New Yorkers fleeing the city struggle with ‘survivor’s guilt’

Meet the defectors who fled New York City.

Some are hiding out in their weekend homes, while others are emptying their wallets on Airbnbs or crashing on their parents’ couches. Some left the five boroughs in early March, before the coronavirus upended life and protests filled the streets; many more decamped for less-dense locales in the months that followed, during the peak of pandemic pandemonium.

Now those who left are contending with regrets both small (subpar pizza) and weighty (immeasurable guilt).

“New York City made me who I am, and now I’m leaving her? Did she win? Did she beat me? I’ve always laughed at the weak who leave and move to L.A. Am I less of a man now for leaving?” says Trey Ditto, 40, CEO and founder of Ditto PR. With his wife, Natalia, and their 1-year-old in tow, Ditto abandoned their Williamsburg high-rise for a cabin in the woods near Woodstock, NY, due to COVID-19 fears.

The nerve-racking — even identity-defining — debate about whether to stay or go is taking place online, too. A Facebook group called Into the Unknown launched in April as a forum for people “who have decided or are considering — willingly or otherwise — to join the exodus from NYC.” Its more than 4,500 members dissect the topic daily.

Trey Ditto left Williamsburg for Woodstock, NY, with his wife and toddler.
Trey Ditto left Williamsburg for Woodstock, NY, with his wife and toddler.Trey Ditto

Outside of the city, Ditto and others say, it’s easier to pretend the world isn’t ending. In woodsy upstate New York and the homey hillsides of Connecticut — as well as in other popular suburban and vacation destinations — residents have suffered from the coronavirus or still risk contracting it. But unlike in New York, where sirens pierced the air day and night during the height of the outbreak, ambulances often cut their horns as they speed through affluent towns. And whirring flashes of red lights are handily blocked by hedges or trees.

Shayan Jamshed
Shayan Jamshed is torn over his move from Hudson Yards to Orlando during the coronavirus.Shayan Jamshed

Product marketing manager Shayan Jamshed ditched his apartment in March for sunnier Orlando, Fla., where he has family. Although he’s originally from Pakistan, “I have always considered New York City my home,” says Jamshed, 30, who has lived near Hudson Yards since 2013. “I felt like I was betraying the city that I love, but I also realized the health risks.” The only thing that will dissolve his guilt is moving back to the city when the danger of the coronavirus abates.

Some runaways plan to come back and others don’t — or can’t.

After COVID-19 hit, Erika Mozes, 42, who co-founded and runs Hyr, a mobile staffing platform that connects merchants with gig workers, made a break for the border with her husband Josh Karam, also 42. With their lease expiring, they abruptly moved out of their Lower East Side walk-up and arrived in their native Toronto a week before Canada closed off the country. “It’s crazy that we left our home, making that decision in hours, and I’ll never see it again,” says Mozes. While Mozes is grateful to have gotten out when she did, “that doesn’t mean I don’t feel guilty, that we are not there to support the city I love so much.” The borders are closed to nonessential workers until at least June 22; the couple doesn’t know when or if they’ll be allowed back.

Josh Karam and Erika Mozes.
Josh Karam and Erika Mozes are conflicted over abandoning their Lower East Side apartment for Toronto.Erika Mozes

The benefits of suburban and rural bunkers — including outdoor space and the general ease of isolation (and, as a result, lowered anxiety) — help lighten the burden of remorse.

Writer George Blecher fled the Upper West Side, which he called home for four decades, for the greener pastures of Peekskill, NY, some 50 miles north. “I feel sad that I couldn’t share in the collective support that citizens of the same space can give one another,” says Blecher, 79, adding that he doesn’t carry too much shame since he considers the move a prudent one given his age — and because he hasn’t left any family behind.

“I’m not sure that my guilt can or should be assuaged,” he adds. “It’s better to accept that you’re imperfect, the times are hell, and that you do the best you can with the cards that you were dealt.”

The recent protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis policeman have heightened escapees’ conflicted feelings. “I’d say that the protests intensified the dichotomy,” Blecher says, “both admiring the solidarity of the protesters and being apprehensive about the relaxing of social distancing.”

Bodies may trundle out of the city on I-95, but hearts are harder to relocate. Some defectors report lying awake at night, feeling the crushing impact of their abandonment. They wonder about the scores of people with whom they used to interact, from paternal doormen to neighborhood eclectics to jovial coffee-cart staffers who could whip up egg sandwiches in seconds. Are they OK? Will the city ever be the same?

“Feeling guilt for leaving could actually be a response to trauma similar to survivor’s guilt,” says psychotherapist and brain health expert Teralyn Sell.

But they shouldn’t let such feelings cripple their ability to do good. “If people choose to leave and feel badly about it, they can use the energy of that guilt to find someone to help where they are,” says Jodi Aman, a social worker in Rochester, NY. Aman suggests supporting local business, cooking for someone who is struggling, checking in on someone who lives alone or donating to food pantries.

“I feel guilty for leaving my plants that have since become brown and wilted and likely will not come back,” says Sara Rogers, a 24-year-old risk analyst at Goldman Sachs, who left the West Village for her parents’ digs in Greenwich, Conn. The protests have only made the knot in her stomach bigger. “I feel bad that I’m not there to support my local favorite restaurants and shops,” she says, adding that although she’s donated money online she “could be doing way more.”

Flowers are in bloom, barbecues are fired up and beaches are open, but those mulling their own betrayal still question their decisions.

“Once COVID-19 subsides, I know my feelings will come out. Will I be jealous of my friends that stayed?” Ditto says. “Maybe moving is the most hipster Brooklyn thing I could possibly do.”



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