For me, it was the construction that finally did it.
I’d lived in New York City for close to eight years, feeling all the while that it didn’t especially want me there. People love to anthropomorphize difficult cities, perhaps because it allows us to transmute legitimate hardships into defensible personality quirks.
But more than a charming, mercurial person, I thought of New York as a body into which I’d been transplanted as, I don’t know, a spleen. Organs are rejected when the body identifies an object as foreign, and thus attempts to eliminate it. For many years I dug in, using my little spleen fingers to hang on as it tried its best to eject me, assailing me with untenable costs, long, snowy walks to the laundromat, and the closing, one by one, of all my favourite bars.
I might have kept hanging on, despite my dwindling bank account and flagging spirit, had it not come to the luxury condo being built next door.
You know how it goes: You work nights, but the construction starts at 7 AM on the button. First there’s the excavation, which shakes your own 100-year old building so violently that it cracks the brick exterior. Then there’s the jackhammering, which by my calculation lasts 36 hours a day for 120 years. You age much faster than expected, since you’re only sleeping a few hours a night, and hear jackhammers in your head even in the rare moments when there are none.
On one occasion, you emerge naked from the shower to see a man’s helmeted head peering in from the scaffolding outside your third-floor window. The process drags on and on, and one day, when you think it’s finally almost over, you’re walking home with your groceries when you see a notice posted to the vacant lot on the other side of your building: Another condo is on its way, with construction to begin imminently. You drop your bags in disbelief. No. Not again. No.
Maybe I could have moved to another apartment. Maybe I could have invested in auditory removal surgery. Maybe I could have dug in harder. But I couldn’t. This was the last straw. My spleen fingers were tired, and I realised it was time to allowed myself to be pushed out—two hours down the I-95 to Philadelphia, to be exact.
In some ways, it’s nice. If New York is a body highly sensitive to foreign interlopers, Philly is the waste disposal bin, open to accepting anyone and everyone as long as they’re willing to support the Eagles. Still, I was surprised to find that in addition to the sadness I felt about leaving my friends, I felt something else as well; another type of pain that I eventually identified as the sharp sting of rejection. I’d been voted out of a club I once belonged to, and every time I thought of New York or saw it on TV, I felt a faint haze of bitterness settle around my peripheral vision. Why did I feel like this, and what could I do about it?
Late one night last year, I was sitting in my apartment doing some work when my phone rang. It was my close friend, *Alex. Alex was dating another one of my good friends, Sonia, and she had brought him up to Michigan to meet her family. I assumed they were together and wanted to say hi, but I was immersed in what I was doing and ignored the call.Read more
What does it even mean to be rejected from a city?
City rejection is a phenomenon that’s likely familiar to anyone who has lived—or more specifically, rented — in a place that’s undergone a dramatic socio-economic shift.
Of course, there are many different versions of city rejection — not being able to secure a visa to stay in Berlin is very different than being financially squeezed out of San Fransisco, which is also very different from never really feeling accepted in Minneapolis. But often, it’s a combination of factors that lead the rejectee to throw up their hands and deciding to GTFO.
Kristen Gill, for example, decided to leave New York City and its rising rents for Seattle, which at the time, in the late ‘90s, was still relatively affordable. “I’m a big nature and outdoors girl, so having the mountains and the water and a vibrant city was super important to me,” she said. “Seattle is like the trifecta of places to live.”
But as the years passed, more and more tech companies started to move in. The juggernaut, of course, was Amazon, which in 2007 opened it newly expanded headquarters in the city’s South Lake Union neighbourhood, changing it irrevocably.
For a while, the influx of tech companies worked for Gill, who did contract jobs as a writer for startups in order to finance her other, less lucrative passion of travel writing.
When we moved last year, the majority of our belongings made it to the new place unscathed. The only casualty of note was my bed frame, an IKEA buy from a few years earlier that we were incapable of taking apart on our own and the mover claimed could be moved as is. It could not, and shortly after they left our place we discovered that it had essentially been ripped in half in their attempts to get it into our second-floor walk-up.Read more
But when she decided to try giving up the tech gigs to travel write full time, she found that Seattle was no longer a place she could afford to live. Because she was on the road so often, she found herself scaling down to smaller and smaller apartments as the city’s rents crept up. Still, the idea of leaving sounded tiring.
“The hardest part, whenever I tried to think about moving, was the fact that ‘Ugh but I have all this stuff,’” she said. But all that changed one day as she was headed back after a trip to Nepal.
