Is Dumping New York City a 'Girl Thing'?


Writers love writing personal essays about leaving New York City but, mostly, women writers love writing personal essays about leaving New York City. Or so it sometimes seems.

This week, Ann Friedman compared New York to “that guy I went out with only briefly and then successfully transitioned into friendship,” as well as a prom king who “knows he’s great, and he’s gonna make it really, really hard on you if you decide you want to love him.” Last year, Julia Allison and Julia Price warned women to stay away from Manhattan if they’re looking for the “Sex and the City” fantasy, noting that “rent-controlled apartments like Carrie’s are as hard to come by as a good-looking, well-adjusted single guy over the age of 35.” (Carrie, for what it’s worth, once said that if “you only get one great love, New York may just be mine. And I can’t have nobody talking shit about my boyfriend.”)

The queen of not staying too long at the Fair is, obviously, Joan Didion. Her seminal essay, “Goodbye To All That,” inspired a book of the same name that includes 28 writers’ perspectives on loving and leaving New York. All 28 are women. I couldn’t help but wonder (thnx Carrie) if more women write about leaving New York than men because of what the move implies: the search for a work/life balance that’s often impossible to achieve in the city unless you’re mega-rich and especially difficult to obtain if you’re a woman. Even women who don’t want to get married or have kids feel more conflicted than the men I know about sticking around into their 30s and 40s.

I asked Sari Botton, the editor of the Seal Press anthology (full title: Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York), why all the contributors are women. She said it wasn’t her decision; she had a few notable male authors interested, including Shalom Auslander, Nick Flynn, Stephen Elliott and Luc Sante, but wasn’t able to land a deal for a co-ed book (she’ll be including men in an event on October 23rd at Greenlight Books). Huh: maybe women don’t love to write about leaving New York as much as publishers think women love to read about women writing about leaving New York.

Sari said she hates to generalize and that she doesn’t know whether more women than men feel conflicted about leaving the city. “In fact, three of my favorite essays about leaving New York are by men – The Colossus of NY by Colson Whitehead, My Lost City by Luc Sante, and Goodbye to 48th Street by E.B. White,” she wrote in an email. “I think that for some of those women who are conflicted, the city is like the cute but shitty boyfriend you have a hard time both holding onto and moving on from. And when you do move on, it’s often because you’re headed to a more settled stage of life, where you’re trying to achieve a work/life balance most can’t afford in the city. The sheer space needed for a family costs so much, and is so hard to come by. So, letting go of New York is often accompanied by letting go of a certain kind of freedom – a certain carefree stage of your youth. Who wants to let go of that?”

One of my all-time favorite essays about leaving New York is by a man: my co-worker Cord Jefferson. I asked him whether he thought it was notably different for a male-identified person to reflect upon his reasons leaving NYC, and whether he thought about gender dynamics at all when he wrote his piece. Cord said he didn’t, but that he got a lot of shit for not being able to hack it.

“I might also posit that male writers feel less comfortable writing about certain things than female writers,” he said. “When I wrote that piece I remember commenters who called my masculinity into question because I ‘just couldn’t take it in New York’ (e.g. ‘pussy,’ ‘weak quitter,’ etc.).”

“In a very real way, I broke up with my girlfriend for New York,” Cord wrote in his essay. Dating and dumping New York isn’t gender-specific (also, it’s apparently impossible to write a “peace out, NY” essay without dating metaphors; Didion did it, too) but I think we’re more used to hearing “having it all” narratives from women — and women are more accustomed to writing them, too.

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