New York City: Final Thoughts on the Big Apple

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.

Empty Subway

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:

Grade: B-

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.

Grade: A

4th Avenue Pub Bulb.jpg

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.

Grade: A

Little Dancer of Fourteen Years

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.

Grade: B-

The Eclipse

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?

Grade: A

BARchetypes: The One Who’s Gonna Die Here

It’s been some time since I wrote 1 of these, but seeing as I’m in my last month, I figured I’d bring back this feature for an appropriate send off.

Bar regulars are a varied lot. There are the assholes and the loners, but somewhere in between sits the patron saint of all drunks: The one who’s drinking until he (or she) dies. The bar is the pharmacy for the depressed lot who can’t afford therapy or medication, or who just find it easier and less humiliating to self-medicate.

Look around: One of those bar stools is occupied by someone on their way out.

The Nearly Departed might be funny or morose, talkative or monkish, man or woman, but no matter their character they have arrived for one reason: Life is unbearable and they want to numb themselves until it’s over. The bartender is their Kevorkian.

In a perfect world, every person who suffered from depression, bi-polar disorder, anxiety or one of the other related mental illnesses would find peace and solace through some healthy outlet. This isn’t a perfect world. It never will be. Actually, in a perfect world a lot of bars would probably go out of business, so I guess there’s no such thing as a perfect world.

As someone who works and spends a lot of extracurricular time in bars, it’s not hard to spot the outgoing mail. Maybe they are the Dylan Thomas-type, sacrificing their mental health for their art until they succumb at the bottom of a pint of Guinness. Or maybe they took a job straight out of high school and they’ve been stuck in a Groundhog Day-esque loop ever since. Either way, their shoulders slump in resignation.

It might seem sad, but really, there are worse fates than to waste away in a place where you feel at ease and welcomed. They know your name, they know your drink and they know when to leave you alone when you’re in one of your moods. Some people search their whole lives for such an environment.

But your first impression was right: It is sad. Not because they will die – we all do – or because they are finding peace at the bottom of a glass – we’re all addicted to something. No, the sadness comes from the knowledge that at one point, there were infinite paths set out before them, and either because of bad choices, bad planning or bad luck they settled on a road of least resistance.

It’s not the kind of sadness that deserves pity. They would reject yours if you offered it. It’s just the sadness inherent in living, because despite all the childhood pep talks and optimistic sloganeering, it isn’t possible for everyone to achieve their dreams. The world isn’t so kind.

Some people will, inevitably, fall to the wayside.

And in most of those cases, it’s not the priest or the rabbi that picks the fallen up. It’s not even a good Samaritan.

It’s the bartender who pours the shot, pops the cap off the beer and says, maybe for the hundredth time, “Hey, how was work?”

Condoms... Condensation


Boston: Final Thoughts on Bean Town

Welp, the time has come for my annual tradition (of which I have many). Just as I gave my impressions of Nashville, Seattle and New Orleans, it’s time to give Boston it’s very own report card. As usual, I must give my caveats about subjective experience and the limits of any person to fully experience all that a city has to offer in a year. Yes, 12 months is a lot of time to explore a city, but it could never be enough to be definitive.

Boston couldn’t be more different than my previous city, New Orleans, so those contrasts (for better and worse) will inform my impressions and my evaluations. But, I am not comparing cities. I’ve lived in 9 different cities for this project, and the point has never been to list them from best to worst (though I am frequently asked to do just that). If life in Boston is dramatically different than life in New Orleans (or Seattle, or…), it represents a variety of choices, both personal and metropolitan, that are no more comparable than filet mignon and a ballpark frank. Two totally different experiences, two totally different expectations.

That doesn’t mean, though, that I don’t have expectations for city living, which is what these grades are all about. I base my ratings on what I look for as a resident. Completely subjective, completely personal, completely mine. So, naturally, completely right.

