In his iconic 1949 essay “Here Is New York,” E.B. White describes three different New Yorks. “There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter — the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something.”
My New York is the third one. I come by way of Great Neck on Long Island — a town that, while it does have a certain charm, was largely an unpleasant place to grow up. There, I was judged for what I wrote, who I was seen with, what I was wearing, which books I checked out of the library. There, I was ruthlessly gossiped about, not to mention sexually assaulted. My entire young adulthood was spent in deep depression. “You’ve really got to get out of here,” a teacher once told me.
Since I’ve moved into Brookdale for free as part of my Macaulay scholarship, my depression is greatly abated. Nothing compares to my joy as I walk around the city singing Mister Rogers songs — it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood — dodging cyclists and noshing on vegan empanadas. While native New Yorkers complain about the subways, I find it enjoyable to stand up, spread out my arms and legs and see how well I can balance against the centrifugal forces.
Whenever I go back to Great Neck to visit my family, I end up feeling sick. It’s like everybody there wants me to be somebody I’m not. They want me to be an obedient little girl who straightens her hair and goes on dates with conservative Jewish boys and becomes an accountant or something else boring. I only last a couple of days until I snap at my mom, “I’m going back to Manhattan.”
But with the new Brookdale policy that will deny honors students the priority housing they used to receive and move Brookdale closer to becoming a freshman-and-sophomore-only dormitory, I will likely have no choice but to live in Great Neck, because even though I am among the most privileged CUNY students, I still cannot afford to pay $15,000 per school year to stay at the 72nd Street dormitory that Macaulay Hunter advertises so unabashedly. I will be forced to live in my house off Steamboat Road, a street that has three separate synagogues but not a single Empire Gourmet Deli.
More than that, there is no New York Public Library, no Metropolitan Museum of Art, no Brooklyn Museum, no Lincoln Center, no Strand bookstore, no 92nd Street Y. If I didn’t live in Manhattan, I’d rarely be able to visit these places.
Most days, I leave Brookdale before 9 a.m. and don’t get back until after 7 p.m. In contrast to the half hour it takes to get from Hunter to Brookdale, it takes roughly an hour and 40 minutes to get from Hunter to my house in Great Neck. If I had to make that commute twice each day, I might be tempted to quit the track team, quit the newspaper, or quit my job at the Rockowitz Writing Center — things you’d think the college would want to dissuade me from doing. I might be tempted to graduate in three years to spare myself two extra semesters of having to either live in that town or pay $15,000 in rent when I don’t have a full-time job. So much for all those cool classes I wanted to take.
I shouldn’t have to make these decisions, and neither should other students, most of whom are in worse positions than I am. The purpose of the Macaulay scholarship, and CUNY in general, is supposed to be to make college affordable so that students don’t have to worry about money and can immerse themselves in their studies and in the enriching culture of New York City. In other words, I can deal with a couple of broken elevators, I can reckon with a cockroach every now and again, I can even tolerate brown water coming out of the bathroom faucet if it means I get to be a New Yorker.
Hunter College needs to decide what it’s really about — giving all of its rooms to underclassmen to make itself more attractive to potential applicants, or giving students who otherwise wouldn’t get to live here a chance to live and study in the best city in the world. I recommend the latter option — housing priority should go to students who live outside of the city or in its most remote outskirts.
Of the three New Yorks — that of the native, that of the commuter and that of the settler — White writes that “it is this third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements.”
Which is to say, you know you want me.