New York Vs. Boston: My Independence Day Struggle?

I do like Cambridge, but it’s no New York. Some see that as praise for Cambridge and the whole Boston area. “It’s more manageable,” many say. The crowds are less dense and, at least here in Cambridge, trees are common. Even I, a consummate city dweller who would choose a café over a hiking trail any time of any day, enjoy the expanse of fluffy green treetops I can see from the wall-length window in my living room. I’d miss that view if I moved.

For the most part, though, New York wins easily for me. When I’m in Manhattan, I see restaurant after restaurant I want to try: hole in the wall ethnic places, swank upscale dining rooms, dessert shops, pizza parlors… I feel dizzy when I have to make one choice for lunch. I always find myself thinking: “If only I lived here, I could casually choose, knowing that tomorrow is another New York restaurant day, followed by yet another one, on into infinity.” Um, OK, not into infinity, but I won’t get morbid in this post, I swear. This one is about life: specifically, life in New York vs. life in Boston.

Even walking in New York thrills me, especially in Manhattan, where the streets are mostly on a grid and make sense to my directionally challenged brain. I can walk and walk there and know where I’m heading! North, south, east, and west are all within my grasp. If I need to be somewhere, I can head over using my own wits, and avoid my usual tactic of asking someone new every fifteen steps or so how to find my destination. I feel like a capable character who can make my way in the world.

I know my way around some areas of Cambridge by now, but, frankly, I’m sick of them. Same old stores, restaurants, and houses… nothing like the bustle of New York, where new food trucks and outdoor shopping stalls are always cropping up, and everything is so tightly packed that I’m constantly taking in a new café, a new quirky store that sells spiritual stones or chocolate from around the world or… options seem endless. So many stretches of New York are like outdoor kitchens, one after the other: street vendors serving falafel, steamed Korean dumplings, colorful ice cream and yogurt cones, cupcakes. There might be one small area like that in Cambridge, but I can never remember where it is, or when it happens. In New York, you don’t have to remember: it just appears as you walk, one rendition and then another. It always does for me when I’m there, no matter where in the city I go, or when. New York seems to transcend both sense of direction and memory.

Like Cambridge, Boston is less lively, with many fewer restaurants that call to me. The proportion of generic-type places—chains or typical bars—seems much greater than in Manhattan or Brooklyn. Boston’s streets make no sense and have no logic, and I’m always lost there.

And Boston-area people assume an ability to drive, since many of the most compelling places are not serviced by public transportation: a problem for someone who never even understood what to do with a steering wheel. The area that’s accessible to me is limited, while New York offers public transportation to a huge swath, encompassing many boroughs and even parts of New Jersey. In New York, I feel like a person, with all the freedoms personhood can bring. Around Boston, often I’m The One Who Needs A Ride, or, far worse, I have to nix intriguing events because I have no way of getting there.

Boston and Cambridge feel like a boring old planet that’s hard to navigate. New York is an invigorating new planet whose ways are easy to embrace, because of those logically numbered streets and avenues, and because…. abundant fabulousness. People in all kinds of costumes: upscale well-coiffed lady bumps into Hare Krishna, and dodges away from punk with a tattooed face.

So why haven’t I moved? Problem is, I’m comfortable now. Life in Cambridge is easy for me. I seek new sensations—dazzling street life, dense commercial areas, foods with flavors that will wake my tongue from its slumber. But I do not seek stress, and never have.

When I was a kid, people would talk about certain schools or teachers who were fantastic because they weaved some constructive competition or tension into the atmosphere. “She won’t give you an A, but you’ll die trying for one, in a good way,” people said about a certain English teacher. To me, there’s nothing good about that scenario. I don’t want to die trying for something, even metaphorically. I want to work hard in the areas that I enjoy, but I can’t tolerate dire situations, or do or die contests. I like life to be “do and live, even if you don’t do.” Do because it’s fun and intriguing and helps me grow, not because my survival depends on it.

