On Leaving New York

by Roland Li


I was a child of the suburbs.

Most of my high school life narrowed to a mile-long stretch of Boston Post Road, trudging to class. Our nocturnal highlight was Taco Bell, which was open until 1 a.m.

The city was a faint impression of stately Art Deco landmarks and a maze of subways. My deepest excursions were to Flushing, Queens, where we got groceries at a Korean supermarket every month.

When I applied to colleges, I confined myself to the Northeast. For some reason I didn’t have any impulse to go further. The choices were ultimately between University of Rochester and NYU. I figured that I should get to know a city that I had no experience of, despite living a 30 minute train ride away from Grand Central.

Washington Square Park is a bucolic place. You can forget that you’re in the most dense American city when you lose sight of the skyscrapers peeking above the trees. My dorm was on 10th Street and Broadway, which now seems like a surreal, impressive address. Cars poured by my window, but the side streets were calm.

I was pre-med, mostly because my parents – a pathologist and a radiation oncologist – encouraged me to be. My first class was Chemistry, in a lecture hall so flooded with hundreds of students that attendance was taken with electronic clickers. People who skipped out would have their friends click them in.

But my real passion was music. I remember walking to Mercury Lounge in August, exhaling in the air conditioned box office, and laying down $100 for five or six tickets concerts for the fall semester. I started writing, on a whim, for the school paper. My editor had to explain to me what a “lede” and “nut graf” were, but I started figuring things out.

The first time I went to Brooklyn was to see a band called Headlights that I had interviewed. It was 21+ and I was 18, but the promoter managed to slip me through the bouncer. North 6th Street felt intimidating at midnight, in the midst of winter with mostly deserted streets.

That seems laughable eight years later. Williamsburg is getting Apple, Whole Foods and J. Crew soon. Glassy condos dominate the waterfront. Galapagos became Public Assembly and then turned into a bar. The original Galapagos is moving to Detroit. Nothing lasts forever, but in New York, it seems that the special, precious things are often the first to go.

I’ve changed, too. Medicine is a distant memory. I write, mostly about the city and its physical form – the money that flows in properties and the commerce that surrounds them. And my world has narrowed again, it seems, to eight blocks in Brooklyn and perhaps a few dozen in Manhattan. When did such a big city begin to feel so small, so familiar?

I still love New York. Its skyline, its diversity, its relentless pace are a beautiful thing. But eight years is a long time, and what was so inspiring has become somewhat repetitive. The feeling of awe has given way to a feeling of wondering what else is out there.

So I’m moving to San Francisco next month. There are familiar themes there: Grappling with gentrification, celebrating diversity, but also, I hope, a sense of wonder and surprise that has diminished on this side of the country. I don’t think I’ll miss winter. But every bone-freezing snowstorm, every summer without air conditioning, every sweeping view from a rooftop, and especially every friend is a gift that I won’t forget.

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