On Balance

Published on January 25th, 2017 | by Jennifer Baum


COMFORT ZONE: Jennifer Baum on Leaving New York, Regrets, and Home

My mother never left New York. The city was her emotional, cultural, political, and aesthetic center. Her move from childhood in Brooklyn to adulthood on Manhattan’s West Side for college and marriage was change enough. With my father, she lived on 100th Street and Central Park West, where my sister and I were born. When I was four, we bought a co-op in subsidized Mitchell-Lama housing on 96th street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues, five blocks away.

Because she stayed, she had a vast network of family and friends from childhood, college, 96th Street, school volunteering, her master’s degree, and various workplaces, plus her and my father’s local families. After my father died, her extensive ties kept her afloat, providing companionship and financial support. Because we lost my father’s income, the maintenance in our apartment decreased. (In Mitchell-Lama housing, tenants paid maintenance according to their earnings. If earnings increased above a certain point based on inflation, they paid a surcharge. Likewise, if earnings decreased, their maintenance was reduced.) In high school, my mother put my sister and me on the waitlist for apartments at 96th street so that we too could be assured affordable housing some day. At the time I was envious of friends with enormous ornamented pre-war apartments, and I thought, why must we be attached to this concrete slab apartment with small bedrooms, linoleum floors, and a miniscule kitchen? Can’t we do better?

Through this network, she found her boyfriend Sam, who’d been a family friend. He and his wife along with my parents held season tickets to the ballet and philharmonic. Shortly after my father died, Sam divorced his suicidal wife, and my mother and Sam, the survivors, continued to go out. He was the abrasive loud-mouthed guy, tailgating and honking in the left lane until the car ahead moved over, yelling at me for eating all the cherry tomatoes placed in a bowl especially for my consumption, putting us all on trial if we made the slightest misstep.

So, I left. Her stability and community contrasted with my instability and isolation. While my mother wouldn’t budge from the home she’d shared with my father, even when it made economic sense to invest in a market-rate apartment, I moved constantly, belonging nowhere. In my late teens through my early thirties while single, I lived in Ohio, Boston, Vancouver, Java, San Francisco, and back to Vancouver, fleeing memories of abandonment and neglect, all the time criticizing New York’s many deficiencies to mask my pain. I never established myself anywhere long enough to build community, except in Vancouver, a city I ultimately had to leave because I lacked permanent residency papers.

Mama as a student at Barnard

My alarmed mother didn’t understand my need to escape and took my rejection of the city personally: “Does this mean you’re renouncing New York for good?” she asked, as if the city were a political party, ideology, or religion.

After my son, Caleb, was born in 2003, all I wanted was to be back in the city with my mother and sister and childhood friends with families of their own. But I couldn’t. I was still transient, living in Los Angeles for my husband’s Ph.D. at UCLA. I was desperately lonely, isolated with a baby, knowing no one except my workaholic husband, who locked himself up in his room studying.

During this time, my name came up on the 96th Street waitlist, I bought a one-bedroom apartment for $6,000, and my perception of subsidized housing changed. Whereas before I’d imagined investing in a market-rate home one day, I now realized that as an artist married to a student, I’d missed my chance. We moved into the one-bedroom during a break from L.A. but, ultimately, because I was no longer a NYC resident, we couldn’t keep the apartment.

If we’d stayed in New York, we’d have been set financially. Our maintenance would’ve been low and, as stated by Mitchell-Lama policy, which grants apartments according to family size, we could’ve eventually upgraded to a two-bedroom. Further, my mother would’ve been nearby to help raise Caleb. He would’ve grown up a city kid, with similar experiences to my own, schooled in uniquely Upper West Side secular Jewish social justice values. What could’ve been better?

I used to scoff at my mother’s New York provincialism. Then I realized her stability was positive. She’d made a good life for herself with friends and family, doing rewarding work as a public education advocate, while I ran around insecure and lonely, longing for what she had – life in a cosmopolitan walking city, steeped in progressivism, to be grounded, with roots, a history, to understand the nuances of everyday life, the politics, gestures, jargon, traditions, to be home.

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About the Author

Jennifer Baum is a filmmaker turned writer. Her writing has been published in New York Daily NewsGuernicaJacobinThe Village Voice, The Phoenix Jewish News, Canadian Jewish Outlook, The Jewish Observer Los Angeles, MUTHA, Hip Mama, and NewFound, which nominated her essay, A Different Set of Rules, for a Pushcart award. Her full-length memoir, Just City, is based upon her Pushcart-nominated essay. Baum teaches composition at Mesa Community College and occasionally works as a freelance editor, most recently for a series of reports for the World Bank on poverty in Ghana.

She graduated from NYU’s Gallatin Division, majoring in film and history, and won “Best Short Documentary” at NYU film school for Mothers in Labor, about single teenage mothers being trained in manual labor jobs. She also holds an MFA in Filmmaking from University of British Columbia. Her short films have screened in Havana, Seattle, Tokyo, San Francisco, Vancouver, New York, Toronto, and Ottawa.

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