New York City, split into five boroughs and a thousand neighborhoods, cannot be defined as one thing. When someone dismisses this city with some hoary cliché about hipsters or millionaires, I know they’ve never actually spent any time here. This city has as many personalities and styles as it has corner bodegas.
I’ve lived in Brooklyn, worked in Manhattan, rarely been to Queens, coasted through the Bronx, and touched my toes on Staten Island. I’ve had one experience of the city, and it is hardly representative. But it is still authentic.
As I’ve done for previous cities I’ve lived in and left, I’m taking time to look back on my time here and grade various aspects of the city. Let me stress, though it should be obvious, that these grades are based on my experiences which have been shaped by a lot of factors that are not universal. This isn’t an attempt to give a definitive grade of the city, only to organize my final thoughts on yet another one of my short term homes.
Let’s get going.
Public Transportation – Hoo boy, this is a loaded topic right now. On the one hand, New York’s subway system is the most extensive in the country, one of the biggest in the world, and connects culturally distinct neighborhoods to create a melting pot like no other place in the world. All that, and it has free wifi.
On the other hand(s), MTA is riddled with systemic problems and hopelessly obsolete equipment, all coming together to create one of the greatest metropolitan clusterfucks of all time. It’d be impressive if it wasn’t so damn infuriating. Hurricane Sandy only exacerbated the issues and an already strained system – which has a ridership far outpacing its capacity – is currently in a transitional period. Repairs and improvements are possible, but the costs will be staggering and will necessitate massive disruptions, all of which might prove worth it in ten or fifteen years, but for current New Yorkers (not especially known as being even-keeled), it is going to be a nightmare. (One of a number of reasons I’m happy to be leaving now.)
There’s a lot of blame to go around, though currently it’s mostly falling on Governor Cuomo. There’s no question that he deserves a chunk of it, but in reality, the underlying problems are the result of a kick-the-can mentality that has existed for decades. This city – and state – needs to act now or matters will only get worse and worse.
And, yet, if I’m being honest, I’ve personally been quite lucky. When I first moved to the city, I was on the C and A lines, which are inconsistent and overcrowded, but by no means the worst in the system and generally within spitting distance of being on time. Better still, since moving to Crown Heights, I’m right off of the 2, 3, 4, and 5 lines, four of the most accessible and reliable routes in the city. That might change when other lines get shut down for repairs, but for my time here, it’s been ideal.
To give a fair overall grade, I have to consider both my personal experience and the general quality of the system. I’d give it top marks if I were only reflecting my experience, and it’d barely get a passing grade if I were solely grading on the big picture. So splitting the difference:
City Planning – From the very first time I walked through Manhattan, some fifteen years ago, I was awestruck by the sheer grandeur and scope of this modern wonder. When people think of a city, whether they’ve been here or not, they’re thinking of New York. As far as modern metropolises go, it remains the truest form.
There are a lot of ways in which NYC is falling behind other major cities (see: Public Transportation), but it will forever remain one of the most unique and successfully laid out cities in the world. Even more impressive, a lot of its “city planning” was achieved by mere chance, a natural evolution guided less by intentional design than by individual actors pursuing their own interests and somehow forming a cohesive whole.
Yes, many neighbors make strange bedfellows: Chinatown and its pervasive fish smell flows over to some of the most expensive and ostentatious avenues in the city. That’s just part of the charm. There is nothing I enjoy more than taking a walk through urban spaces, and what New York offers more than any other US city is an unending kaleidoscope of facades and personalities. Sure, in a post-Giuliani world, it’s lost much of its aura of danger, and Times Square is a logo-ejaculating neon nightmare, but there’s still plenty of grime to be found if that’s your bag, and if that’s not your bag, something more to your tastes is only a short subway ride away (assuming no delays).
NYC is massive. While there are many neighborhoods that feel downright suburban and there’s no shortage of economically impoverished areas (I’ll leave the debate over gentrification for someone else), this city manages to both be an explorer’s delight and still absolutely accommodating to a homebody. I can’t tell you how many Brooklynites I’ve met who rarely leave their neighborhood, let alone the borough. Truly, something for everyone.
Bars/Nightlife – Um, yeah, New York has nightlife. What really needs to be said? If you like to drink and hang out late with other people who do, you are never going to be out of luck in this city. When I first moved to the city, I happened to move into one of the few bar deserts in all of Brooklyn, a yet-to-be-gentrified portion of Bed-Stuy where you could walk for fifteen minutes in any direction and not find a watering hole. Truly, a rare spot. It didn’t last long, because at the beginning of my second year in that apartment, I stumbled across The Evergreen, newly opened and within walking distance of my apartment.
Other establishments were starting to open in the area by the time I moved to Crown Heights, a neighborhood that has no such dry spots. It matters not where you live, though, because a train or a bus or a car will deposit you into some form of nightlife within minutes.
In terms of bars, Manhattan is overrun with the flashy, expensive joints (meh), Irish pubs, and dives that still charge you ten bucks for well whiskey. Brooklyn does hipster and trendy, naturally, but you’ll also find plenty of true dives and neighborhood haunts and whatever else might be to your taste. Of course there are clubs and secret raves and strip clubs and whatever it is that floats your boat. Oh yeah, they have boat parties, too.