I can easily support my life here in Cambridge: I’ve lucked into some very particular situations that would be hard to reproduce in New York. Cambridge property taxes are extremely low: I didn’t realize just how much of a gift this would be until I bought my condo and compared my bill to others’ in different places. My other expenses are easy to meet. My teaching and advising work here has gone quite well on the whole (kenahora: no evil eye intended) and I have four full months off for summer break, plus a relatively long winter break. Though I don’t earn a lot of money, everything is very affordable for me, and I can avoid working in the summer… except writing, which I see more as candy than as work since I choose my own projects, and I love few things more than to share my innermost thoughts with anyone who might be interested.

In New York, my basic costs would skyrocket. I’d need to earn more money, and the urgency of my earnings would escalate. Even a small one-bedroom apartment would force me to take out a substantial mortgage, and the property taxes are high. I always cringe when friends mention that they can’t afford their bills because a paycheck is late. In other words, their savings cannot easily handle their expenses, even for a short time. That situation would terrify me. I don’t need luxury—not even close—but I do need a strong sense of security and the feeling that if, say, something unexpected happened with my job, I’d have time to get myself together.

So far, I’ve voted for the easy route. I stay here in Cambridge—not enthralled but certainly not miserable. It’s pleasant enough. I have haunts I enjoy, friends I love. For a while, I adored it here: it felt inspiring and fresh, and filled with fellow students with similar dreams, problems, and ways of having fun. But I finished school longer ago than I like to admit, and most of my friends from that period have left: they came here for school and then moved on. I expect more will leave as time passes. Cambridge and Boston are transient places; people come for short stints at universities, then settle in other places, like New York.

That city never stops calling. I’ve spent one year living there, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where I researched the lives of the area’s Chabad Hasidim: one of the most fascinating experiences I’ve ever had. Last week, I hung out in Crown Heights again, mostly at a fabulous party filled with souls who manage to juggle demanding forms of Orthodox Judaism and artistic expression. I felt comfortable there, like one of the struggling, seeking bunch, even though I’m not religious.

Even Jewishly, New York offers much more than Boston for me. New York hosts friendship groups of ex-Hasidim; spiritually vibrant shuls that don’t assume Jewish observance; Orthodox neighborhoods of all flavors: modern, reactionary, mystical, intellectual… for sure the widest diversity of Jewish places and happenings outside of Israel.

For some odd reason, I just love exploring Jewish enclaves, getting a sense for the inhabitants, chatting people up, browsing in the shops. Each one is its own small, intricate world. Here in Boston, the only large Orthodox neighborhood I can reach through public transportation is Coolidge Corner in Brookline. I do enjoy that area, and should get there more often. But it’s a mishmash of all types—nothing like the world-within-a world feel of, say, Chabad Crown Heights or Satmar Williamsburg. Most of the people hanging around Coolidge Corner are not Orthodox, though it has a high concentration of Orthodox people and a few kosher eateries. It’s fun, but it’s not New York. Sadly, nothing is New York except super-pricey New York.

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I certainly could do a better job of making Boston more like New York for me. I relish New York’s incredible variety of hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants, but, when I go to certain areas of Allston and Brighton here in Boston, I have to admit that they offer a decent sampling of places like that. True, the surrounding street life isn’t nearly as compelling, and I never have any idea where I am. But I could figure out how to take the bus or subway to one of those places and then walk around: I’ve done it, but not often enough, partly because it feels wanting compared to New York but mostly because I get busy and just don’t make it over there. I get lazy and don’t take the initiative, since finding those places isn’t quite as easy as certain other areas.

Indeed, just in general, I tend to take the easy way out. If I didn’t, I’d be in my favorite city, financially precarious but lapping up great adventures. I choose freedom and relative ease over intense hard work to afford life in the place I crave.