“I’m on my way to the airport to go on this horrendously long journey, which is going to take like 24 hours, and my landlord texted me saying ‘Your place is completely flooded, and you need to move all your stuff out,’” she recalled. Accompanying the text was a video, which showed a deluge of water raining upon her things. She was going to have to move anyway. Why keep trying to stay? At that moment, Gill knew it was time to go.
While financial hardship is undoubtedly the largest structural driver of city rejection in the U.S., expats to other countries have a whole other spate of complications to contend with.
Sam Harrison moved to Buenos Aires after she graduated from college, and for a while, she was really happy there. She loved Argentina, but in the four years she lived there, the economy took a nosedive. The value of the peso plunged, and inflation skyrocketed; in 2018, the country accepted a $80 billion bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund in attempt to pull it from recession.
Harrison had initially assumed things would get easier as she established herself; that getting a job, an apartment and an Argentine bank account would eventually amount to feeling at home.
“I thought those things would make me more settled, but in the end, in a weird way, it made it harder,” she said. The devaluation of the country’s currency meant that her salary was increasingly worth less and less, and it became harder to afford a plane ticket back home to the States. But coupled with that, Harrison also found that the byzantine bureaucracy of the place was draining her. Harrison is lucky — unlike many people, she had the option to leave. She’d intended to try to save up, but upon realising her salary would only continue to shrink, decided to get out.
Harrison had already made the practical decision to go, but knew she’d reached her emotional limit with Buenos Aires after an incident trying to get money from an ATM on a Sunday night. For whatever reason, the machine malfunctioned and ate her card, forcing her to return to the branch on Monday morning to retrieve it.
“That should be, ideally, a simple process where someone just opens it up and hands it to you,” she said. Instead, she had to join a line over 30 people long, with only a single employee present to assist. More than an hour had passed before it was Sam’s turn; by the time she finally reached the front over an hour later, she’d had it.
“I got out of there and I was just like, ‘I need to leave. I don’t want to be the kind of person who gets angry in a bank,’” she recalled thinking.
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OK, but is this really ‘rejection’?
The idea of being pushed out of a city from the inside, to me, feels a lot like rejection. But Dr. Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, told me that I might be mischaracterizing my feelings. He explained that there’s real rejection, which boils down to a sense of not being adequately valued, and that lack of value can mean exclusion by a person, a company and yes, a place.
But he also explained there’s a difference between lack of value, and lack of fit. “It’s not that anybody or anything is devaluing or rejecting you, but it’s just not consistent with your personality, your values, your upbringing,” he said. “Maybe it was your financial situation. So it’s not anybody’s fault.”
Some (me) would argue that if rejection requires an antagonist, capitalism fills the role nicely. Of course, there is a big difference between feeling existentially rejected from a city, and the much more dire crisis of gentrification-based displacement, which in the U.S has an outsized impact on low-income people and people of colour.
And as climate change continues its rapid crystallization from distant fear into everyday reality, those marginalized groups will be squeezed even more as habitable space becomes more precious.
But separately from both physical displacement, and even a feelings-based sense of rejection, there’s also what Leary calls lack of belonging. “It’s not like they don’t fit as a person, but there’s some sort of lack of integration and connection,” he said.
As Leary sees it, a situation where you can’t secure a visa would qualify as rejection, as it would if, say, your neighbours kept intentionally killing your plants to get you to move. But in other instances, lack of belonging is more accurate. “It’s like ‘I kind of fit, and people are sort of accepting, but there’s something about it where I still don’t quite feel like I belong,’” he said. “The concept you’re describing is a real thing.”
This latter scenario was the case for Erica Jackson Curran, who moved to Boston after falling in love with the city over the course of several visits there. But when she did finally make the move, the life she’d pictured was not the one she wound up with.
“I envisioned renting a cute apartment in Beacon Hill and getting a great, well-paying job and lots of friends. Instead my budget forced me to rent a crappy apartment outside of the city and endure a long bus commute every day to a job that turned out to be a nightmare thanks to an evil boss. The expense of living there and difficulty getting around (due to traffic, tolls, parking prices) made it hard to enjoy my time there,” she wrote in an email. “Essentially I felt like an outsider because I wasn’t making six figures.”
But in addition to her financial angst, Curran also cited other, less tangible woes, like the endless winters, and the fact that while most people she met were nice, they were not precisely “her people.” Would those things have bothered her so much had her life been bulwarked by a better-paying job and the lifestyle that would have accompanied it? Maybe, maybe not. Money can’t necessarily pad out nebulous feelings of not fitting in. But it sure can help.
