So What Makes a Place to Live “Hard”?
People keep referring to cities or areas as hard places to live in, but usually don’t specify why.
Some variation of the following two phrases frequently comes up when I discuss my moving plans, COVID vaccine and some affairs to get in order notwithstanding.
“So you’re moving to LA…that’s a hard place.”
“Be careful, people in Los Angeles are fake.”
That second one always makes me derisively giggle. Because there’s honestly fewer things faker in this world than the delusions of safety and happiness in your average American suburb. It’s fakeness on par with Mickey Rourke’s face. You’re not “safe” there, your neighborhood is white and you won’t say the quiet part out loud. Crime stats just seem low because more people who get caught can afford lawyers. You don’t see how the other half lives because it’s easier to hide and there’s no “poor doors” with suburban developments redolent with authoritarian HOAs telling you what to do with something you supposedly own. Even though said doors were eventually banned, their effects lingered.
LA is at least pretty open about being a sprawling hellworld with pockets of dream. It’s like how us New Yorkers got a reputation for being assholes, we’re really just living in a pressure cooker and tend to dole out tough love.
Well, I got tired of tough love, Cuomo’s rotting MTA, and how private equity vultures laid waste to the city my family inhabited for almost 13 decades. Having accidentally built a life in California since my games career ended up taking off, then taking two years to admit I wanted to leave home to move there, I set my sights on LA. It’s LA or bust. End of story. Do not tell me any different. I’m taking out a one-year lease when post-pandemic life begins and seeing what happens from there, and already got moving services and the apartment complex I’m moving to bookmarked. I’m ironically going to live the best and truest version of myself in a land supposedly as fake as the cosmetic surgery contoured bodies that dot its beaches.
But that first phrase is something I keep hearing, including references to my origins and even if the sentiment is supportive: the other day, an acquaintance said “You’re going from one hard place to another, you’ll do fine.”
Well, what actually makes a place “hard?”
Hard Can Just Be a Codeword for Expensive
Rather than any cultural aspects of living someplace, it can just mean that it’s expensive. For most people, living somewhere expensive just makes life harder on a concrete level, which is understandable. It entails sacrificing disposable income, or even money earmarked for necessities, just to make rent. Living by yourself can be but a pipe dream if you don’t have rent control or having bought into a condo or co-op when no one wanted to live in that neighborhood.
I’m in that second category, and grateful for it every day. If I had to start from scratch as a renter on this side of The Bronx, the going rent is twice what I paid for a studio 10 years ago. Imagine airport prices, but FOR EVERYTHING. That’s life here with several things, although stuff like groceries, takeout, and toiletries tends to be cheaper in The Bronx. But because of this, I’m inured to the expense aspect since I’m already used to it. Even if you’re just near NYC, leaving the city doesn’t make things any “easier” — in fact, it can be even harder.
A quick peek at Zillow rental prices shows that apartments on Long Island are literally 2–3 times the going rent in The Bronx where an income of $70K can get you into subsidized rural housing, and apartments right across the river in Jersey are just as expensive as uptown if not even more. Go further out and it’s not much better.
At least if you pay out the ass for housing here, you don’t need a car. That expense alone would make it far more difficult for me and millions of other people who are used to having $7–10K of our annual incomes freed up for other things because we don’t drive.
Americans amuse me because I spent easily the second half of my life hearing “riding the bus” being panned as this horrific, undignified mode of transit that was beneath tectonic plates…but I LIKE taking the bus, the cost savings and environmental benefits aside. Some days, taking the bus makes life incredibly easy. Other times, it makes it ludicrously harder than it has to be.
Even if I didn’t live in a bus-dependent borough, I’d still feel this way. I love taking the bus in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and other cities. You forge a deeper connection with the streets and the life within. My observations on the bus have fueled my creative work, and I crank out easily 40% of my game’s dialog and essays like this one on the bus with my phone instead of being stuck behind the wheel. Traffic gives me a chance to stretch my legs and find my power bank, instead of making me seethe from behind the wheel. Bus drivers are a treasure and should be paid more, as they are infinitely more important to society than the “work for work’s sake” jobs this society inanely continues to overvalue.
