On not being middle class in New York City

On Friday, the New York Times ran a classically tunnel visioned New York Times feature, about what it means to be middle class in Manhattan. The Times would have you believe that to live in the Apple, you’re going to need about $235K a year to just hit that modest goal.

If you are defining middle-class by lifestyle, to accommodate the cost of living in Manhattan, that salary would have to fall between $80,000 and $235,000. This means someone making $70,000 a year in other parts of the country would need to make $166,000 in Manhattan to enjoy the same purchasing power. Using the rule of thumb that buyers should expect to spend two and a half times their annual salary on a home purchase, the properties in Manhattan that could be said to be middle-class would run between $200,000 and $588,000.

Oh, and this is choice:

Household incomes in Manhattan are about as evenly distributed as they are in Bolivia or Sierra Leone — the wealthiest fifth of Manhattanites make 40 times more than the lowest fifth, according to 2010 census data.

Coming on the heels of the Wall Street Journal’s hilarious concern troll infographic featuring poor sad single moms making $260K a year, it was shocking news to many of us living here and raising our families and earning less than six figures that we are THE POORS.

This is a tough city to live in, especially if you’re not a hedge fund manager or supermodel. I am aware of that every day. My family and I live in a shoebox-sized apartment for which we paid $360K — and considered ourselves lucky. If you’re not rich, everything from getting a haircut to buying groceries is both an arduous journey and an epic expense. Believe me, there are many days when I ponder the wisdom of draining the family bank account so we can do our grocery shopping next door to a pawn shop, days I decide that if I have to listen to one more crazy person yelling on the A train all the way from 59th to 125th I’m going to lose it.

And yet.

These stories that reaffirm the notion that New York, and Manhattan specifically, are only for rich folks make me so frustrated. Because when the Times runs a feature like that, it treats the millions of New Yorkers who are somehow getting by and raising families and living with basic human dignity like they’re invisible. That pisses me off.

This is what my city looks like, by income. If you live on the Upper East Side or Tribeca, you’re approaching New York Times “middle class.” If you live in the West Village or Upper West Side, you’re doing all right. If you live in my neighborhood, your household income is about $51K a year. And if you cross over to the other side of Broadway, it’s $25K. Household. Annual. So if you think NYC and Manhattan in particular are just for millionaires, I humbly suggest you get your head out of your ass, consult a map that extends beyond 125th Street, and take a walk around.


Not pictured: THE LAND OF DRAGONS above Harlem

Yes, this city teems with the very rich and poor, and the disparity between the two is alarming and nauseating. But it’s also got a whole lot of normal working people, just trying to get by in this exasperating, demanding, fucked up place. And there are a whole lot of Manhattanites who aren’t making Maya Tolstoy’s $125K a year and not being profiled in the Times about how they “survive.”

I don’t need anybody to remind me that if I lived in Atlanta or Philadelphia (and hey, I LOVE Philadelphia) I could own a car and go on nice vacations and have some money in my IRA. I’m okay. Because I live here (and have insurance, thank God), I was in one of the best cancer facilities in the world the day after my cancer diagnosis, and am now in a lifesaving trial with the people who are revolutionizing treatment. My kids have gone to city-run summer camps where they’ve learned to pitch from members of the Mets. They’ve seen Anne Hathaway and Lily Rabe perform Shakespeare for free. They go to public schools where they work every day with kids of different religions and incomes and ethnicities and abilities, despite the fact that Times says “many middle-class families have little confidence in public education.” (Who are these vague “many”?) Schools that have LGBT support groups starting in 6th grade and where evolution isn’t a “theory.” And there’s something else. On a regular basis, I will be walking around, going about my business, and I’ll see the Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge and it’ll suddenly hit me again. My God. I live here. In a city some people dream their whole lives of just seeing once. That’s pretty goddamn magical.

This is hard place. And the less you have the harder it is. That’s just a fact. A week from today, my daughters and I will be starting the SNAP Challenge, and we’ll get a small taste of just how much more difficult it is to get by here on a food stamps budget, where groceries are exorbitant.

But it’s tiresome to get the screwed up message, repeatedly, that nobody who isn’t Donald Trump or a shoeless homeless person lives here any more. It’s insulting to working and working class people who are somehow feeding their children and playing in the park and being regular people to keep asserting how “horrifying” (actual New York Times quote) it is — for people making double and triple what they do — to heroically get by here. Hi, New York Times and everybody else. We’re here. We’re not pathetic losers or impossibly destitute or nonexistent entities. Just sayin’.

I’m pretty maxed out on hearing about how much New York costs. I am acutely conscious of that, every day. My family and I choose to live here anyway, because of what New York gives. This afternoon, we’re going to the memorial of an artist and entrepreneur friend who, when he was diagnosed with leukemia, didn’t have insurance, and whose community rallied around him in ways both financial and emotional that awe me. It will be in the park I run in every morning, a park full of hawks and caves and beauty. Will didn’t make 200 thou a year, but he was one the richest people I’ve ever known. Because Will was a New Yorker.

Later, we might go downtown and walk on the High Line, or skating in Bryant Park, both of which are free. We don’t have a yard but we have a park. We don’t have a lot of space but we have cheap seats for St. John’s games. We have a mayor who enrages me constantly but who is down with gun control and same sex marriage. We have cool public art and bighearted, generous people. We have friends. And we are so so much more than how much — and how little — money we make.image

Central Park as seen from Discovering Columbus, three days after the hurricane