something has changed

Catskills from Hudson, Hudson Valley, New York, 1990

Back in the 50s and 60s a large portion of the New York City population escaped the city for the Catskills during the summer.
The families would relocated to cabins, and the mothers and children would set up camp for months while the husbands commuted back and forth to the city, arriving late Friday or Saturday morning and leaving Sunday afternoon to resume their working schedules.  Blue collar workers, white collar workers – most people had the ability and at least option to spend their money this way. We watched a documentary about this lifestyle and wondered where that disappeared in this day and age.  Spending a summer in a camp would be prohibitively expensive.

Even closer to home, I moved to Manhattan about 12 years ago. As a single man with a roommate I was able to afford a top floor, two-bedroom apartment that took up a wing of a doorman building.  The apartment was large and in the middle of the Chelsea section of Manhattan, a trendy and convenient place to live.  I made about half of what I make today.  I was single, but I was still saving money and living a moderate lifestyle (granted, lots of going out but no crazy purchases of things).

Somewhere in the last few years something changed. The cost of living in New York accelerated far past the salary increases; the cost of housing lurched past the cost of living.  Things became HARD.  The trend is common throughout the urban parts of the US; somewhere over the last decade living simply became harder.  Nothing changed significantly, but people found that their salaries didn’t go as far, and houses were a bit smaller, and things were just a bit tougher.

When I started work in 1994, I didn’t pay for health insurance.  Today I pay $1400 per month. When I came to Manhattan, I still knew places that sold $2 beers.  I have paid $8 for a beer recently.  Somehow things got a lot more expensive, quickly.

This proves nothing, but it seems that something has changed in America over the last couple of decades. Credit is cheap and easy to obtain, so many of us have been able to maintain our lifestyles without noticing an erosion of earning power.  Those of us who don’t use credit have gone from feeling free with money to feeling tight every time we reach for a wallet.

Perhaps this is a good thing. It may not be terrible that people realize that they can’t afford everything.  Not everything is in reach.  Yet at the same time, it’s become disturbing to me that things that were difficult, but possible, when I came to New York are now pipe dreams – buying a nice two-bedroom in Chelsea with a doorman and a gym.  It was possible in the mid-90s.  It’s a ridiculous fantasy now.  My salary has dramatically increased – more than doubled in the past 10 years – yet the possibility of buying a condo like that has gone from doable to impossible.  I doubt I could even get a bank to look at me now.

Something has changed. It may just be that the economy has adjusted, but I think we are seeing a shift – particularly in large urban centers, but probably throughout the US – towards a rental society.  Things that you rent – cable TV, cheap credit, cheap McMansions bought with hideous amounts of leverage – these things are still easy to obtain.  But a stable, sustainable form of living has become far more difficult to obtain.  Maybe it’s easier away from the coasts.  But whatever has changed, it seems easy to conclude that nothing has changed for the good.

photo credit: PhillipC