There’s a certain wisdom here. I wouldn’t enjoy New York nearly as much as I do when I’m there over vacations if I had to spend most of my time earning money. That would be like living in a closed, dingy box surrounded by glorious space and light that you can sense but rarely experience. Maybe you’re allowed out of the box a few times a week for a relatively short time, but you have to make it back quickly, and, even when you’re out, you always know the box is there, waiting to enclose you and squelch your desires. That’s how I’d feel about a demanding, relatively lucrative job. I just don’t enjoy any work that pays well. It’s a shame I can’t get paid well for the work I do enjoy, but that’s another subject for another time.

For now, I choose to live mostly outside the box, in air that’s bright and free up to a point… but not in New York. New York looms in my mind, of course. It’s a real place, filled with real people who can hang out on those streets and in those restaurants every day, enjoying novel scenes and unique foods: so many of them, they could probably seek new ones each day and never experience a repeat.

I think New York has become more than a place for me, too. It’s a symbol of my dissatisfaction, of unmet dreams, of places more exciting and free than daily life. If I lived there, would I find some new situation to pine after?

On one level, my love for New York is what it is, literal and clear. I’d love a home there, to head downstairs in the morning and be on one of those gorgeous, teeming streets. If I moved there in fortunate circumstances, a real, concrete desire would be met.

But would living in my favorite corner of the earth somehow make other problems less dismaying? Would knowing I can easily savor a bialy with fresh sliced sable for lunch, with a cup of cold borsht—and maybe snag a cupcake from an inviting food truck later on during my walk—make failures and awkward interpersonal moments less searing? I mean, maybe, if I haven’t worked myself into such a frenzy that I’ve lost my appetite entirely (yes, this happens during traumatic times: an oddly lucky thing that might be saving me from obesity).

Part of the reason I’m so jealous of writers who have earned large sums of money is that they can afford to live wherever they choose without having to suffer through some job that feels like a stultifying box. It’s not all about the success; it’s somewhat about the circumstances it brings: specifically, the ability to spend their days writing and savoring the hyper-stimulating world around them.

Needless to say, living in my most beloved city would not solve my biggest problems: they are beyond solving through any natural means, including money. Even that happy-go-lucky young man with the thick blonde hair savoring his exquisite pappardelle in a swank Upper West Side café will lose his life one day.

But maybe I should start seizing the life I do have with more zest and care. Perhaps there’s some loophole that would make New York housing affordable without undue stress. I can’t have a roommate (really, I can’t: please don’t suggest it) but I’m open in other ways. Maybe some New York job would fit my definition of pleasure: provide some way of sharing my ideas for substantial compensation.

The key is to minimize the ratio of suffering (in other words, unpleasant work for pay) versus pleasure, while knowing that a New York day almost always brings me more sensation-filled joy than a Boston or Cambridge one. I need to be more active, not just sit around and wait for some miracle to bring me a windfall. I believe somewhat in magical thinking, and that’s good. I can pray and send out Manhattan-condo-shaped vibes and picture myself moving into my marvelous new home (though honestly, it wouldn’t have to be marvelous: a modest one-bedroom apartment in a safe, restaurant-filled neighborhood would be sufficient, and I am not the sort to envy those with better digs if I have decent digs with access to the experiences I crave). But I need to take specific action, too.

Here in the U.S., this essay will come out during Independence Day weekend, one day before the Fourth of July holiday, which commemorates the original thirteen American colonies’ declaration of independence from British rule. In many ways, they would have had a much easier time if they had retained their British status. They endured a bloody war and the extreme uncertainty of starting a brand new nation. But the decision-makers didn’t want colonialism anymore; it just felt wrong. They felt in their guts that they needed to break free. So they did, and accepted all the risk and stress involved.

That level of tension would engulf and sicken me, but maybe some level would be OK, if it led to improvement and moving forward into new adventures. On this holiday weekend, maybe we should all push ourselves just a bit, remembering that life is moving forward and we won’t have unlimited time to pursue our passions and live in the ways that would thrill us most. Let’s get up and move towards our dreams, keeping whatever amount of safety we need. Is there a way? We’ll never know until we rise and pursue the question with zest and seriousness.


Image Credit: “More Questions Than Answers” by Tom Waterhouse, December 29, 2011, on