Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos

Why I’ll (Probably) Never Leave New York City

A Survey

June 26, 2024

It’s All About the Values

By Adem Bunkeddeko

I have a bond and love for New York that is sometimes difficult to capture in words.

I am the son of refugees who fled Uganda’s civil war during the early 1980s in pursuit of sanctuary and a better life in the city. From the ashes of turmoil, my parents would plant seeds of hope in a rent-stabilized one-bedroom dwelling in Queens, which, notwithstanding being plagued with vermin, symbolized their American dream. They each worked two or three jobs to keep the lights on in our ramshackle apartment, while also financially supporting our family in Uganda who continued to live in the shadow of war. Not ever were they disheartened by their adversity. For them, being in New York was an enormous blessing in contrast to the chaos and uncertainty they left behind in their native country.

Along with my younger sister, I spent countless nights sharing the top of a handed-down bunk bed to make room for the numerous relatives and family friends who showed up at our doorstep looking for a better life in the city. As one of the older siblings, many of my mornings before school were spent tutoring our guests in English as they prepared for job interviews seeking positions such as maintenance workers or attendants in buildings along Fifth Avenue and in the Financial District. After school, I often went to Western Union to send remittances back to their children in Uganda, several of whom questioned aloud whether they would see their parents again. Although it was a weighty responsibility for a child, I always knew I was helping folks whose situation only differed from mine either by chance or divine intervention.

I suppose one could see growing up poor to be a blight — however, looking back, it has proven to be key to forming values that I hold ’til this day. My upbringing in New York City helped shape my moral sensibility to imbue a deep commitment to others who had even less than my family. That my parents, despite their struggle, could find a way to create a better life for their children, but also lend a hand to those in more dire straits than themselves, left a lasting mark on my conscience.

As a city, especially during crises, we’ve always put our strength and know-how toward collective action in the public interest. As a historical entry point for immigrants, we’ve welcomed people from all over the world and enabled them to live out their version of the American dream. While there is a lot broken with America’s immigration system today, we have a new influx of emigres and newcomers seeking the same dream. As a city, we shouldn’t turn our backs on them. As my parents did for others, we should empower these new New Yorkers with the infrastructure and knowledge that will help them to become a part of our cultural, social and economic fabric as we’ve done since the city’s founding.

Adem Bunkeddeko is the former executive director of Coro New York and a member of the board of directors at the Center for Justice Innovation.


A City of Dualities

By Asad Dandia

When Donald Trump was convicted in a Manhattan courtroom, I was leading a tour at the Museum of the City of New York, where I work as a tour guide. I was covering 400 years of city history in our New York at Its Core exhibition, and I had just completed the first half of the tour, called Port City, which starts when Henry Hudson sails upon Manhattan Island in 1609 and ends with the consolidation of the soon-to-be five boroughs that made Greater New York in 1898. The second half of the tour, World City, emphasizes New York’s triumphs and trials as a global cosmopolitan metropolis in the 20th and 21st centuries. While the first half of the tour follows the path of the city’s rapid growth, the second half exhibits a city in flux.

As my phone blew up with notifications of the news, I was discussing the Progressive Era, which was characterized by the dual rise of bankers like John Pierpont (J.P.) Morgan and some of the largest labor strikes in American history. “New York is a city of dualities,” I told my tour guests. “This is the city that gave birth to Trump, and this is the city that convicted him.” It felt like a true New York moment, as if timed just for my tour.

To me, it is this very quality of dualities that generates the city’s capacity for reinvention and creativity. This quality is baked into our DNA, embodied in the architecture of one of our most iconic structures, the Brooklyn Bridge, whose stone towers and steel cables respectively symbolize a dialectic between the Old and New Worlds. It can be seen on the cobblestones of Wall Street, site of the city’s first public slave market, which is a few blocks away from Maiden Lane, site of the city’s first slave rebellion. It is illuminated in hip-hop, born as an expression of resilience in the face of a systematically disinvested Bronx, and now the world’s most universal musical genre.

I’ll (probably) never leave New York because the city is an ever-unfinished story, with new chapters being written every day by 8 million authors encompassing every culture known to humankind. I launched my walking tour company and storytelling project New York Narratives for this very reason. To tell the stories of those who stay because they love this place, or because they, like me, truly have nowhere else to go.

Yes, sometimes those stories can contain difficult, challenging moments. Right now, New York is experiencing an unprecedented housing shortage resulting in some of the highest rents in the world and gaining new refugee populations in the hundreds of thousands needing to be housed, while one in every 24 New Yorkers is a millionaire. These are today’s dualities.

But the challenge our city faces is not one of decline, but of growth. How we meet the moment to distribute this growth equitably for all is yet to be seen — but if one thing about New York is certain, it’s that nothing is, and that’s what makes this city worth fighting for.

Asad Dandia is the founder of the walking tour company and storytelling project New York Narratives. He is a finalist for the 2024 David Prize and was a winner of the Brooklyn Public Library’s PowerUP! Business Plan Competition in 2023.


