A few days ago, The New York Times published an article called “The Launching Pad,” about four new college graduates finding their first apartment in New York City. Each had a budget of $1000-2000, and “by coincidence, all four wound up in Manhattan, despite the fact that Brooklyn, and increasingly parts of Queens, attract great numbers of renters.” Although it’s clear that the methods used were hardly scientific, this is the kind of article that could give you the idea that you can’t move to New York if you’re not rich or don’t have a lucrative job lined up.
This is not the truth. I can’t speak to whether it’s a great idea to come here straight out of college, without prospects or savings. In fact, I can’t even say that it was the right choice for me, because, seven years later (and despite relative job security), my future still feels uncertain. That isn’t the point, though. The point is, you don’t need to have $1000 a month in rent money to live in New York as a 22-year-old, and it matters that young people realize this, or our already considerable “entitled asshole” population is going to take over the city. Very few people I know have arrived here with that kind of income. I don’t pay that much in rent now.
Here’s how I got to New York City: I graduated from college in Baltimore, where I lived in a house with five other people and paid less than $300 a month in rent. A few days later, half-exuberant but also half-paralyzed by the idea that our lives were very much on the record from now on, four of us packed everything we owned (pared down considerably in anticipation of how little space we’d have) into a Uhaul. It took forever to pack that truck, because we were trying to fit everyone’s bed, desk, dresser, etc. into a vehicle that was only supposed to fit the contents of a one-bedroom apartment. We left in the dark — me, my boyfriend, two other guys — waving to our friends who were still in town. A group of them sat on our stoop watching as we got ready to go. Hopefully my memory isn’t embellishing this, but I think I remember there were some tears. It wasn’t just about us leaving, it was about everyone’s lives changing at the exact same time.
My boyfriend’s older brother drove the Uhaul, because he was the only person we knew who you could call a good driver. That was the “sick car,” because there was a horrible, tenacious cold going around, and he’d caught it, and we thought segregating the vehicles would prevent the germs from spreading. (Ha.) Our other friend, whose dad owned the apartment in Astoria that was the only place we could rent without proof of income, drove the rest of us in his car. We rolled up to the curb in Queens sometime between 4 and 6 in the morning. I remember carrying furniture up to the room my boyfriend and I would share — 12’ x 12’, dark blue carpeting paired unsettlingly with bright blue wallpaper — and feeling nothing but dread when I’d anticipated feeling nothing but excitement. I had done it, moved to New York, but somehow I felt like I’d already failed. We were exhausted, half of us were sick, the shabbily excessive lifestyles we’d been living for the past few years now seemed entirely, depressingly in the past, and it nagged at us that we might never see some of our dearest friends ever again.
Only one of us had come to the city with a job. (Incidentally, it was the one who had dropped out of college.) Our three-bedroom apartment cost $1600 a month, although one of those bedrooms was something like 50 or 60 square feet. My boyfriend and I shared the biggest room, and each paid some awkward, precise number around $375. Space was tight, we all got on each other’s nerves, the sink was constantly overflowing with dishes. But I was lucky enough to get a fairly decent entry-level publishing job within a few weeks of arriving in the city, and I paid my bills and even managed to save some money that year. It took my other roommates longer, but we all eventually came out OK enough to still be in New York, gainfully employed, seven years later.
We had some advantages lots of people, even other college graduates, don’t have — most importantly, an apartment we could rent, sight unseen, with no security deposit to worry about (not to mention the nicest, most helpful landlord in all of New York). And when you have a significant other to share a room with, that obviously cuts down on rent (although I also know a good number of people who have shared rooms with friends). Between graduation presents and my own savings from working while I was at school, I had a few months’ worth of money that kept me from outright panicking about not having a job yet. (When I visited the bank in Astoria shortly after we moved, the teller asked if I was old enough to open an account without a parent present.) Not everyone could afford to do what I did, and I realize that makes me very lucky. But I still wanted to add my two cents on this topic, because The New York Times often seems to be in the business of discouraging young people from doing anything, and the truth is, the picture they paint of the city is almost no one’s reality.