In August 2008 I am going back to Sydney to live. I have lived in New York for nearly eight years, and I have decided it’s time to draw this experience to a close. There are a number of reasons for the decision, some of which are explained below. And some reasons don’t have an explanation, including the feeling that, well, it’s time.
Why Did I Come Here?
To understand why I’m going back to Sydney it makes sense to consider why I decided to come to New York in the first place. At the time I was working for an American company, and the world was in the middle of the dot-com boom — demand for computer skills was at a peak everywhere, but nowhere more than in the United States. And just like a sports player in the minor leagues who wants to play for one of the big name teams, I wanted to see if I could make it in the big time.
Of course, money was a major factor. I knew that my colleagues in the U.S. were earning considerably higher salaries for essentially the same work that I was doing in Australia, and I saw no reason why I shouldn’t climb aboard that particular gravy train.
So what has happened with regard to those two factors? Well, the work has certainly been interesting at times. There is a scale to computer systems in the U.S. that you don’t get in a smaller country like Australia — systems with hundreds of servers, for example, or systems that handle hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of securities in a single day.
But the problem is that the development of these systems is tied to the general health of the economy. No-one wants to start work on new systems to tackle interesting and challenging problems when the economy is experiencing serious difficulties (and there is no doubt that the U.S. economy is in serious trouble right now), so the type of work available lately has not had anything like the level of excitement of earlier times. Or perhaps I’m just getting jaded, and I’m not impressed with what’s on offer any more.
And the money has been a dreadful shock. When I came to America the Australian Dollar was trading at about 44 U.S. cents. Right now it’s about 95 U.S. cents — in other words the value of the Australian Dollar has more than doubled, or to put it more accurately, the value of the U.S. Dollar has halved since I arrived. Then there’s the fact that a large proportion of the annual income of a person working on Wall Street is in the form of a year-end bonus, and the bonus figures have been atrocious lately. Combine these factors, and you can see that the dream of making my fortune in America has become something of a nightmare.
Income vs Expenditure
OK, so the income side of the equation hasn’t been too great lately, but surely the expenditure side has been dropping as well with the fall of the U.S. dollar? Well, yes, but only partially. The problem is that oil is priced in U.S. Dollars, so to counter the sinking value of the dollar the price of oil has been going up astronomically. And the price of oil is an indirect contributor to almost every aspect of life, from airfares, to home heating, to the harvesting and transport of food.
And there is an additional factor unique to New York. While house prices and rents everywhere else in the country have been dropping, the low U.S. Dollar has led to an increase in demand for apartments in Manhattan — much of this demand coming from overseas. Wealthy Europeans and others are seizing the opportunity to buy or lease an apartment in New York at prices which seem ridiculously low when converted to their home currencies. The effect is to drive up prices and rents in New York, while the rest of the country is experiencing a severe housing slump.
In fact, the final straw for my decision to leave New York was the notification of the proposed rent increase on my apartment here. If I wanted to stay, I would be up for a 25% increase on a monthly rental figure that I think is already extremely high. The decision that was forming in my mind became pretty much a foregone conclusion with the arrival of that notice.
When I first moved to the United States I was on an L-1 (intra-company transfer) visa, and I subsequently switched to an H-1B (skilled temporary worker) visa. Both types of visa allow for a fixed period of residence in the U.S., with the understanding that at the end of that period the visa holder will leave the country. The intial visa is for three years, and a single renewal is available, making a total of six years.
But a person on one of these types of visa may also apply for permanent residence — the so-called “Green Card”. This requires that the applicant have the intention of remaining in the U.S. permanently, which on the face of it conflicts with the requirement of the L-1 or H-1B that the holder intends to leave the country when the visa expires. To get around this conflict the Immigration Service has the concept of “Dual Intent”, which allows an L-1 or H-1B visa holder to apply for permanent residence while holding a temporary visitor visa.
As it turns out, Dual Intent is a resonable description of my attitude towards coming to and staying in America. I had originally assumed that my stay in the U.S. would be temporary — I guessed that I would be here about five years or so. But I always held out the possibility that I could stay longer — perhaps even indefinitely — if I found a job for which I was absolutely perfectly suited or if I met the love of my life. Neither of those things has happened so for me to be leaving after nearly eight years is pretty much in line with my original expectations. If anything, the question should be — why have I stayed so long?
What Will I Miss?
One of the greatest assets of New York is its public transport. The subway runs 24 hours a day and is ridiculously cheap — a $2 flat fare takes you anywhere in the system. And if the subway is not your style, cabs are plentiful and not too expensive.
This means that I have not needed to own a car all the time I’ve been here. And that in turn means that I’ve had none of the expenses of car ownership — tax, insurance, maintenance etc. New York is probably the only city in the world where this is possible.
Of course, the best public transport system in the world would be worthless if there was nowhere to go. But New York has a vast amount to see and do — from the cultural attractions like the MoMA and the Met to the wildlife and flowers of Central Park. From the fine dining of midtown restaurants to the bars of the Lower East Side.
It’s been a great experience to live amongst this huge array of entertainment options, even if there have been long periods when I took little advantage of it.
Of course I will miss the friends I have made here — that goes without saying. But the Internet makes keeping in touch a lot easier these days. I’ve managed to maintain contact with my friends in Australia and New Zealand all these years so I’m sure it will work the other way.
On the Other Hand…
But there are aspects of this city that I will not miss, and first on the list is probably the weather. New York is stinking hot in summer and freezing in winter — the only months that are actually pleasant are May and June in spring, and September and October in fall. At all other times the city is only made livable by the expenditure of vast amounts of energy on heating or cooling the place.
And New York can be a very tough city. From shop assistants who clearly hate their work to commuters who wish everyone would just get out of the way, everyday interactions with other New Yorkers can be a stressful experience. I’m fit enough and healthy enough to cope with it all right now, but I hate to think what it would be like if I were disabled or elderly. New York is not a city to retire in, it seems to me, unless you’re very rich.
But Wait, There’s More
When I get to the other contributory reasons for my decision to leave, the list is endless. New York is an island of progressive attitudes in a vast sea of conservatism, but I can’t escape the fact that I’m living in America, not just in New York. My disagreements with widespread American attitudes on a broad range of issues will provide fodder for a whole sequence of rant articles in future (keep watching this website), but I will just say that I am pleased that I will no longer be contributing my tax dollars to the greatest foreign policy blunder of the last fifty years.
A friend mentioned the other day that it was a shame my stay in the U.S. had coincided with the presidency of George W Bush. There is a very good likelihood that the Democratic Party will take the presidency and both houses of Congress at the election in November, and that will undoubtedly change the mood of the country for the better. But it will take a while for President Obama to undo the economic and foreign policy disasters of the last eight years, so I suspect that real change will be slow in coming.
In the End
In the end, has this whole experience been worth it? Oh, absolutely, yes. I’ve met some lovely people here, had some great times and gained an insight into America that I couldn’t possibly have acquired otherwise. I’ve been to concerts at Carnegie Hall, I’ve seen Spring in Central Park and I’ve tasted Nathan’s hot dogs at Coney Island. And thanks to the travelling I did as a consultant in the first few years I was here, I’ve also got to know cities like Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston and Washington D.C.
But having seen all these places, I can safely say that New York is different. Nowhere else in America has the vast array of cultural assets — museums, theaters, iconic buildings — that New York has. Nowhere else is so international, with influences from Latin America, Europe, Africa, Asia and yes, even Australia. Nowhere else is so concentrated, so that everything is just a short subway ride or cab ride away. I will miss it.
I may never be an American, but in a small way, from now on, I will always be a New Yorker.