Without further ado, my final thoughts…

George Washington at Public Garden 3

Public Transportation – Boston has a subway system. That right there is an automatic ‘B’. Buses are fine and every city has them, but what truly transforms a city from functional to liveable is the ability to jump on a (fairly) reliable mode of transportation. No, the ‘T’ doesn’t always run on time, and yes there are occasions when you’ll be stuck between Copley and Arlington for 20 minutes with no explanation. Live in enough cities and you’ll realize that’s just reality. Maybe someday they’ll make a citywide train system that isn’t interrupted by human error, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Not only does Boston have a subway system, but it actually hits pretty much everywhere you’d want to go in the city (with enough transfers). No, it’s not as extensive as New York City (what is?) or even Chicago, but it’s certainly got more tendrils than San Francisco’s Bart and it’s basically on par with D.C.’s Metro (maybe even better). The point is, if you want to go somewhere in the city, odds are good that you can catch a train there.

Odd note: Two things happened with the ‘T’ during my year, one good, one bad that basically balance each other out. First, they closed Government Center Station for a 2-year restoration. Seeing as this station is a major hub, it’s kind of inconvenient, though it had little effect on my day-to-day. The positive, though, is that the city voted to keep the trains running until 3 am on Friday and Saturday nights (rather than just 1 am), which is such a no-brainer I can’t believe it took a vote.

Grade: A- (I don’t generally do minuses, but in this case I think it’s necessary to point out that the system is excellent, but there’s always room for improvement.)

City Planning – Ironically, for a city that has such good public transportation, you actually don’t need to take the train because Boston is damn walkable. That’s pretty important in my book. On numerous occasions, I’ve left my job down in the Financial District and decided to walk through Boston Common, and then up Newbury St and before I knew it, I was on Commonwealth Ave and less than a mile from my apartment in Allston. The city is laid out in such a way that there’s really nowhere to go that is completely off the beaten path. Are there sketchy areas in the city? Of course, but they’re avoidable.

Boston manages to stuff three times as many people and sites in land that is roughly a third the size of New Orleans. To reiterate, I’m not pitting one city against the other so much as I’m suggesting that because of necessity, northeast cities pack a whole lot of city living in very compact areas. Southern towns tend to sprawl because they can, which I’m sure is very appealing to people, but not to me. I live in cities because I like cities: Tall buildings, rows of bars, great views, that’s what a city is for me. Boston also has the luxury of being built along the Charles River that gives it a nice shot of nature running through an otherwise concrete jungle.

If you visit Boston, bring walking shoes and skip the rental car.

Grade: A

Bars/Nightlife – If you’re like most everyone, hearing the name ‘Boston’ brings to mind Cheers and Irish alcoholics. Fair enough. The truth, though, is that Boston (and Massachusetts) is surprisingly conservative when it comes to alcohol. Bars close at 2, which isn’t unusual, except that many bars close at 1 and most nights of the week public transportation shuts down at 1. Basically, go out on Friday or Saturday night, otherwise you’re in for an early evening. I guess that makes sense for a city that is largely young professionals and college students, but it’s sad that going out on a Thursday night can be more of a hassle than it’s worth (don’t even try on Mondays).

Obviously, there are no shortage of bars and clubs in this city, and there are a lot of fun parts of town to hang out in. Allston is teaming with college life, while Fenway is usually a good spot to barhop, same with the Harbor. Southie is cool, and you can always head up to Cambridge and drink with the smart kids. No question, Boston doesn’t lack for options. It just needs to pull the stick out of its ass, because if I want to get drunk on a Sunday night, my only choice shouldn’t be drinking bottles of champagne in the Common. Hypothetically.

Oh yeah, no Happy Hour. Process that for a second, because after a year of living here it still blows my mind. Liquor laws make it illegal to have hourly specials on drinks. In fact, if a bar has a drink special, it has to run for an entire week. So while people do still go out for drinks after work, they don’t get any specials (except on fried pickles). The absence of Happy Hours isn’t a deal-breaker or anything, but it’s certainly indicative of how buttoned up the city can be when it comes to drinking.

Grade: B


Art Scene – Boston isn’t as famous for its music scene as New York, but it’s got a more than respectable history of birthing musical talent (no doubt in part to the presence of Berklee College). Aerosmith, the Pixies, the Dresden Dolls, Dropkick Murphys, Passion Pit and Rob Zombie all trace their heritage back to the Boston area, just to show some of the diversity. And for that reason, there are no shortage of venues to see concerts in the city. Huge arena spectaculars and small club shows are plentiful here. In fact, I might have seen more live music this year than I did in New Orleans (though that’s mostly because the bands I like don’t tend to get down to NOLA often).

