For a Long Life, Retire to Manhattan

Willard Spiegelman, SMU's Hughes Professor of English, writes about retiring to Manhattan.


In his famous essay about New York, E. B. White distinguished among three cities and three types of New Yorkers. The first two — the city belonging to people born here, and that of commuters who work here by day and leave by night — were, he said, less compelling than the third, “the city of final destination” for those who come here in hope and nervousness.

Willard Spiegelman
Willard Spiegelman

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Much has changed since 1948, when White’s essay, “Here Is New York,” appeared. More has remained the same. The sidewalks have retained their beauty and ugliness. The city still draws its influx of eager young people fresh from the farm, the small town and the university, in search of excitement, employment or love.

But it is not only young people who see Manhattan, as Nick Carraway did, as the symbol “in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” It can also be the final destination (“final” in two ways) for people at the other end of the age spectrum. Since moving here part time in 2012 at age 67, I count myself among the senior eccentrics.

Most Americans with the urge to retire elsewhere go where children and grandchildren live. They flee from the North to the South or West in search of warmth, less expensive housing, lower taxes. They get rid of their snow shovels. They’ll never sand their driveways again.

Some of us do the opposite. Some of us suffer from reverse seasonal-affective disorder. We hate heat and welcome winter. If one can afford it (a big if), and tolerate serious downsizing, what could be more hospitable to an ambulatory senior citizen than Gotham?

Four years ago I bought a modest studio apartment, a combination hotel room and storage closet. When I move here full time, next year, if luck is on my side, I may even get a real one-bedroom.

For the past 45 years I have lived in Dallas: in other words, Automobile America, Real America. When I leave, I’ll give up my car. Here’s an unmanly, un-American confession: I’m looking forward to it. Driving closes the mind to everything except driving. Walking opens it. New York, especially Manhattan, leads all American cities in its population of carless drivers. I’ll use my feet, or take the subway, happily.

Retiring to Manhattan is an act of bravery. It also prepares you for the end. The anonymity of metropolitan life gets you ready for the anonymity of the grave. I find this comforting rather than macabre.

According to New York City’s Department for the Aging, the population of people over 60 in the city increased by more than 12 percent between 2000 and 2010, and is projected to grow by more than 35 percent by 2030, to 1.84 million people. We can attribute much of the growth to longevity, and some to people’s reluctance to give up on old ways, habits and locales. Certain Manhattan neighborhoods (I live in one on the Upper West Side) have already achieved NORC (“naturally occurring retirement community”) status.

But I imagine some of the increase is because of people like me, who have come here belatedly, enthusiastically.

When I was a student, I would drive in to New York to go to museums, restaurants, concerts. I took to Manhattan not only for what White called “the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy” but also for their opposites, the gifts of public life, of crowds, the paradox of anonymous company, and the serendipity of street conversations with strangers.

The city remains completely indifferent to me, as it is to everyone. But without doing anything or talking to anyone, a walker on the street participates in the general excitement. Sitting at a diner and looking out, you see life itself on the other side of the window. Whatever your opinion of humanity, you have people to bewilder or console you. Manhattan reminds you of your utter irrelevance to the greater scheme of the universe.

Aging means giving up, de-accessioning, and knowing that wealth and worldly achievement count for little. Like urban life, it makes you feel a nobody. Paradoxically, it also makes you feel alive.

Conventional wisdom holds that New Yorkers, like Parisians, are snooty, too busy to be approachable. Walking with speed and determination, they cannot be stopped. I have never found the stereotypes accurate. Manhattan is a series of small villages. It replicates itself every five blocks or so. The shoemaker, neighborhood market, barber shop, dry cleaners, liquor store all become part of one’s daily drill. You make friends in the shops.

There’s an urban fable, the kind of thing you see written up in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town.” At the redoubtable Fairway Market on Broadway at 74th Street, the reporter overhears a woman examining string beans, entranced by their quality: “Such beans, I’ve never seen such gorgeous beans.” She then turns to him: “Have you ever seen such beans? You can’t get green beans like these where I live.”

Thinking that perhaps she has come from the Bronx, New Jersey or even farther way, he politely asks: “Where are you from, Madam?”

“I’m from 85th Street.”

Chance encounters brighten the day. They’re like little love affairs without consequences. They keep you alert. This is what any senior citizen needs. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, when a man is tired of Manhattan, he is tired of life.