Some cities are about nature, others are about balanced living. New York is about people.
Last fall I wrote about New York while I was staying here for a month. Now that I’ve been living here for six months, I’ve gotten to know it better and a healthy sense of competitiveness, creativity, and ambition has begun to rub off on me. Here’s my six month update on what makes New York, New York.
- Personality is about having a vintage 1920’s straw hat, sunglasses, and the perfect pair of jeans. In many cities, personality is about being funny; in New York it is about what you do and how you present yourself. People generally are interesting and are doing interesting things with their lives and don’t try to act interesting or make you laugh. Perhaps this is why we
loveneed comedy so much.
- This city is different. Actually different. Like, different in a different way than other cities are different. Metadifferent. And I say this after living in quite a few other cities. It has a strong history, strong culture, and it’s big enough to have it’s own etiquette that work separately from the rest of the country. While being a New Yorker might be a subset of being American, being American defintitely does not mean you are a New Yorker - comparable to how Parisians are reputably different from other French people.
- This is the city of options. It’s easy to spend months exploring all of your options for friends, dating, jobs, and apartments. In the long run, this can work to your advantage compared to living somewhere with fewer options because you are more likely to find a good match. But it’s important to be aware of this phenomenon and understand the consequences. It’s hard to appreciate anything when you have so many options and it takes discipline to pick something and stick with it. Most recent transplants to New York, including myself, are deeply exploratory and spend the first few months going crazy trying new things and meeting new people. (By the way, The Paradox Of Choice by Barry Schwartz describes this phenomenon in depth and Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance has an entire chapter dedicated to describing how having so many options affects dating in New York. I highly recommend both.)
- Because New York is where ambitious people come to persue their dreams, it is extremely competitive and you will likely feel out of place if you are not pursuing your dreams. Career tends to come first here, before family, friends, or significant others. Surprisingly, however, people surely know how to balance their lives: they are fit, eat well, and work out. Health is just another part of the competition here. I theorize that people who don’t master balance end up burning out and leaving. And to quote my flatmate on the subject of competitiveness, “just make sure you aren’t the worst at what you are doing.”
- New York has a way of making you feel mediocre. You can be an outlier in any other city, come here, and feel totally average. I both love and hate this about this city. On one hand, it creates a drive to be the best version of yourself that you can be. On the other, it makes it very hard to stop and appretiate life.
- Upon first moving here, the city was overstimulating. All of the people, traffic, buildings, streets, food, and sounds were insanely taxing on my senses… but it got easier to cope with after a few months and the high level of stimulation eventually started to feel normal. I’m thouroughly convinced that some part of my brain has gone through a dramatic neurological metamorphosis and gained the ability to filter through faces, noise, and scenery much faster. When I moved here, a crowded subway car felt like a crowded car full of random people. Now I can sit in a car and be totally aware of every single person in the car without even thinking about it. I’ll be aware of what age they look to be, how they are dressed, who they are with, what mood they appear to be in, where they might be from, how their hair is styled, etc. This goes back to how appearances matter here and people are quick to judge. It really is this weird skill that people develop when they live here.
- Tradition is valued here: mom and pop corner stores and hardware stores that have existed for years are a thing. They say you’re not a New Yorker until you’ve been here for 10 years, if ever. Reputation matters a lot here - far more than most cities I’ve lived in.
- There are two sides to New York: a “traditional” side that is more present outside of Manhattan with family-oriented communities forming around geography and heritage and an upperclass cosmopolitan side in Manhattan where people choose their neighborhood based on lifestyle, career, and what stage of life they’re in. Bushwick is a traditional area full of Puerto Rican families (although quickly being overtaken but a young artistic crowd). Next door, metropolitan Williamsburg has filled up with young profressionals. I’m positive that New York isn’t the only city that plays out like this: most cities have a downtown that brings people together surrounded by more culture-based, family-oriented suburbs. And while I’m at it, it’s worth mentioning that talking about neighborhoods and ethnic groups is always a touchy subject here. People will argue for ages about gentrification, rent, demographics, and debate the lines where one neighborhood starts and another ends.
- Like most big cities, people are quick to judge you, especially based on first impressions, dress, and looks. This is shallow but it happens because of the information overload of seeing thousands of random people throughout the day and the need to make quick judgements to sort through these people.
- Long commutes are common, but they are used as a time for reading, podcasts, and audiobooks. Being educated, informed, and well-read is valued here. Everyone reads. I thought I would have a hard time getting used to the 40 minute commute when I first moved here, but after a few months I realized it was the perfect time to catch up on all of the reading that I had been meaning to do. Plus, the subway is a naturally great place for people watching.
- As someone who grew up with nature in an introverted, suburban home, I don’t think I’ll ever totally get used to the lack of nature and I will always have an innate need to spend the occasional day alone at home to recharge. The parks are excellent in the summer for getting away from everything - some of the most beautiful and interesting urban parks I’ve ever seen. The winter was a bit rough, with no easy way to escape the city even for an hour or two.
- The combination of having so many options, being so damn big, and everybody being so damn busy makes it easy to feel isolated, even while having plenty friends. Meeting up requires forethought and commuting. Finding a sense of community is challenging and generally means finding your people through a recurring mutual interest (eg rock climbing) or through geography (making friends with your neighbors).
- Emotion and vulnerability are scant. This one is subtle, but the longer I spend here, the more I notice it. People do not readily open with each other and do not expect others to be open with them. I rarely hear people talk about their emotions - it’s even common for people to date for months without actually getting attached. Eye contact while out and about is generally avoided. I suspect that this is mostly because of the type of people that this city attracts, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if it had to do with its rough past where being tough would have been necessary to survive.
- I didn’t really anticipate this one before moving here, but people outside of New York treat you differently once you live here. It turns out that most of the country has its own strange ideas of what New York is and make assumptions about you based on the fact that you live here. Outside of the city, it’s quite amazing to hear what pieces of my personality or appearance people decide to attribute to the fact that I live in New York.
In a good mood, I’ll call New York a hub of culture, creativity, and ambition. In a less good mood, I’ll have to agree that New York is most definitely The City That Will Never Love You Back™.
Well that’s all I got. I can’t believe you read all of that! Either you don’t live in New York and have way too much time on your hands or you are a really fast reader…