Why, if I Were Prone to Saying Never, I Would Say I’ll Never Leave New York

By Jennifer Egan

Because it has sidewalks.

Because the tap water is delicious.

Because my husband and I raised two kids in Brooklyn without ever owning a car (and they both played travel baseball!!).

Because it’s an eavesdropper’s paradise:

  • Two women on the subway: “Have you done skimboarding?” “I’ve done skimboardERS.”
  • Guy talking to another guy on the subway platform: “Really? A show about Batman’s butler? No one asked for this.”
  • Girl riding a scooter, talking to herself: “I’m on a mission. That’s all I can say right now and that’s all I NEED to say right now.”

Because I chose New York before I’d ever seen it, and the city took me in.

Because New York was ever thus …

In the Metropolis, more than in any other American city, there are two great and distinct classes of people—those who pass their days in trying to make money enough to live; and those who, having more than enough, are troubled about the manner of spending it.

First sentence of “The Great Metropolis: A Mirror of New York,” by William Small, 1868.

… and is ever-changing.

At the corner of 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue was … a beautiful rural picture with gardens and orchards extending along the street. I remember very well the apple trees drooping over the sidewalks, which were covered with fallen blossoms.

1880s letter from Gene Schermerhorn recalling the lost New York of his youth. 

Because 19th century New York is still present, often wedged between skyscrapers (and imagine the New York stubbornness that went into those refusals!).

Because beneath the hardscape are still wetlands and native paths and rocky towers and coursing streams that our grid erased.

Because I’ve seen, in our tiny Brooklyn backyard, tufted titmice (my favorite), various woodpeckers, a Baltimore oriole, a pine warbler (just this spring), wrens, swifts, hummingbirds, finches, catbirds, cowbirds, grosbeaks, thrashers, thrushes, mockingbirds, hawks (once eating a pigeon), nuthatches, chickadees, flickers, towhees, sparrows, starlings, blackbirds, kinglets and cardinals.

Because I heard the first plane hit, and that evening, pushed our son on the baby swings while a fluorescent void hung in the distance.

Because we rode our bikes through the eerie, empty pandemic streets.

Because I still get lost in the West Village.

Because New York is the only place I’ve been able to write about while also living in it.

Because New Yorkers are tough and kind and smart.

Because at every edge, there is water.

Because my whole adult life winks at me now as I move through its streets.

Jennifer Egan is the author of “The Candy House,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” and other books.


My People’s Home, Even in Tough Times

By Avi Schick

There have always been good reasons to leave New York City. On a good day, it’s expensive to live here, crowded and full of difficulties. On worse days, the dirt, noise and smells can be overwhelming.

More recently, there are additional reasons for observant and Orthodox Jews to question life here. While there have always been those who were less than welcoming to religious individuals and institutions, today the bigotry is too often effectively sanctioned by leaders in government, educational institutions and the media.

In the past decade, New York has tried to regulate circumcision and religious education. During the pandemic, it sought to restrict houses of worship in Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn more severely than those situated elsewhere in the state.

And that was all before Hamas invaded Israel and killed and kidnapped more than a thousand innocent Israelis on October 7.

For young Jews, especially college students on campus, New York today presents an entirely new set of challenges.

Yet there have also always been good reasons to stay. Nothing can compare to the energy, diversity and opportunity the city offers. Nothing compares to the gritty, unfiltered magic of life here. To paraphrase Fran Lebowitz, New Yorkers may be amazed at how much cleaner it is just about everywhere else, but cleanliness isn’t everything.

New York City was the welcoming beacon that greeted the Jews who fled hunger, persecution and worse in Europe for a better life in America. The better life that they built here was not just about their families, careers and businesses. Jewish life has thrived here in ways that were surely unimaginable to those immigrants.

Today, New York City is home to 350 Jewish elementary and high schools educating more than 115,000 students. That is more than a third of the total number of students receiving a Jewish education in the United States. Many thousands more study in postsecondary schools here. And the number of synagogues in New York City is even greater than the number of Jewish schools here. There is no close second in the United States to the scope, scale and diversity of Jewish life that exists in New York.

Orthodox Jewish life grew and thrived here. And it is still thriving, despite the challenges. Chasidic groups are thriving here, the modern Orthodox community’s flagship institution Yeshiva University is thriving here, New York’s Sephardic and Syrian Jewish communities and institutions are thriving here, and New York’s traditional yeshiva community is thriving here.

So I’m not going anywhere. Instead, I and others will do what New Yorkers have always done. We’ll stand our ground and fight.

After all, staying put in the face of adversity is the most quintessential New York behavior there is. So we stay and fight those in government who do not respect our religious values and our religious rights. We fight those in the media whose only portrait of Orthodox Jews is a grotesque caricature that distorts the beautiful reality of Jewish families and life here. We fight all those who would deny us our basic civil rights for our support of Israel.