Other arts are represented by museums, plentiful bookstores and a collegiate scene that is a breeding ground for all types of artistic pursuits. Every city in this corner of the country will forever live in the shadow of NYC, but that shouldn’t take away from what a city of Boston’s modest size does well. Plentiful statues and murals express the city’s impressive historical significance, filling every park and common area with something beautiful to admire. Boston may never be the center of the art universe, and most people in the city are business-minded, but that doesn’t keep it from fostering an admirable art scene.

Grade (Music): A; Grade (Everything else): A

Living – I’ll just say it: This city is too expensive. It’s not unmanageable but it’s on par with San Francisco, and at least with San Fran the lack of space makes the exorbitant prices make sense. There is no reason I should be paying the same price for an apartment in Allston that I paid to live in an apartment a few blocks from the beach in California. People are willing to pay it, obviously, so I guess the market has spoken, but I don’t get it. It probably doesn’t help my impression that New Orleans is half the price and a lot more lucrative for servers.

With that out of the way, I’ll say that Boston is a very liveable city. I already touched on how walkable it is. Along with the ease of getting around the city, every neighborhood feels fully equipped to sustain life. No matter where you are, grocery stores, restaurants, bars and other necessities are within reach. If the residents are being overcharged, at least they’re being compensated with ample amenities. Heck, the city even has movie theaters, something I greatly miss every time I live in the south. I can’t speak for every neighborhood, but from what I’ve seen it feels like no one is truly cut off from the perks of city living.

Grade: B

People – This is always the hardest one to write because it’s the most important. The right people can make a shithole fun, while the wrong people can ruin Shangri-La.

I’ll start by addressing the common reputation of east coast cities: Yes, people here are rude. That is to say, if you’re from another part of the country (Seattle, California or the midwest, for instance), people out here are going to come across as impatient, brusque and even downright mean. The reason for this is that (how do I put this nicely), people from other parts of the country are pussies. Making it in the northeast is not like making it anywhere else. It’s just that simple. There is more competition, a larger pool of candidates and far too many people on the sidewalks. Either keep moving or get out of the way.

It’s not that people in Boston are really less compassionate than people other places, it’s just that niceties cost extra. Besides, some of the worst people in the world hide behind a toothy smile and a friendly handshake.

Since Boston is such a massive black hole for college students, most of the people I’ve met haven’t even been from the city. None of my 3 roommates were from here, nor were a good percentage of my coworkers. Most of my nights out were spent with my roommates, which was a lucky break. We hadn’t met in person before living together; it could have been a nightmare. Lord knows I’ve had my share of bad roommate experiences. But while tensions could occur in our apartment, generally the experience was smooth. (We won’t discuss the dishes.)

And then there was one roommate with whom I explored half the bars in the city, drove across country, attempted to sneak onto other people’s rooftops, had 3 am dance parties, drank frequently in the park (hypothetically) and even got a tattoo. Those aren’t highlights, those are the foundation of my year. My memories of this city will be of such nights. What else need be said?

Grade: A

Boston Pana

New Orleans: Final Thoughts on Crescent City

The previous two years, I’ve provided my report card for Nashville and Seattle. These were highly subjective grades based solely on my experiences in each city. I don’t claim to have had a definitive experience because I don’t believe such a thing exists. Now, my year in New Orleans has come to its conclusion (can you believe it’s been a full year?) and it’s time for me to bite the bullet and discuss my experience.

For a variety of reasons that I don’t feel like getting into here, this has been a tough year. For once, I had a surplus of funds thanks to New Orleans’ Limbo-low cost of living, but so much else about the year was a struggle. Negative personal circumstances will obviously color one’s perspective, so I don’t want to unfairly judge the city. The truth, though, is that the Big Easy didn’t always charm me like I expected. I’ve had tough years before (Chicago stands out) and I’ve still left loving the city.

More than any art or job, we often identify ourselves with our city, so I know that to criticize New Orleans is to, in some minds, criticize the people who love it. I certainly don’t mean that. As I’ve written before, it’s pretty clear that even the locals have a sort of love/hate relationship with their own city. Talking about a city invokes the Big Brother Rule: “I can make fun of my family but you can’t.”