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Evaluating your options
Depending on the severity of the situation, you have some options, Leary says.
If the problem is how well you’re fitting in, a lot can be solved with some tweaks to your outlook. Say, for instance, you move to a place that relies heavily on public transportation, but you prefer to use your car. You might want to suck it up and buy a Opal card, since it’s unlikely the city will suddenly change to accommodate you. If you find that people are more aloof or curt, you can acknowledge that it’s not about you — it’s just how they are. “I think you can adjust to problems of fit by either trying to learn how to fit, or to rethink about what it means to fit in that location,” Leary says.
For Gill’s part, the well-known phenomenon of the Seattle Freeze definitely had a hand in her decision to leave, though for her, it was slightly more complicated than the idea that native Seattleites are simply hard to befriend.
“It was more like the Seattle Squeeze, with everything that I lived to do getting more and more expensive (going to shoes, live music, out to eat, etc.),” she wrote in a Facebook message. The creative types with whom she identified were leaving in droves, replaced by people more likely to hide behind a tablet than engage with those around them. Had Gill opted to bury herself in her own tablet, perhaps she wouldn’t have felt the prickle of Seattle’s shifting demographics quite so acutely.
But that, again, raises the question of just how much of themselves people should have to contort to feel at home in a place. Could Gill have stayed in Seattle if she’d changed her lifestyle? Could I have stayed in New York if I’d had my ears removed? Conceivably. But Leary says your ability to cope with the intangibles of not feeling welcome (separate from getting displaced for purely economic reasons) is probably roughly equal to your ability to cope with any unsatisfying situation. Some people will give it a few months; others will hang on for years. Ultimately, Leary said everyone has a different threshold for what they’re willing to put up with.
“There’s a critical component that everybody needs. We have to feel accepted. We have to feel like we fit with our environment and we have to feel a sense of belonging. And if you don’t have those, then some fundamental social motives are not being satisfied.”
“It’s very much like having a bad job or a bad relationship,” he points out. “You’re in something that’s not making you happy. It’s just not gonna work, but you work on it a while. And then you try to decide how to move forward after that.”
So... you're six weeks into your new life in a new city. Or six months. Or a year. No matter how long it takes, at some point your big move will start to feel less like an exciting life change and more like the daily grind. That's when you'll start thinking about everyone you left behind — your friends, your family, your favourite taco truck with the guy who knew your order — and start asking yourself why you haven't made as many new friends as you hoped you would.Read more
Accept the rejection as a blessing
At the end of the day, no one wants to live in a place where they don’t feel welcome. But sometimes, feeling unwelcome in one place is an opportunity to find another that actually works for you.
For Gill, having her apartment flood opened the door for what she really wanted to do.
“Honest to God, looking back, I feel like that was the universe saying ‘I can’t spell it out in any greater words,’” she said. Gill threw everything out that had been damaged by water, put the rest in storage, and moved to Baja California, where she spent large swaths of time for work anyway. For her, Baja has everything she loved about Seattle — the ocean, nature, good culture — minus the prohibitive expense. While she misses some things about her former life, she doesn’t miss it nearly as much as she thought she would.
“Seattle kind of turned me off, just because it kept making things more and more difficult,” she said. Had the city allowed it, she might have stuck around. “But I felt like it wasn’t friendly. And finally I was like ‘Alright, Seattle doesn’t want to be friends with me anymore. I’m out.”
Harrison, for her part, relocated to Barcelona with her boyfriend, a transition that she feels Buenos Aires prepared her for.
“A lot of the stuff that people said would be hard in Spain—like work permits and finding jobs and finding apartments—is a lot easier than in Buenos Aires,” she said. “It’s hard, but nothing compared to what we’d dealt with.”
Curran gave Boston a year before she called it quits and moved back to Virginia, where she’s from. But despite it not working out, Curran said she’s glad she gave Boston a shot.
“I don’t regret moving to Boston, because I think I always would have wondered what it was like to live there,” she said. “I learned that sometimes the fantasies we create about living in different cities just aren’t realistic.”
For me, I am learning to appreciate Philly’s hospitality — the comparably cheap rents, the ready availability of cheese-slathered foods, the continued presence of Uggs, which truly are the world’s most comfortable shoes.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t still have my eye on New York, plotting my eventual return. Because getting rejected by a city isn’t like getting rejected by a person in one crucial aspect: It will always be there, waiting to give you another chance if you want it.