As a New Yorker, there is no other choice. Leaving means letting the bastards win. That’s something I’ll hopefully never do.

Avi Schick is a partner at Faegre Drinker and president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. He previously served as a deputy attorney general in New York.


What We Are, and What We Can Become

By Ben Smith

The first New York newspaper I wrote for was The New York Sun, a quixotic right-wing broadsheet that loved scoops and tortured Mike Bloomberg. I was the City Hall correspondent, a position that kept me largely out of the line of fire of the Sun’s neoconservative national and global politics — captured in a stylebook that required that any positive reference to a Communist be approved by the editor-in-chief, and insisted that the PRC be referred to on first reference as “Red China.” Mostly, I reported on City Council races and government programs, and learned the rhythms of politics.

In 2002, the Sun sent me down to Washington to cover a meeting between Bloomberg and President Bush. I noticed that the White House press corps had adopted a kind of wartime affect: The journalists had clipped gas masks to their belts. There was no place for that kind of detail in a broadsheet, so I took the opportunity to pitch a biting little vignette to the New York Press, the town’s alternative alt-weekly. I can still feel the blood rushing to my face when I picked up the paper from a distinctive green box, looked eagerly for my byline and found it below the headline: “DC IS FOR PUSSIES.”

I grew up in New York but didn’t particularly intend to settle here, and I was mortified by that headline in part because I hate the New Yorker habit of seeing every other great city through the lens of New York. But I can’t quite escape it. Some of my favorite cities are the cleaner New York (London) and the New York that stacks another New York right on top of New York (Sao Paulo).

The version of New York I’ve been thinking about a lot lately though is Paris, whose residents sometimes complain that it’s a “gilded museum” of the 19th century, charming but frozen in time. That seems a fairly likely path for New York too: Rockefeller Center has regained its former grandeur, vastly outshining the second-rate Dubai-style malls further west. You could imagine centuries of tourists enjoying Manhattan’s 20th century grandeur, from the Chrysler and Empire State Building to dated modernist marvels like Lincoln Center. I think 20th century residents like me would be happy enough with that too, and I’d stick around.

But I do wish our politicians would consider what a 21st century city would mean — one that doubled in size, say, to 20 million; wowed visitors from Beijing and Riyadh with its dynamism; and — of course — reclaimed its status as the home of the tallest building in the world. The tower would have to be Times Square. Probably a casino.

Ben Smith is editor-in-chief of Semafor and author of “Traffic: Genius, Rivalry and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral.”


Hello to All That

By Katie Uva

I’ve spent my entire life listening to locals, transplants, brief visitors and also people who have never been here, but who nevertheless have strong opinions about the city, declare that New York is dead, New York is disgusting, New York is rude, New York is over, New York is Disneyfied and more. Probably the least New Yorky thing about me, aside from my caution while crossing streets, is that I simply can’t mask my vocal enthusiasm for living here. I’ve been forged in all the New York discomforts — the boiling hot subway car on a summer day; the plunge into ankle-deep slush in a misjudged crosswalk; the umpteenth bathroom ceiling collapse in a walkup apartment shared with three roommates — and yet I’m blissfully at home here.

Becoming a parent last year has added another dimension to my love for New York. In contrast to the well-worn sentiment of people who “wouldn’t raise my kids in the city,” I very much wanted to raise my kid here, and watching her make her first forays into the wider world and seeing what the city has to offer a small child has been wonderful. My daughter is 14 months old, and so far has crawled around the gallery at the Center for Brooklyn History, seen the Native American dance group Red Blanket Singers at the Museum of the City of New York, held her first pinecone and crunched her first autumn leaf at the New York Botanical Garden, seen a bald eagle in Inwood Hill Park, sampled the children’s reading and play areas at nine New York Public Library branches, fed the turtles in Central Park, high-fived the bass player in a mariachi band on the A train, strolled into a Tony Bennett tribute concert at Columbus Circle and played peek-a-boo with fellow flower lovers at the West Side Community Garden’s Tulip Festival.

At the Bronx Children’s Museum, a worker commented on my daughter’s New York Liberty onesie and revealed that her father is Timeless Torches dance team mainstay (and my bus driver on the M4 for many years) Luis Jimenez, and my baby got to FaceTime with him! On another day, a woman insisted on giving me $10 on the subway because my baby had smiled at her and “blessed my day.” And literally every time we take the much-maligned subway, numerous people smile at her, clap hands when she claps hands and wave goodbye to her when she or they exit the train. These things have all been free!

My New York chauvinism is as deep and sturdy as Manhattan schist, but having a baby here has especially affirmed my longstanding faith in the beauty, variety and vitality of this city, and especially in the fundamental (and too rarely acknowledged) caring and kindness of its people. I am overjoyed to have started my daughter on developing her own particular relationship with this city, and am excited to see how her New York story unfolds.

Katie Uva is a historian, writer, editor, teacher and trivia host.