There are too many New York Cities to name.
Mine, yours, the New York of Camus, Lorca, and always, author Joan Didion. Lately, her essay “Goodbye to All That” has been rustling up both the young, tired voices and the old wise ones with articles in The Atlantic and The New York Times. Events from SOHO to Brooklyn. There are so many opinions on why we fall in love with the city from a distance, somehow make it there to realize our dreams, and, after a long while, leave.
A month before I left New York for San Antonio I went to an event for a book of essays titled, “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York.” I had been looking forward to it for weeks, wondering what all the hype was about, thinking that I was lost – as so many who call this city home – and would find some solace in the words of these authors. It was a rainy October night and my partner, Chris, saved a seat for me in the front row.
I crossed my legs intently, remembering my high school teacher’s advice: Never read introductions to books.
No SparkNotes. No research. No nothing – give yourself to the text; and that was just my plan. But what I heard was not what I was expecting. Perhaps I had built it up too much – placed it on a pedestal because, well, if others left New York then that means that every time I’ve left (about 10) would somehow be justified. I would feel a little more complete, perhaps, in a city I’ve never felt whole in.
But the essay contained nothing other than stories of people who came to New York with some sort of emptiness and longing and were seeking refuge, only to experience the biggest disappointment and most heartbreaking, yet beautiful, love affair of their lives.
Where was my story? I wondered. These were people who came to the city, blind, but willingly came here. Where was the story of the native who left? And why has it been so difficult for me, a Queens-born Ecuadorian, to really understand the sweeping gentrification and still feel hopeful in a city I must always call home?
I met Chris at a Burning Man party at the Times Square Arts Center. This was a time in my life when I had just come back from living in China for three years and at the moment I was between Costa Rica and India. No, I don’t have rich parents who paid for my endeavors – the student loan hotline has been tattooed into my memory, just as I’m sure it has been for you.
As a child my parents reminded me on a daily basis how they were only in New York for the money and how disgusting the city is and how rude the people are. And how one day they will return to Ecuador, retire, and live like kings. Maybe it was all this propaganda that led me to be at such odds with the city and carved out the mental reminder: This is not your home.
Maybe that’s what led me to the Burning Man scene in the first place: party like we have no home, like we’re nomads in the desert, as if we were brothers and sisters in some sort of postmodern communion.
At the party, Chris and I met on top of a man rolled up in a carpet. He had placed himself at the foot of the bar so you had to step on him to get a drink; he had a breathing hole cut out – I guess that was his thing.
To this day, my favorite part of that night was that Chris did not believe a single word that came out of my mouth.
I can just imagine what I sounded like – 21-year-old kid traveling the world, learning languages and culture: very “Native New Yorker.”
Later on, he told me he didn’t believe me at first because so many people at those parties loved to make stuff up about their lives to sound more eclectic. I had no interest in doing that. I always wanted to see the world around me, experience everything outside the city, and disprove that I was from the greatest place on Earth.
Three years later I find myself in San Antonio, Texas. My partner, a native, talked the city up to me so much that I had finally agreed. Things like space, cleanliness, and simple human decency started to become more and more important and New York, therefore, less and less attractive.
His friends from San Antonio would call to tell him how much their city had been changing; new cafés were opening and art and culture were moving to the forefront. I was enthralled. I couldn’t wait to get out of paying $800 a month for a bathroom-sized room in Bushwick and run to somewhere where I would have space to create art and, hopefully, meet people willing to listen – a place where everything hasn’t been done already and that wasn’t facing a fascist-like gentrification in which people were being evicted from their homes. The low-income population of New York is being exterminated like a bedbug infestation.
And here we are in the Government Hill district, a supposed up up-and-coming neighborhood close to the Pearl Brewery. I’ve only been here for about a week and I have discovered such gems as Tucker’s Kozy Korner – a jazz bar built in 1948 – with only about 10 people inside and an extraordinary live jazz band. I felt sung to.
I went to the Tamale! Festival at the Pearl Brewery where I ate Mexican food I would have never found in New York. I saw a Pinter play by the Convergent Theatre Company, where experimental theater is valued and listened to.
I sauntered through the “gay strip” on North Main Avenue and danced my heart out at Pegasus and Heat. The other night I found myself at a pop-up art event hosted at a friend’s home in Monticello Park. There was visual art, singers, performers, and a blanket fort.
Many people were performing for the first time, but what impressed me most was how invested every single person there was. I fell into deep, meaningful conversations with local artists, chefs and even realtors.
The people were genuinely interested in the featured artists’ work and I was amazed at how much they listened to them – really listened. It’s hard to listen in New York, it’s too noisy.
In New York, this would be a dream party – one that you heard of days afterward through the grapevine and that probably never happened in the first place.
But it happened here, in San Antonio.
Kevin Pesantez is a writer based in San Antonio. He serves as an editor and contributing writer for 2Leaf Press. Follow him on Twitter @ecuamarica and find his writings on his tumblr page. Email him firstname.lastname@example.org Kevin has worked as a Workshop Facilitator of the Boy’s Town Detention Center, developing spoken word, hip hop and theater workshops in Brooklyn, and as a playwright and actor in cultural programs in Quito, Ecuador. Kevin was a member of The Forum Project, New York’s first ever Theatre of the Oppressed performance troupe and worked as a housing advocate at University Settlement, a social services organization in the Lower East Side.