Five observations after five years in New York

I moved to New York City from Ann Arbor five years ago this month. Earlier this week I shared a laundry list of tourist tips, in part because visiting friends often ask for “real” guidance beyond what they’d get in a guidebook.

Today’s post is more about the experience of being a New Yorker — five reflections on being a Midwesterner in the largest, most densely populated city in the U.S.

Myth: New Yorkers are rude.

People who’ve never been to NYC often ask in a hushed tone, “Is it true New Yorkers are rude?” Then sometimes someone who’s never been states it as fact.

Truth is, I think most New Yorkers are very polite. They hold doors for each other, they will turn totally sideways rather than bump into someone on the sidewalk, and if a woman is pushing a stroller toward subway stairs, it’s understood that whatever man is nearby grabs the front of the stroller to help.

Open a map anywhere in Manhattan and you’re likely to get swarmed with help. New Yorkers love to share their knowledge of their city, so much so that I’ve had two people stop to help and argue with each other about the best way to get to my destination.

What New Yorkers are is direct, and I think that’s what some tourists take for rudeness.

If you and your family stand at the top of the subway escalator to decide where you’re going for lunch, someone behind you is likely to shout to step aside. If you cross a street against the light and a car is coming, the driver will probably lay on his horn.

When you live in a city with this many people, there’s not time for the passive aggressive glare of disapproval. If someone is doing something that inconveniences others or puts others in danger, for the good of the order, someone needs to let that person know.

Don’t think of it as rude. Think of it as being helpful.

Sidewalks are like highways.

I’ve blogged about this before, but it bears repeating — in most parts of the country, sidewalks are for strolling and streets are for transportation. Here, many of us live without cars so when we’re on foot, we aren’t just out for an amble. We might be on our way to work or to meet a client or to a hair appointment.

If you want to get along in a pedestrian culture, you need to treat the sidewalks like a busy highway. Would you stop without warning in the rush hour commute? Would you drive four abreast with your friends, craning your necks and taking in the sights?

Some pointers on how New Yorkers walk:

  • Keep to the right. Like a highway, people coming in the opposite direction need room, too. That means if you’re walking with a big group, you might need to walk behind each other instead of side by side.
  • Pull over. If you need to rummage around in your purse or look for an address, get out of the flow of traffic.
  • Don’t block the crosswalk. If someone with a rolling suitcase or someone in a wheelchair needs the ramp to get up the curb, get out of the way.
  • On escalators, stand to the right and walk to the left. This lets people who are in a hurry or want a little exercise get past.

New York is a place of ambition of all kinds

One of my favorite ideas in “Eat Pray Love” is that every city has one word that gets at its culture and its essence. Author Elizabeth Gilbert, who sets out from New York on an international journey after her divorce, says New York’s word is achieve.

This is a place people come to play in the big leagues — it’s where numerous media companies are headquartered, the epicenter of American banking, a hub for A-list art galleries, the home of Broadway, a fashion center and more.

That makes NYC an amazing place to meet people.

Take, for instance, our friend Ittai, who we met at a friend’s brunch. After we’d hung out with him numerous times, he invited us to see him play — at Carnegie Hall, where he was premiering a piece that was written for him.

My piano teacher toured with Blues Traveler. A friend of ours was a photographer for the Yankees. I know more than one person who’s been on Martha Stewart’s show.

Here’s the downside: it’s easy to get caught up in the striving. I’m a type A girl and I love to be around passionate, motivated people, but I also want to achieve a level of work/life balance and not constantly compare myself to the rock stars I’m not.

Myth: New York is a big city

True, with about 8 million people, New York is more than twice the size of Los Angeles, America’s #2 city by population.

What I failed to grasp before I moved here, though, was that people don’t really live in New York City. They live in their neighborhood. It’s like a collections of smaller towns stitched together with a public transportation system.

Because of the population density and zoning in New York, it would be pretty easy to live the majority of your life without leaving about a 10-block radius of your home. In many parts of the city, you’d find a doctor, a dry cleaner, a grocery store, a few restaurants you like, a movie theater and more within that short walk.

As a result, where you live influences a lot about your lifestyle. The Upper West Side feels very different from the Lower East Side, and our neighborhood in Brooklyn, on the border of Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill, is definitely not Williamsburg nor Park Slope. I’m not sure what the chicken and egg relationship is, but the people and the businesses of each neighborhood are distinct.

For my Michigan friends, think of greater southeast Michigan. Within about an hour’s drive, you can be in Ann Arbor, Novi, South Lyon, Redford and downtown Detroit, and they have little in common except perhaps weather and a dependence on the auto industry. In New Orleans, Uptown is worlds away from the Bywater, the Garden District is not Treme, even though it’s not that far from A to B.

New York is the same, except I think the differences are more stark because as many people might live in a 10-block radius as live in all of Ann Arbor.

New York is best experienced on a smaller scale

When John and I were preparing to move to New York, we bought a ticket package for Carnegie Hall. It was exciting to walk from our apartment to this beautiful, mythical place and hear world-class musicians perform.

Unless you’re a socialite or a Rockefeller — or a Rockefeller who’s a socialite — you’re probably unlikely to do that regularly.

Instead, I love seeing music at smaller places that often have little or no cover, with a more intimate connection with the musicians and other fans. Places like:

I still need to try Small’s in the Village and John’s eager to try Banjo Jim’s on the Lower East Side … after five years, still plenty of places on the to-do list.

It’s not just about music, though. Maybe it’s a reaction to living in such a big, overwhelming place, but I have loved dining in small restaurants and shopping in small stores where I get to talk to the owners, and going to art shows where we know the artists more than spending a day at the world-class museums.

Some of our favorite New York days have simply been getting a cup of coffee and finding a comfy spot to plant ourselves while we people watch.

These aren’t the only observations I could make after a half decade here. But 1,300 words seems like a good place to stop for now. What would you add or disagree with?

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Categories: creativity, food and drink, home and family, lifestyle

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3 replies

  1. One thing I’ve noticed is that NYers think a lot more – stress a lot more – than people in other cities about what it means to be a NYer, and make a life in NY. Each of us has a relationship with the city, that we’re constantly pondering, dissecting, reinventing …. That was true to some degree in LA, but it’s a much bigger deal in NY. It’s clear why: NY is always up in your junk, for better or for worse. 🙂 If you’re not out wading through it, or climbing up it, or shielding yourself with an umbrella from it, then you’re sitting in your apartment, listening to it, and paying for it dearly in rent.

    That said, I’m a relative newcomer and still get a thrill from walking from the subway to my apt. 🙂

    • Sara,

      I’m not sure if that’s true of the natives, many of whom seem so rooted in New York that the question of living elsewhere might seem silly to even consider. But definitely among us transplants, I think you’re right on.

      New York is not an easy place to live. A friend shared her theory that the city tests us all. It’s like a hazing to see if you’re really committed to being here.

      It’s loud, it’s crowded, it’s competitive, and as you say, we pay a lot for the privilege of being tested. It’s hard not to sometimes wonder if the ROI is there.

      But I, too, get a thrill when I walk from my office to the subway with a view of the Empire State Building.

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  1. More reflections on life in New York City « Newvine Growing — exploring evolution, revolution and living life intentionally

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