he strode down the hall. In the distance, I saw the kitchen and, across the room, a pool table. We turned left and came to another cavernous expanse, this one with a grand piano on a low stage. A winding staircase led to a bedroom and a home office, and the roof deck. “What do these people do for a living?” I asked. They were the parents of a friend of J’s wife. The husband was an elite computer genius. The wife had Alzheimer’s, and a caretaker lived with them.

“I’ve never seen a water tower this close up,” I whispered as we stepped onto the roof. “It looks like a silo.” We could see the clock tower on the Con Ed building, the Metronome furiously counting up and down, the red neon sign for the W Hotel, the verdant tops of the trees in Union Square Park, and hundreds of lives in Tungsten-lit windows from here to the East River. You could see everything. You could breathe, stretch your arms out, throw your head back. The city’s density was charming from here: perched above the beehive, you couldn’t help admiring its busy, throbbing bustle.

J handed the baby to his wife, and he set to playing with her hair. They told us that in Germany, the government paid them monthly now that they had an infant, and they lived in an enormous apartment in a neighborhood J’s wife, R, described as “the Beverly Hills of Munich.” It would cost “four or five thousand dollars in New York,” they said, but they pay only $1300 (R translated for us from the Euros). “And it’s quiet there,” they told us. “There are actually signs on the recycling bins outside saying don’t recycle after a certain hour ‘because the noise makes your neighbors sick.’ Even the subway to work is silent.”

I’d never seen J so ebullient or satisfied. “He used to come home white as a sheet,” R remembered of his teaching days. He worked in a school not far from mine. One day, he was warned by a student not take his usual route to the subway, “because, you know, ‘bang bang,’ Mr. J,” the kid said. Another time, a 13-year-old showed him his gun when J cut him off at the turnstile. I suppose that could have happened to me—Bed Stuy is just as dangerous as Bushwick, right?—but it didn’t. I heard the principal has lawsuits against him for reckless endangerment, for locking the school doors against students when they were running for their lives. My school was famous for its high test scores, and our principal stood on the corner every day to intimidate the guys who tried to recruit our students into the Bloods.

Up in the sky over Union Square, you think, ‘I could raise 10 kids in a space like this—life would be so easy if it were like this.’ This, in fact, is precisely what you imagined when you were 17 and longed for the city from the shag-carpeted floor of your suburban bedroom. And then you remember, according to the article you just read in the City section, that, since 2001, the price of housing in New York has grown at five times the rate of people’s incomes. You remember that the city’s shrinking middle class is no longer entitled to their piece of the Upper West Side or Harlem or Park Slope or even Fort Greene or Whitestone or Washington Heights, that blue-collar workers and middle-income earners have been leaving the city in droves.

You remember that the days of pulling your immigrant self, your wrong-side-of-the-tracks self, your plucky, ambitious self, up by the bootstraps and saving up to buy a place to raise your kids in, might be over in this town. No one does it these days without ample help from relatives or a job in finance.

C has been muttering the following all week since running across the figures in the Times: “In the investment baking industry, the average weekly salary is $8500. AVERAGE. WEEKLY. Across all other private sector industries, the average weekly salary is $850.”

J and R can plainly see it, and they moved to Munich.

(Which is not the whole story, it never is, but you see what I mean.)

C and I continually commit ourselves to the city. It’s a practice, committing to its many, quick tongues; its generous light behind looming structures; its striving and gaiety and frank appraisal; its street art and brick and cornices and unforgiving shopkeepers. But more and more, I wonder if that’s all outdated pastiche now, and the gleaming new glass condos, the triple mint this and “redefining luxury” that, the trust funded gallery assistants and hired drivers and bottle service and the endless, over-honed catering to the very rich, if the deregulated rents and the big box retailers that ate up the avenues, the near-extinction of local shoe repairmen and stationers, are the future. Do you ever feel like you missed the party, like it all went to shit right before you got there?

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