Suburb Envy

A college-aged New Yorker reflects on his love for the city in the wake of the coronavirus

| 30 Jun 2020 | 12:26

Being from New York City, Manhattan in particular, has always been an integral part of my identity. I was born in the now-gone St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, and grew up going to schools on the Lower and Upper East Sides. When I thought about my future, I could never picture living anywhere but New York. But like everything else, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned that on its head.

While the image of the college student desperate to leave their hometown permeates pop culture, my experience was the opposite. I grew to love my community of friends at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, but never planned on staying there. I maintained my voter registration in New York, relished my chances to return to the city and would often make day trips to Boston to satisfy my desire for an urban environment.

A close friend and former roommate of mine hails from a small Rhode Island town with a population half the size of my Manhattan neighborhood. We would sometimes find comedy in the differences in our attitudes towards urban living, like his heightened caution around crosswalks, compared to my confident jaywalking.

But when I woke up in a cold sweat one night while visiting his home over Easter weekend, I realized how deep my preference for city life ran. I could hardly sleep without the ambience of traffic by my window. If I had any say in it, I’d be in New York, or at least a comparable big city all the time, so I thought.

Then, as with nearly every aspect of life, the coronavirus changed everything. Clark announced its closure on March 12, and I was back in New York on March 15, as the city groaned to a halt, bracing for impact. Sequestered in the small Manhattan apartment I share with my parents and teenage sister, I watched, through social media, as my friends across the country relaxed in suburban backyards and freely roamed nature.

I had previously never dreamed of living like my Rhode Islander roommate, surrounded by forest and country road. But as the pandemic grew, the prospect of getting outdoors while remaining socially distant was enticing. When I would go out, mask on, taking care to stay away from others while navigating the multiple corridors and six flights of stairs it takes to leave my building, I would think of my friends and their backyards with envy.

Antibody Tests

To make matters worse, about a week after my return to the new, socially distant New York, my entire family came down with what we soon realized was COVID-19. While we were unable to be tested at the time, our antibody tests later all came back positive, confirming that our suspicions had been correct.

As my fever rose, I feared our cases would be life-threatening, if not for me, perhaps for my parents, both in their 50s. Although our main symptoms subsided in a matter of days, our senses of smell and taste took weeks to return. If I wasn’t in such a jam-packed building in such a jam-packed borough in such a jam-packed city, I thought to myself, my family would’ve been spared all of that.

Even as my family has since recovered and life slowly returns to a semblance of normalcy we move towards Phase Three, I find myself struggling to see the New York I love. The diversity of restaurants, where one can find just about any cuisine anywhere, is suffering as the city’s shutdown shutters smaller establishments. The gathering spots in the city’s parks where I would spend time with my friends now fill me with anxiety.

The same applies to the prospect of returning to the subway, with its packing together of strangers in an enclosed space. Most painfully for me, live music, once my favorite pastimes, may not return for another year, a loss not only for fans, but for artists, crew, and venue employees.

Of course, I am one of the lucky ones. While I lost some summer internship opportunities, I still am able to work remotely for my formerly on-campus job at Clark. I still have my life and health, which thousands of fellow New Yorkers lost. But it may not be the life I once envisioned for myself. I don’t have a clear plan for my future, but perhaps, for the first time, a life in the suburbs is on the table.