Before I jump into the grades, I have to offer this passage from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities that captures the odd duality of New Orleans:

In Maurilia, the traveler is invited to visit the city and, at the same time, to examine some old postcards that show it as it used to be: the same identical square with a hen in the place of the bus station, a bandstand in the place of the overpass, two young ladies with white parasols in the place of the munitions factory. If the traveler does not wish to disappoint the inhabitants, he must praise the postcard city and prefer it to the present one, though he must be careful to contain his regret at the changes with definite limits…

Beware of saying to them that sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves.

Jackson Square

Public Transportation – I began my critique of Nashville by saying “A city without a train system is always going to be at a disadvantage.” This was true for Music City, and it’s true for New Orleans. Of the 3 Southern cities I’ve lived in (4 if you count Costa Mesa), not a single one of them has had a public transportation system worth the hassle.

The main issue with the bus system here in NOLA isn’t a lack of routes. From what I can tell, most of the city is accessible by bus. The problem is that this is a city whose proudest industry is parades and festivals. 9 months out of the year, there’s almost no route in the city that isn’t delayed or completely blocked by the festivities. Now, this might not be an issue if you’re here for the party, but there’s no party if the workers can’t get to their jobs. I’ve literally had two mile commutes that would have been faster on foot.

My recommendation: Buy a bike.

Grade: C

(As regards taxis: There are a number of taxi companies in this city, but everyone swears by United Cab. They’re certainly the biggest company here, but their customer service leaves something to be desired. Half the time they allow you to reserve a cab ahead of time, but at other random times they’ll tell you they don’t take reservations.)

City Planning – For a city of this size (which I’d call ‘Big Town’), they’ve put their space to admirable use. You’re never more than a few blocks away from a bar, you know, on the off-chance you came to New Orleans to drink. The city is basically split into 3 main areas of distinction, the French Quarter, Uptown and Mid City. After that, you have a lot of other neighborhoods with their specific styles and facets of the citizenry. Like most cities, a superficial tribalism has arisen that pits residents of, for instance, the Marigny against Uptown. And like most such tribalism, it’s utter bullshit.

That said, while there is no shortage of bars and music venues and corners to watch stinky white kids who dropped out of high school play steel drums and a washboard, sometimes you want to change it up. For that there is the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park and the World War II Museum, and then of course plenty to see if your interest is the history of New Orleans. I get why that would appeal to a tourist, but a a resident, the myopia got a little old.

There’s a dearth of movie theaters in the city (another trend I’ve noticed in Southern cities). You either pay exorbitant prices for leather reclining seats at Canal Place or you make your way to the Prytania. If your movie isn’t playing at one of those two spots, you’re headed to the suburbs (Rian Johnson’s Looper, which was shot here in New Orleans, apparently never played within city limits).

This is all to say that there is a lot to do throughout this city in terms of quantity, but the variety leaves something to be desired.

Grade: B

Bars/Nightlife – This is where New Orleans hangs its hat. Any city worth its salt is going to have a nightlife to help the city unwind from the hustle and bustle of the day. In New Orleans, though, nightlife is the hustle and bustle. Leisure and hospitality isn’t actually the city’s main industry, but you wouldn’t be crazy to think so. Like any city, the bars of New Orleans tend to have their clientele, but most places are welcoming to diversity. There are definitely ‘black’ bars and ‘white’ bars (this is the South) but the young locals tend to intermix as well as any major metropolis.

I could describe the bars worth checking out, but it’d be faster to say what kind of bars they don’t have in this city: I don’t recall ever seeing a bar that catered exclusively to midgets, so, sorry little people.

But fuck Bourbon Street. Seriously, don’t waste your time.

Grade: A


Art Scene – New Orleans and Nashville are like siblings. New Orleans is the older brother who has tons of talent and is quite worldly, but never really did anything with his skills and was content to just gig with buddies. Nashville is the younger brother with the same talent but more ambition. He went out, got auditions and built a career. And ultimately that’s the difference between the two cities: Nashville is the professional version of New Orleans, with all the negatives and positives that suggests.

No question, music is god in New Orleans. And just like Nashville has more to offer than country music, New Orleans is a lot more than just jazz. Don’t get me wrong, jazz is definitely the high priest here and always will be, even while cities like Chicago are polishing up the scene and making a profit off of it. But there’s rock music, funk, country, folk, hip-hop, R&B, soul, club and, of course, bounce.

