Apparently, it’s a flex to be a New York City native now. But the concept of that is largely skewed.
I was once speaking with someone originally from suburban New Jersey who recently moved to NYC. They asked me if I’ve ever been to Blank Street Coffee or knew how to navigate the streets of SoHo and pinpoint the best places to shop. I’ve never been to Blank Street Coffee, and I don’t care to ever spend money on an overpriced drink that’s barely a small but is arguably worth the price because it’s aesthetically pleasing for Instagram. Nor do I ever find myself in SoHo. I can probably count with a few fingers on one hand how many times I’ve been there. I simply answered “no.” I didn’t want to bother giving an elaborate response about being from The Bronx and how unlikely it is for me to venture that far. The response I got left me speechless.
“How are you even a New Yorker? I’m probably more of one than you are.”
I’ve never been good at thinking on the spot — confrontation isn’t my forte. I was left baffled and didn’t give the comeback I should’ve. I’ve realized that person is an extension of a larger issue. And that issue is taking place on TikTok. It makes it cool to be a NYC native, but only if you’re from a certain version of NYC that’s curated from white colonial imaginations.
TikTok skyrocketed to popularity alongside the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic. In June 2020 alone, the app was downloaded 87 million times, with 7.5 million of those downloads coming from the United States. NYC, on the other hand, started to crumble. Records reveal that there was an unemployment rate of 19.8% of NYC citizens in July 2020, with The Bronx making up 24.9% of that group. More than 5,000 businesses in Manhattan alone closed as a result of the pandemic.
If there’s anything I know about New Yorkers, those of us who have been here for all or most of our lives and lived in places that so many rich white people looked down upon before gentrifying our territories, I know that we’re incredibly resilient. When the world all around us was ending, we pulled each other up. We hustled, grinded, and did what we had to do to survive. That’s how we have always been.
Gentrification has devastated poor, Black, and brown communities in NYC for years, but the pandemic has exacerbated the predicament. Initially, the pandemic caused an increase in “white flight”, the phenomenon of white people moving out of urban cities and into the suburbs. White affluent folks with white-collar jobs had the privilege to work from home, so they up and left. Essential workers, who are disproportionately BIPOC, were left in the city and forced to pick up the pieces. The decrease in NYC’s white population accelerated vacancy rates, something renters and buyers took advantage of. This seemingly enabled the same, mobile people who left to return, and an influx of those not from NYC arrived as well. Brooklyn and Queens especially experienced a surge of newcomers seizing the record-low rent and mortgage rates. With this growth in people moving into the city, apartments became in high demand and, thus, rent raised once again, fucking with communities who never fully recovered from the economic damage the pandemic inflicted.
There’s this popular joke made by New Yorkers that the rent’s too damn high. But rent really is too damn high! It’s nearly impossible to live in the city now without roommates or a 6-figure job. Rent for a studio apartment averages over $4,000 a month. Mass groups of BIPOC who are native and have a long family history of being in the city are being displaced and forced out of their homes.
Now, there are trendy “day-in-the-life” vlogs of stylish transplants waking up in their fancy Bed-Stuy or East Harlem apartments, chronicling their adventures of finding vintage pieces at thrift stores or casually dropping a couple hundred on the hottest restaurant that everyone appears to be talking about. They make the city their playground. The NYU gentrifiers — a large percentage of them arguably nepo babies — have completely conquered Washington Square Park and rarely venture beyond the Lower East Side. Other transplants are uploading videos of cheap places to do activities or grab a quick meal. The prices of these places, more than not, always increase because of the advertisement, further leaving financially struggling folks with little to nothing. In the comment section of these bite-sized videos, I see countless of people desperate to live in the city someday and live just like the influencers they see on their screens.
The cognitive dissonance these TikToks create is alarming. Interviewed by Emily Lang for Gothamist, 21-year-old Thalia Lloyd-Frontani stresses, “We’re not $8 coffees. We’re not sunny days. We’re not in Manhattan everyday, that’s for sure”. When I think of the New York City I grew up in, I think of old men playing dominoes on the street, getting a bacon, egg, and cheese on a roll and an Arizona at a bodega before school, the fire hydrant busted open during summer so kids can play, and sweet sounds of reggaeton or salsa blasting throughout the streets. You wouldn’t find this on your FYP, but there are people, like me, who live to tell the tale of the multi-layered and complicated city of New York.
TikTok isn’t the first platform to glamorize the city. From Sex and the City to Friends, New York City has long been its own character in white television and film. In these depictions, the city is the “American Dream” itself. Whiteness is intrinsic to the American Dream; whiteness is the standard of success. The city serves as a backdrop to characters’ storylines, sometimes amplifying character struggles and development, and other times deeply intertwining with the plot of the series. Nearly all of these shows highlight characters who are chasing after their dreams and trying to “make it” in a big city filled with possibilities. With enough persistence, things fall into place and these characters do fulfill their desires. Not just that, they also find themselves on journeys and exciting events that only NYC can provide. It’s a fairytale Hollywood eats up. It speaks to the hegemonic notion on what America is and inserts this yearning for the NYC experience into our heads.