The point is, if you come to New York City looking for nightlife, you’d have to be a real twit not to find a scene for you.
Art Scene – When you think of art scenes, New York City is always going to come to mind. Granted, that’s partly due to its history: whether you’re thinking of the writers of the 1920s or Andy Warhol’s Factory, this city has been synonymous with art since the 19th century.
Even now, there’s Broadway, and the Met, and Carnegie Hall, and all the other famous venues, big and small. TV and movie crews are a fairly regular sight, especially in Brooklyn, and every major musical act in the world passes through here for at least one night. If you’re looking for big name performers, they’ll be here.
The real test of a city, though, is how well it fosters the smaller art scenes; do artists still come here to pursue their dream at the cost of everything else? Of course. Does anything come of it? Of course, for some. A lot’s been made of the city’s astronomical rent prices pushing out struggling artists and hampering similar art scenes from growing up here, and there’s unquestionably some truth to that, but frankly, we’re living in a pretty terrible time to be an artist no matter where you’re living. I would know. At least in NYC, you’re likely to find a sympathetic audience. Well, not antagonistic, at least.
In my three years here, I’ve attended massive arena concerts, shows in the park, and intimate venue gigs; I’ve been to an independent movie premiere, an off-off-Broadway play, and burlesque, drag, and fashion shows; I’ve read my terrible poetry to a too-kind audience and watched a woman perform a folk opera; I have been to museums and galleries, passed buskers on the streets and subways, and checked out street dance crews. Oh, and I’ve seen a few dozen movies. If I wasn’t such a lazy bastard, I could have seen a whole lot more, too.
The point is, New York City might not be the most hospitable place for artists, but art lovers really have nothing to complain about.
Grade (Music): A; Grade (Everything else): A
Living – By certain metrics, New York City is the most expensive city in the country (in terms of affordable housing options, San Francisco and Boston are actually less viable), so that is going to affect one’s way of life here. Sure, if you come here to work on Wall Street (or to indulge your fetish for grown men in superhero get-ups), you’re going to be living large. For most of us, though, the astronomical cost of living puts a damper on life.
And yet, for every $34 cocktail, there’s a half dozen free concerts or movie nights. There are always free days at museums and the botanic gardens, and if all you’re looking for is to get drunk, there are cheap options. No, you’re probably not going to find New Orleans’ rock bottom prices (and no Nickel Shot Nights), but a night of drinking doesn’t have to cause you to break your lease (unless you have one of those friends that insists on drinking in the Lower East Side). The point is, moving to the city does not require one become a monk, just savvy.
Then there’s the issue of housing. The stereotype is real: Some NYC apartments really are hamster cages without the views. If you’re deadset on living in the trendiest neighborhoods (did you immediately think Williamsburg? Congratulations, you’re already passé), then sure, expect to squeeze a twin bed into a closet. Otherwise, there are plenty of very good areas in this city that have reasonably affordable, human-sized digs still in walking distance of public transportation (see above for that mixed bag). Who knows how much longer that will be true?
Affordable is, of course, a subjective term. When I’ve told family members back in Kansas what I pay for rent, they balk, and my rent is one of the cheapest in the city. Some people come to this city with lucrative job offers, while many others don’t enjoy that privilege. Like most American cities, New York is basically intentionally pricing out the poor. On the other hand, NYC has embraced the $15 minimum wage (it’s being gradually phased in over a number of years), so that’s small relief.
The bottom line is, this city is expensive – depressingly so – but if your dream is to live here, to make it here, that dream is still within reach. You’ll just have to hustle.
People – Man, what can you say about New Yorkers that hasn’t already been said by every single movie and TV show you’ve ever seen? Well, a lot, actually, because media representations are always incomplete at best, or bullshit at worst.
Are the characters from Girls real? You betcha. Sex and the City? Probably, but I couldn’t afford to hang out with them. Friends? If you mean white people, then yes. Looking for something less Caucasian? Well, Spike Lee’s joints truthfully capture an aspect of the New York (Brooklyn) way of life, but those are more historical documents these days. For every popular depiction of New York City out there, there are still plenty of stones unturned. Some people will never see themselves represented on TV.
Let’s just say it: New Yorkers are loud, impatient, and rude. They wouldn’t argue the point. But I’ve only lived here a few years and I was already two out of three before I got here, so I don’t think you can blame that on the city. Get past the stereotypes and the fear, and the people here are really just a microcosm of all of society. Sure, that’s a cliché of all cities, but more than any other city in the country, NYC truly defies easy generalizations. People from all over the country and the world have traveled to live here. How could only one personality type exist here?
Also, nice people are the worst.
My experience of the people in this city, both locals and my fellow transplants, is that they’re generally friendly, at times confrontational, but usually happy to let live. They get heated about politics and sports, and they can sit in a bar and talk to a stranger for three hours about their favorite bands. They’ll screw you over from time to time, but they’ll also watch your back; their faces will light up when you walk in after a month’s absence. They’re people. This is New York. This is everywhere.
And if you’re wondering, “Do they think they’re better than me?” Yeah, probably. But if you’re worried about that, then aren’t they?