(My favorite local artist: Hurray for the Riff Raff. Luckily, they tour all over the US and Europe, so check them out if you get a chance.)

There are other forms of art here, including the aforementioned art museum, local theater, plenty of burlesque revues, and the Fringe Festival. But based on my experience, anything not music-related is, at best, an also ran, and at worst, an ugly stepchild. I went to a play with only 4 people in the audience, and one of those was a family member.

There are numerous galleries and there’s the famous Jackson Square where local artists (and “psychics”)  sell their wares, though that caters predominantly to tourists (most locals wouldn’t be caught dead down there during the high traffic times). I’ve met artists who make a living purely on their art, which is fantastic, but I think that speaks more to how affordable this city is rather than to any specific infrastructure for building up and supporting the art community.

Oddly, even though New Orleans has a long literary history, writing is underrepresented. Writers are notoriously reclusive (guilty), so determining the size of the literary community in any city can be a difficult task. Still, as a writer, I felt adrift here and I know I wasn’t alone.

Grade (Music): A; Grade (Everything else): B

Living – Getting around this city is a breeze if you own a bike. Yeah, a lot of the roads are in cruddy shape and the sidewalks look like Normandy after D-Day, but there are bike lanes aplenty and the city is small enough that crossing it on two-wheels isn’t out of the question.

On top of that, this city, as I already said, is cheap, cheap, cheap. Rent is cheap. Eating out is cheap. Even drinking is cheap if you know the right bars. Groceries, on the other hand, can be pricey, but that’s largely because most neighborhoods are served exclusively by small, local markets. That might mean better deals on some goods, but as a general rule prices go down when competition moves in. That’s the trade off for keeping the big box stores out, and I’m sure the locals are fine with that.

I can’t say whether wages are especially good in this city since I (and most everyone I knew) worked on tips which are hard to generalize about. Still, if you can get a job bartending or serving in this city, you’re going to put away solid scratch, assuming you have the self-control to not drink it all away (which most people don’t). After my second month here, my money situation was as comfortable as it’s ever been since I started this project.

Grade: A

Weather – This is a category I haven’t done for the other two cities, but it seems particularly appropriate here. Sure, Seattle is known for its rain (even though it’s really more of a persistent mist), but in no city has the climate been so omnipresent as it is here. The winter gets cold, but not biting. It never snowed, though there were plenty of freezing cold rainy days. The fact that most of the apartments in this city are poorly insulated makes owning a heater vital.

The lack of insulation is twice as important in the summer. I moved to New Orleans three days after Hurricane Isaac knocked out power to most of the city. The heat was unbearable. If you live in an apartment without central air, good luck. Most people from the southern portion of the country dread the thought of snow and cold Northern winters, but as much as I hate being cold, at least you can dress warmer. For 4 months out of the year here, the heat and humidity are so oppressive you’ve already sweated through your clothes 5 minutes after stepping out of your door.

Give me a few months of bitter cold and a couple weeks of suffocating heat rather than the other way around.

Grade: C

People – And here is the one that matters, the one that is most particular to my experience. It’s also the one where I’m most likely to ruffle some feathers because I have to say, this city is a mixed bag.

Let me be clear: I’ve made great friends here and the assortment of people was fantastic. People I met here were warm, welcoming, helpful, absolutely kind and tremendously fun to hang out with. At times, I was treated like a long lost friend after meeting someone once. Strangers bought me shots on my birthday, friends were quick to offer me a ride and many of the customers I waited on were exceedingly polite and would ask me tons of questions about my life and what I do. A weekend walk-about will reveal families having a leisurely stroll and a host of friendly neighbors waving as you pass. To be sure, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

But. I think almost anyone living here would admit that this city discourages a strong work ethic. I’ll go further: it punishes it. Try too hard and you’ll be stuck with the crap shift, watching everyone else get drunk for Mardi Gras or some other festival. And your coworkers know that. It’s basically everyone for themselves. Certainly, that’s not a trait unique to NOLA, but it’s pervasive. Additionally, a rabid distrust of authority – partially due to the notoriously corrupt politics in the city and the clusterfuck that was Katrina – has made the city a breeding ground for preposterous theories and outright hokum. What some here might label ‘freethinking’ I see as merely being contrary for the hell of it.