Though the city is racially diverse, with statistics showing that the population is 23.4% Black, 28.9% Hispanic or Latino, and 14.2% Asian, numerous shows located in NYC are overwhelmingly white. The only TV show I’ve ever seen where the representation of NYC closely resembled the NYC I was brought up in was Pose. It felt like a breath of fresh air to finally see a mainstream show have tell NYC stories with Black and brown characters at the forefront. Characters like Pray Tell and Angel were defining the culture and pushing the bounds of creativity; every day I see up and coming rappers and street artists making art and creating a brand-new standard. Blanca’s apartment was in The Bronx, and my mother often says it was reminiscent of where she lived in the South Bronx during the 80s and 90s.
Though I’m critiquing the idealization of NYC, it also feels inevitable to me. I once tutored a girl who wrote an essay on how immigrating from Ecuador to Queens changed her life. Dismissing my hatred for the assignment (life-changing stories that have a chokehold on educators), I read how a big reason why she wanted to move to the city was because of Gossip Girl.
She described how fascinated she was by the streets and tall buildings. I’m sure her neighborhood is far from the Upper East Side where Blair and Serena caused havoc, but it made me realize how privileged I am to have been raised in New York. My grandparents on both sides of the family immigrated to NYC from Puerto Rico to foster a better life for themselves and future generations. NYC has historically been a safe haven for immigrants, a chance to start anew. Moreover, NYC wouldn’t be as we know it today without immigrants.
However, NYC’s “sanctuary” title has been rapidly upended. Immigrants aren’t receiving basic living necessities like fresh clothes, sanitary products, and nourishing food. People are sleeping in tents in the cold without sufficient heating or blankets. Anti-immigration rhetoric flourishes in media and pushes this idea that the quantity of immigrants is the problem. We have more than enough space for immigrants. The issue lies in how the government uses space and how it primarily accommodates the wealthy, white, and American-born.
Conflicting visions of NYC are nothing new. In The Guardian, Emma Brockes articulates that:
“There are two narratives of 70s and 80s New York, both resurging and in direct competition. The first is of a crimeridden hellscape, the New York of the Central Park jogger and a mythological place in which no side street is safe and people live in the tunnels of the subway. It’s the New York of Midnight Cowboy, a sordid landscape cherished in the minds of those who lived through it both as war story and a marker of how far the city has come.
The second popular version is that of the poets’ New York, the city of Eileen Myles, the Chelsea Hotel, the Poetry Project at St Mark’s Church and the cheap rent of loft space in Soho before Apple moved in. It’s a rendition of the city which, as the value of commercial real estate collapses and affluent families move out, other New Yorkers are anticipating the return of with open arms.”
Multiple realities of New York have always existed. I started developing class and racial consciousness on the MTA subway; as my child-self would reach downtown, more passengers would enter the train with whiter skin and clothes that looked “better” or “cleaner” to my young mind. It was hard to conceptualize that Times Square and Fordham Road were technically in the same city. The difference was so striking. I mentioned earlier that my mom was raised in the South Bronx. She’s told me stories ranging from nailing dances to Biz Markie and hitting a ball to the wall with friends to witnessing a friend getting shot on the block and neighbors drugged up on cocaine. These were also different from the Rockefeller tree and Central Park I saw on television screens.
And I’ve come to realize how culturally New York means to different groups of people — there’s Jewish New York, Puerto Rican New York, Mexican New York, Italian New York, Jamaican New York, Chinese New York, African American New York. There’s queer and trans New York! The list goes on. And these versions of New York bleed into each other in food establishments, subway carts, alleyways; a hotpot of multiculturalism. These tone-deaf realities of New York City as a monolithic utopia of art gallery events and hipster coffee shops diminish what makes NYC great in the first place.
In “The Death of a Once Great City”, Kevin Baker argues that NYC is “in imminent danger of becoming something it has never been before: unremarkable. It is approaching a state where it is no longer a significant cultural entity but the world’s largest gated community, with a few cupcake shops here and there. For the first time in its history, New York is, well, boring”. Further, he explores how NYC is becoming commercialized, is catering more to non-natives, and making investments only benefitting the elite. The Central Park Zoo used to be free to visit; now it’s $18 for adults and $13 for children. The current Yankee Stadium costed $2.3 billion to build, with more than 9,000 public seats removed to make room for luxury suites. Hudson Yard, composed of 18 million square feet of high-end corporations, stands while homelessness worsens in the city.
Community is dying. Renovated and upscale housing options in the city offer playrooms for kids, gyms, art spaces, and more. In Baker’s words, a “private outdoor space” is the true goal. While there was once the allure of exploring the city, white rich folks are now doing all they can to avoid crossing paths with the working-class, the Black and brown. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call it segregation.
There are still roach-infested apartments, heaters that don’t work and leave residents freezing at night, and people barely making enough to survive. But leaders care about nothing more than collecting bread in their pockets. NYC TikTok influencers are tools of their capitalist schemes.
Gradually, I see my own neighborhood changing.
There used to be this beloved, local-owned diner where members of my community used to love to meet and eat some good food at. It had a home-y vibe and was around for nearly five decades. The owners got priced out in July 2022 and had to permanently close. Around the same area, Starbucks and Chipotle opened, and there is construction currently happening for a Panda Express. My local supermarket, raising their prices just like every other damn store, has always had a large number of groceries imported from the Dominican Republic or Mexico. Now, they’re increasingly including more American items in their stock. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Chick-fil-A sauce, but I was stunned when I saw it in aisle 4 just a few days ago while going on a compra.
In a way, NYC is already nothing more than an empty shell of its former self. A lot of it is unrecognizable. And that utterly frightens me.