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Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media

"One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years," the novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote in 1939.

This year, three of the four major presidential candidates are either from, or represent, New York City: Bernie Sanders, the humbly born Brooklynite who fled for Vermont in 1968; Hillary Clinton, the Illinois-born First Lady who overcame "carpetbagger" stigma to serve two terms as New York's Senator; and Donald Trump, the quintessential New York tycoon, born a millionaire in Queens, now a billionaire in Manhattan.

The fourth major candidate, Ted Cruz, made a disparaging remark on "New York values," which he defined as "socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro-gay marriage, focus around money and the media" but which some viewed as coded anti-Semitism.

Who belongs to New York? What does it mean, in an era when gentrification and the soaring cost of living have forced New Yorkers to flee their hometown, to be a "real new Yorker"?

As New Yorkers prepare to vote in the April 19th primary, the candidates stand as uneasy reminders of how a metropolis once synonymous with reinvention became an island of impossibility. To complain that the city has lost its soul is a New York cliché. But it is difficult to understate the extent of the city's transformation over the past 15 years, as rents tripled and quadrupled, as historic black neighbourhoods turned white, as homelessness increased and the New York homeless worked multiple jobs.

New York has narrowed, like Americans' options. While often viewed in the heartland as an affluent anomaly – the gleaming Capitol to the rust belt's District 12 – New York shares the same problems as the rest of the country.

Candidates like Mr. Cruz who depict New York as detached from the mainstream ignore that New Yorkers, too, are struggling. Their struggle is less obvious only because so many New Yorkers have been forced to leave their homes in the city to survive. One can still belong to New York, in spirit, but fewer can belong in New York, because New York has priced them out.

Since 2004, presidential elections have been shaped by New York catastrophes: the attack on the World Trade Center and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and the 2008 financial collapse mired in Wall Street corruption. New York, with pride alternatively admirable and appalling, flaunted its invincibility: its Freedom Tower rises; its Wall Street CEOs remain largely unpunished. After 9/11, Americans nationwide declared: "We are all New Yorkers." After Wall Street pushed the country into recession while reveling in its own affluence, fewer make that claim.

As a result, the candidates walk an uneasy line. Bernie boasts of his Brooklyn roots while admitting that New York "doesn't feel like home": "I was walking in Manhattan, and I saw people and I'd say hello, and people had this look like I was threatening them. [In Vermont], when you walk down the street, you nod to people and say hello." His comfort in majority white, rural areas is reflected in the polls: he does terribly with black voters and poorly with Latino and Jewish voters.

Ironically, Bernie, the Brooklynite who bailed, fits in well with 2016 Brooklyn, which is whiter than it has been in decades.

In 2000, Ms. Clinton won the Senate race in large part due to name recognition, money and a weak opponent, congressman Rick Lazio. During her tenure as Senator, she visited every county in the state, immersed herself in local issues, and won re-election in a landslide.

But Ms. Clinton is "New York" in the way that anyone with money can be "New York" today. She is a wealthy cosmopolitan who could buy a home in an affluent suburb and win a state where she had never lived. The word "carpetbagger" originally meant a northerner who moved to the South. When Ms. Clinton moved north, she was derided with this epithet, but as New York lost natives in favour of wealthy transplants, Ms. Clinton's gilded arrival now seems to be in line with the times.

Mr. Trump is the sole candidate who was born in New York City and stayed. He operates as a sort of recession-proof fantasy: he fails again and again, but bounces back, buoyed by inherited wealth and the real estate which is New York's most important currency. To many, Mr. Trump epitomizes New York success. But he is actually New York failure: the failure of New York to condemn the corrupt, the failure to keep the city's possibility alive for ordinary people.

Who belongs to New York? This is the question New Yorkers ask themselves in a punishing economic climate, in a place where fewer people can afford to belong at all. All three candidates rail against economic hardship. All three are divorced from that hardship as a New York experience.