Basically, at its worst, New Orleans is a petri dish for ambition-less, cynical, rebels without a cause. Forget what you’ve heard about Portland, Brooklyn, Seattle or wherever. If hipsters were swallows, NOLA would be Capistrano.

If you do find yourself here, though, don’t worry: New Orleans at its best will help you forget it at its worst.

Grade: B

Bayou Pana

Three Weeks In

It was around this time three Saturdays ago that I flew into Louis Armstrong International and began my 8th year.

“I am large, I contain multitudes.” ~ Walt Whitman

The first month of every move is an, at times, awkward mix of emotions and thoughts. I’m excited to explore a new city, but sad to leave behind good friends from the previous year. I want to meet new people, but I also need to find a sense of stability and that requires periods of solitude in which I can reboot, reflect. I am living the life of an explorer while existing in the mind of a painfully shy introvert. I am all the things that are expected of me, and none of them.

Which is why I enjoy meeting strangers who know nothing about me. There is a refreshing simplicity to the tabula rasa of anonymity. Now, I’m not making any claim to fame. I don’t expect people to have heard of the project or have any bleeding clue who I am. But for the last few years, my introduction to others has usually been augmented by, “He’s doing this project…” I’m grateful to those who spread the word (better them promote it, than me), and certainly the 10 Cities gimmick has endeared me to people faster than if I had just been ‘Random, quiet new guy.’

But some nights I don’t want to talk about myself. Most nights, in fact. I’ve always felt more natural on the other side of the metaphorical microphone. I like to ask the questions, I like to hear other people’s stories. That is, after all, why I started this whole ridiculous endeavor in the first place. Ask most of my coworkers from throughout the years and they’ll tell you that they heard about my project from somebody else, rarely from me first.

Of course, in most any conversation, if I’m asking a person about their personal history they’re going to ask about mine. There are numerous tactics I can use to avoid directly mentioning the project, but eventually it’ll come out. Why, you might wonder, would I want to avoid talking about 10 Cities / 10 Years? It’s cool, right? People will be interested in it, certainly? Well, of course. And that’s the problem. Far too often, once the cat is out of the bag, the entire rest of the conversation becomes about me and my project. I’m no longer the one asking the questions, I’m no longer getting to learn about a new person.

With time, if it’s a coworker or a regular at a bar, the novelty of what I do wears off and I get to go back to being a normal person with whom people will talk about themselves. That is, after all, what most people want: Somebody to listen to them talk about their favorite subject. But, if it’s a one off, a person I’m likely never to see again (and that is, ultimately, the vast majority of people I meet), I may never get another opportunity to hear their story, know their motivation.

Don’t get me wrong, some people are insufferable bores. Not every individual’s story is fascinating or original. In fact, most of us live pretty similar lives with very familiar motivations. One might think it’s all in the details, but truth be told the details are rarely all that different.

No, the interesting points are in the way in which we tell our stories, the self-depreciating jokes or the self-aggrandizing boasts we pepper into the telling, the way we focus on seemingly insignificant details. It reveals the psychological truth beneath the exterior which is, generally, not all that dynamic. We have, after all, been mostly socialized into behaving in a particular way in public. Even among the Bohemians and (so-called) Outcasts, there are norms of behavior that dictate their outward expressions. Non-conformity is just another way of conforming.

The only way to see past the facade of the public persona is to engage in one-on-one conversations. There are certain things I can pick up on by observing a person interacting in a group (who they’re sexually attracted to, for one), but to know who a person is it’s important to find out who they think they are. And that’s why hearing them tell their stories is so important.

So I walk into a bar, sit on a stool and let the bartender tell me about her move to the city. Or I run into an artist selling his wares and ask him how the crowds have been.

One conversation isn’t enough to know a person. 100 conversations isn’t enough to know a person. Just like 1 year isn’t enough to know a city. But it’s a way of peeling a layer off, and then maybe another, and another, and another…


Well, who knows? Maybe they’ll be nothing underneath. We are not all unique snowflakes with beautiful, shimmering cores.

But, everyone deserves the opportunity to tell their story, even if just once to this stranger on a bar stool.

Who knows what they may contain?

Seattle: Final Thoughts on Emerald City

Perhaps I set a dangerous precedent last year when I offered my final thoughts on Nashville.  I don’t want to get bogged down in comparing cities and ranking them, as that isn’t the point of 10 Cities / 10 Years.