Personally, I find it harder to live someplace where you have to drive everywhere. You’re fucked if your car isn’t working, or you can’t afford repairs or a ticket. As badly as the MTA is rotting, it’s only $2.75 to ride and you can always try to beat a fare if you’re really desperate. LA Metro costs even less, and might be fare-free by the time I arrive.
I’ll take “hard” on these counts.
Density Doesn’t Necessarily Make A Place Hard to Live In
Do people think a place is “harder” because it’s more populous?
When I lived in suburban New Jersey, I faced more existential threats to my safety than I ever did in parts of The Bronx. Lower population density doesn’t automatically equate to a strong community, if it’s too fractured or insular.
Some people don’t jive with density, and I get it. But I’m the complete opposite and didn’t want to move to San Francisco because I thought it was too tiny, the changes Big Tech imposed notwithstanding. Before five generations of living in America’s densest city, my ancestry inhabited Vilna, Kyiv, and other large and medium cities of Eastern Europe. Wandering to other cities — by choice or by force — is literally in my blood. A leviathan megalopolis densely packed with millions of chaotic energies and dreams, fears, hopes, and happenstances comprises the environment in which I thrive. Cities breathe and sense things in a way that towns and villages simply do not.
I’d personally find it more difficult to live in a suffocating suburban subdivision, or sparsely-populated rural area. But I get that for many people, that’s their natural habitat. I just can’t see why my homeland and the one I now yearn for get labeled “hard” and these places don’t.
By “Hard”, Do They Just Mean They’re Culturally Uncomfortable?
I give the benefit of the doubt when I heard people call NYC and LA “hard” equally. Unlike when the Boomer alarmists my father used to work with thought I must’ve been in danger all the time, and that was just thinly-veiled racism and likely classism at work.
Suburbs are reactionary and were borne of racial discrimination, antisemitism, and specifically “othering” people. Even as they’ve grown more diverse in the past decade, the roots still persist in HOAs, township charters and zoning boards, and the incessant Karen-ing of Nextdoor.
They sprang from that obsession with the nuclear family in the 1950s. After all, most people head to suburbs to have kids. Speaking to the parents in my friend circle, I can see how some would find it harder to raise children with the elevator-less MTA, expensive and inaccessible childcare, and neighborhoods lacking safe places for their children to play. But some also tell me they want their children to grow up with a wide array of cultures, subcultures, and enriching daily life that’s just harder to come by in a supposedly “easier” place. Not being around your culture can feel like this burning thirst.
While there’s plenty of single and/or childfree people who’d prefer a large suburb or small city over a mega-city, there can still be a cultural dissonance. Not just in terms of racial and ethnic diversity, but things like heteronormativity, monogamous marriage being this end goal, and being starved for culture related to music, hobbies, and other interests and alignments that may not be easily found in the area. Perhaps it’s gotten easier outside major urban areas in the Internet age where culture can be just a few clicks away, but the environment you live in ultimately points you in the right direction towards the beacons you seek.
Of course, I type this thinking about all the culture my city has lost; the countless vacant storefronts and fucking Pret a Mangers and bank branches occupying what was once a thriving subculture bastion people came from all over the world to see. They weren’t just punk clubs and alternative clothing stores: they were livelihoods, ways of life, and communities destroyed by sterile avarice. That grievous loss is partly why I am leaving one “hard” city for another, because the undercurrent culture is completely different.
You can find outposts of culture in places that aren’t “hard” cities, but the ease and proximity is what ultimately drives millions of people to live in or near them. Some of us just find it harder to be starved of that culture, as a participant or an observer.
But if this aspect makes the prospect of certain cities intimidating, perhaps it requires further examination.
Whether a place to live is “hard” is subjective, but we should ask ourselves what we really mean by referring to a place as such.