Since I started college I’ve been looking for an apartment to move into this coming summer. I’m going to Hunter College, which is in Manhattan, so I could, if I really wanted to, commute from home, but that would take an unseemly 100 minutes—and besides, I want to move to the city anyway. Up until the pandemic started and we transitioned to online instruction I was living in the 92nd Street Y, but in the meantime I’ve been scouting for where to move to when the next semester starts.
Being as unhealthily self-conscious as I am, I’m aware that being a white man moving from the suburbs to the city is, in a lot of ways, a bad look. As I walk through the neighborhoods I’m considering, my backpack on, carrying my headphones, water bottle, and jacket, I feel as if people are looking at me weird—feel as in literally, physically—even though I know they’re not. Specifically I’m talking about Ridgewood, Queens, where I also, paradoxically, am reminded of home.
When I first started looking, Ridgewood was my top neighborhood. It didn’t, in theory, feel unethical to move there, because it’s where my family was from: my dad lived there until he was 5, in 1975, when my grandparents moved to Amityville, and my great-grandparents stayed until the end of their lives. They even owned the building, a six-family on Madison Street near the Brooklyn border, but they sold in the 90s for financial reasons. (Foolish in hindsight, as I’ve said to my family, but my great-aunt will defend the decision to her grave.)
A further factor that attracted me to Ridgewood is its demographic. Statistically, the neighborhood is mostly Latino and Slavic. Now, contrary to popular perception, not all of Long Island is white-bread and upper-middle-class. Central Nassau County (Hempstead, Roosevelt, Freeport, etc), for example, is primarily black and Latino. The neighborhood I grew up in specifically is mostly white, but the town it’s in, Bay Shore, is an ethnic melting pot, and the nearby towns Brentwood and Central Islip are mostly Latino. My high school, for example, was about two-thirds Latino. Thus, to me, being in a place with a high Latino population feels more normal than being in a mostly white neighborhood. And Copiague, where my parents grew up and I spent a fairly significant amount of time in my childhood, is now primarily Latino and Polish—pretty much the same mix as Ridgewood.
But of course, none of that matters in the bigger picture. Regardless of my personal experience and my family’s history in the area, I’m still a young middle-class white man from the suburbs, and being that makes me more desirable to real estate developers, and thus I am, theoretically, a threat to the culture of any neighborhood I live in, unless it’s already predominantly white.
This is why, when I get off the M and walk down Myrtle Avenue, I feel unwelcome. The stores are familiar, and remind me of Great Neck Road in Copiague and Main Street in Bay Shore before it was gentrified. But I know that even if people aren’t judging me now, they’d be judging me if I moved in.
After a while I thought that my worry may be in part due to the fact that Ridgewood is at high risk to be gentrified soon: Williamsburg is too far gone, and Bushwick is starting to get taken over too, so it’s only a matter of time before it hits there. So I decided to explore elsewhere, and found myself getting off the D train at 36th Street.
Sunset Park attracted me for similar reasons that Ridgewood is enticing to me: affordable, not gentrified, familiar demographic. As I followed Fourth Avenue down I found, again, familiar scenes. The area just south of the cemetery has warehouses and apartments that feel like some off-the-beaten-path areas of Bay Shore and Copiague. Fifth Avenue’s stores are similar to Myrtle Avenue’s, albeit a bit bigger. The park is in some ways an amalgam of many others I’ve known in my life.
When I walk through Sunset Park I don’t feel the judgment as much as I do in Ridgewood (although sometimes the Spanish-speaking MetroPCS barkers skip me), but I still have a lurking sense of unease. It’s not because I don’t feel comfortable in the neighborhood, but because I feel the judgment of others coming from within myself.
Gentrifier. Possibly. Transplant. To the neighborhood, yes, not to New York. How others perceive me is immutable, and will never align with my subjective truth. Despite any of my intentions, and emotional, theoretical truth about me, real estate and ideology deem me a statistic. I can try to change myself to look more like myself to others, but that might mean lying. And is there a true self? Or am I merely constructed by the forces around me, my internal self is a delusion and how others see me, who I am in terms of my existence among power dynamics, is all there really is of me?
This is the plight of someone who thinks too much. Even if I know how to get to the places I’d like to move, if I can’t find my way mentally I won’t be able to move anywhere. I need to accept that if I am a statistic, then I am. If I negatively affect where I move then I have to do my best to not be a dick to my neighbors, to not threaten to usurp their home. If I’m lucky I may be able to be accepted, but there will ultimately always be a platform of privilege that, as hard as I try to get down, places me above my peers. To keep climbing down, an inverted Sisyphus, is the best I can do, and really what I’m obligated to. To not put myself in that position would be to not challenge my position of privilege, yet there are people who will not see that side of it, and will simply become angry at the sight of a white man on the train in their neighborhood. To think that the presence of white people is the only cause of gentrification is ignorant, but it’s something I need to face. If I don’t, then I may never be able to move.
I get on the N at 59th Street and head back to the Upper East Side.