Illustration of girl sitting on subway by Molley May
Do You Have to Leave Your Hometown to Grow Up?
09.27.19

I was born and raised in New York and that may very well be the most interesting thing about me. The city was home for me before I knew it was this glossy thing—before I clocked the huddled masses and sort-of actors waiting to gain entrance. But once I did, the city became a matter of identity rather than a place of origin; I didn’t need to be so much of anything so long as I could wear this place like a personality.

“I’m here because I was born here and thus ruined for anywhere else, but I don’t know about you,” Colson Whitehead wrote of New York in 2001.

I, too, am ruined for everywhere else—or at least, I hear myself declare this often. I say it to refute the common charge that I’ve been here too long, that no person can feel whole having spent a lifetime in just one place. But for all my readiness to brandish my native status like a badge, beneath it is the fear that I am particular in a way that only this city will cater to—that in fact my development has been arrested by my modest mileage. Can a reluctance to leave one’s hometown—location notwithstanding—preclude one from properly growing up?

Moving as a Rite of Passage

“I didn’t really have a moment where I had to pause to figure out where I was going to go or what it would be like here,” says Emma, a friend who moved from Asheville to Bushwick four years ago, arriving at Newark Airport alone with an address tucked in her pocket. “But now, I get this very real sense of pride from knowing that I made a life here on my own. I get to look at my friends and my job and my apartment and I get to know that I created this—none of it fell into my lap.”

To build a life from the ground up is an indisputably admirable thing. It requires a sort of nakedness—demands that you strip yourself of historical context. And in turn, it allows you to lay claim to a city in a different way, one that is perhaps more warranted than the kind you earn simply on the merit of birthplace. For Emma, that version of freshman anonymity was a gift: It insisted that she be assessed as she was, rather than as some sort of palimpsest, charting everything she’d once been.

For so many city dwellers, this is part of the magic: New York is crawling with people for whom the world began at the airport. Likely this is true of any transplant in-the-making—it indicates that cutting ties with the older, archival versions of ourselves is essential to the process of growing up. On the contrary, I often take company with people who are relics of a prehistoric version of my world, who knew me in the pubescent era of my girl band, when my affinity for knee-high converse was a signature of my sartorial personality.

Whereas in most places, the procurement of a driver’s license acts as a definitive hallmark of adulthood, in my neighborhood, most of us never touched a steering wheel.

“But think about it: We had rites of passage that were unique to us too,” says Emily, one of the two women with whom I share an apartment. We met in kindergarten—all three of us—and our childhood homes are nestled mere blocks from one another’s in South Brooklyn, just on the other side of Prospect Park. “We had to cross certain barriers that were specific to here.”

She’s right: Whereas in most places, the procurement of a driver’s license acts as a definitive hallmark of adulthood, in my neighborhood, most of us never touched a steering wheel. Instead, we memorized the tangled nest that is New York’s subway map, eventually trading our subsidized student metrocards for the more senior, unlimited version. In large part, we never took to the stands for homecoming games, instead spending our Saturday afternoons spread out across old bath towels at the very end of the F line on the Coney Island beach. And these are just the most tangible details; our charts of growth probably looked as different from one another’s as they did from those common to other cities. Maybe my version of “moving away” will look different, then, too.

Growing Up Isn’t a Formula

“The young are not so young here, and there is no such thing as midlife,” Toni Morrison writes of city-living in her novel, Jazz. Perhaps there’s no “adulthood” either. By nature, “growing up” is a strange, amorphous process. It looks less like an arrow than it does like an ink stain on a bed sheet. A seeping. For all the ceremony to crossing the definitive line between adulthood and everything that comes before it—a bar mitzvah, a first period, a graduation—there is no declarative, holy moment of transition. Rays of light do not beam down from the heavens to deem you fully-formed. It happens in gradients, along shaky, tangled lines, not unlike a subway map.

Maybe transformation often dovetails with new degrees, first loves, trips overseas—but these benchmarks are not mandates.

“There are eight million naked cities in this naked city— they dispute and disagree. The New York City you live in is not my New York City,” writes Whitehead. And in much the same fashion, my version of aging cannot mimic yours: We’re all growing up, yes—but the very shape of that term is poetically vague. Growing towards “up” encompasses so very many directives. And it would seem that the impulse to wrangle and label and impose on one another our “rites of passage” is merely driven by the ordinary human desire to communicate what it is to grow older when our trajectories are not symmetrical. Maybe transformation often dovetails with new degrees, first loves, trips overseas—but these benchmarks are not mandates. Instead, they are a grasping, from separate vantage points, at ways we can make the thoroughly rhapsodic, nebulous experience of growing up into something universal. They’re valuable for their intention, but utterly useless when contemplated as a recipe for adulthood.

So then, I am still here. Still stationary. But my New York is mine, and with it comes the F line and the deli on Washington Ave and the massive hole in the sky where the Kentile Floors sign once stood. Just as yours is yours, whether or not your New York is even New York at all. It’s not really about the context, anyway.

Illustration by Molley May.

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