Yet, here I am, in my last days in Seattle, and I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t put down some thoughts on the city.

In many ways this has felt like one of the longer years, largely because it had two distinct halves.  My first half was working clothing retail downtown, and the second half involved serving and bartending with a locally-owned boat tour company.  And in between those two jobs was an extended down period of unemployment that added a considerable level of stress to the year but also served to create a distinct break between each half of the year.

Coming into the city, people warned me about the overbearing gray skies, a concern of special note for anyone with seasonally affected mood disorders.

I was also told to be prepared for the “Seattle Freeze,” a phenomenon that has nothing to do with Seattleites’ inability to drive on snow and instead references the supposed propensity of the locals to be superficially nice but ultimately closed off to strangers.

Duly warned, I set about my year in the Emerald City and now I’m on the other side of 365 days.  While I had my ups and downs here, I would have to say that I’m leaving the city with fond feelings, pretty good memories (what I do remember) and a sense of accomplishment.

But how does the city stack up?

Public Transportation – I criticized Nashville pretty stringently for their lacking public transportation and I noted that any city without a train system was going to have a hard time stacking up.  Well, Seattle doesn’t have a train system, per se, but they do have a light rail that travels from their downtown to many areas south of the city, including the airport.

On top of that, the bus system here is pretty extensive, with many lines that cover the same swath of area, a nice feature when you don’t really want to have to wait an hour for the next possible bus.  The payment system seems a bit convoluted (you sometimes pay when you get on, other times when you get off), but it works once you get used to it.  Plus, they have a ‘free zone’ where you can ride without paying, though from what I understand that’s about to end, so, sad face.

Overall, a good bus system that makes most every section of the city fairly accessible.  Very good, but shy of great.

Grade: B

City Planning –Another area in which Nashville really flopped, Seattle has no such problems.  There are very distinct neighborhoods in the city, from the ultimate hipsterdoom of Capital Hill to the quieter but still hip and politically-forward leaning Ballard, each area in the city offers a lot in terms of food, drink, shopping and general activities, with enough uniqueness between them to give each neighborhood a distinctive flavor while still feeling like one cohesive city.

I lived in Belltown, a neighborhood that is unfairly maligned by locals who don’t live there, all because there is one sketchy zone in the midst of otherwise pristine streets.  Better than the solid nightlife and the excellent eateries is its location, location, location.  The famous Pike Place Market was a five minute walk from my apartment.  Same with the Piers.  Downtown, Capitol Hill, Pioneer Square, pretty much anywhere I could want to go was within walking distance, and what wasn’t I could get to by one bus.

I would call Seattle easily one of the most ‘walkable’ cities I’ve lived in, even with the hills (which can get rough in places, but they’re never unbearable).  I love the layout of the city and if I had any gripe it’s that it’s just not as big as I like, but heck, not every city can be New York or Chicago.

Grade: A

Bars/Nightlife – I’ve already touched on this a bit, but I loved the bars in this city.  Within a five minute walk, I could go to a row of dive bars (and I frequently did), or a club (which I rarely did) or a Speakeasy or a pub or any other number of bars.  Belltown isn’t as flashy as Capitol Hill, but any visitor (or local) would be missing out if they skipped it.

Of course, there is Capitol Hill, and while it’s the most hyped neighborhood in the city, it rightly deserves most of that praise.  It’s the ‘Gay Friendly’ neighborhood of the city (though, honestly, what neighborhood in Seattle isn’t?), but honestly, I think your average, sheltered Midwest family could walk through and wouldn’t think twice.  In that sense, it’s not exactly Chicago’s Boys Town, but it still has plenty to offer for gay and straight alike when it comes to a night out on the town.

Like any good major city, every prominent neighborhood has its share of spots worth checking out, so if you visit Seattle and you’re not fortunate enough to get down to the heart of the city, that should by no means limit your nightliving.  Ballard, Fremont, University District, they all have worthy evening entertainment.  There is no reason to come to this city and not enjoy a few good drinks, unless you’re, like, six months sober or something.  In which case, stop depressing me.

Grade: A

Art Scene – Like Nashville, Seattle is known as a music city.  Unlike Nashville, that reputation isn’t built into its very fabric.  Before the 90s, I doubt anyone thought of music when they thought of Seattle.  To be honest, before the 90s, I doubt very many people thought of Seattle, period.

The music scene is vibrant here, if not as culturally significant as it was 20 years ago.  There are no shortage of venues to see live music at, though the diversity of music seems lacking to me.  This is, after all, the first time in many, many years that I’ve actually heard someone say, “I don’t listen to rap music.”  There definitely seems to be a rock/rap divide here that strikes me as very stuck in the past, as other major cities have been seamlessly blending those two genres and fan bases for awhile.  Of course, that’s just the impression of a non-musician, and maybe that’s going to change, but my sense from the rappers that I met out here is that they were a bit frustrated with their own scene.  Maybe?

Otherwise, this is definitely an arty city, with the beautiful Seattle Art Museum in the heart of the city, First Thursdays every month which encourages art walks of all sorts and plenty of spots for local artists and craftsman to show off their wares.  Theater feels somewhat underrepresented here, with mostly the big spectacle Broadway shows getting the run of the land, but then there are always intimate venues for seeing burlesque, so they keep it varied.

Grade: B

Living – I can’t speak for every neighborhood, but the general necessities of living such as grocery and convenience stores are fairly well represented in Belltown.  I had a little bit of a trek to my local grocery store, but nothing too bad, and on the (unfortunately) rare times I thought to get my produce at the Market, I found a great selection of delicious fruit.  When I moved here, only state-run stores could sell liquor and that meant my options were limited, but a law passed while I was living here, and as of this summer privately-owned stores can now sell liquor.  It’s much more expensive now, but a hell of a lot more convenient, too.  I guess it’s kind of a draw.

My apartment building would have been pretty great, but, and this is a huge, Sir-Mix-A-Lot but here, the company who runs the building is crap.  I don’t normally use this blog for this sort of thing, but this has to be said: Berkshire (I believe that’s the name of the company) is a terrible company with absolutely no concern for its tenants.  I don’t want this to be a reflection on the office staff who were generally very helpful and considerate.  The office manager, on the other hand, was unreachable when we had concerns and the 3 month construction project that began a month after I moved in ended up lasting the entirety of my time here, and continues today.  They made accommodations for us, but only because we demanded it and fought for money off our rent.  Yes, the building is nice with great amenities, but that doesn’t make up for the crap management.  Do not rent from Berkshire, simple as that.

Otherwise, Seattle is a very livable city, with all the perks that big city living should have.  And now a Target has moved in right downtown, so if there was ever a concern of not being able to find something when you need it, that’s pretty much been wiped clean.

A note on the weather: Yeah, the gray gets really old after a few months, but the city isn’t as rainy as it’s often depicted (it drizzles more than rains) and when it’s nice out here, it’s gorgeous.  Mountains, the Puget Sound and beautiful greenery all around makes Seattle one of, if not the most picturesque cities in the country.

Grade: B

People – And once again, we come to the most important factor in any city, the inhabitants.  So, do Seattleites live up to their reputation as cold, unwelcoming people who will greet you with a friendly smile but will never let you into their clique?  That kind of requires a nuanced answer.

My first thought when hearing about the “Seattle Freeze” was that every city is like that.  No matter where you go, you’re going to meet people who will remain indifferent to you.  I wouldn’t even call that a factor of city living.  I’d say that’s a reality of living.  Granted, there are places that are more open and welcoming then others, but generally I feel if you’re a new transplant and you want to be included you have to do the work.

And that’s also a factor that clouds the equation: A lot of people that I met aren’t actually from Seattle.  I met people who were from Seattle that were incredibly welcoming and happy to include me in their lives, and I met people who were fellow transplants who never seemed interested in a genuine connection.  I don’t buy that being from one place suddenly dictates your personality.

That said, because this city is made up of a lot of transplants, I wouldn’t be surprised if the locals did tend to turn a cold shoulder to the invaders from other regions.  Did I personally experience this?  No, and in fact, I have felt very welcome here.  But I also know that I’m kind of a unique sort of transplant, the kind of person that people tend to want to talk to (if for no other reason, just to ask me the routine series of questions about my project before moving on to talk about themselves).

The citizens of Seattle were good to me and I’ve felt at home here this past year.  It’s time to move on and I’m excited for my next stop, but I will miss Seattle and the many friends I made here.

Grade: A