10 Things I’ve Learned After A Decade In New York City

The world doesn’t need this blog post. The world doesn’t need another liberal white 30-something New Yorker navel gazing about her time in the city. So I’ll spare you the introspection about how when I moved here in November 2005 I planned to only stay for one year and how life has taken so many unexpected turns since then. I’ll keep the analyzing the choices I’ve made and what fate has dealt me for the pages of my journal.

Plenty of people have lived in New York City for more than a decade, but I’m never one to let an anniversary or milestone pass without recognition.

There are a lot of lists and articles about the best or worst things about New York (one of my favorites is the Onion’s “8.4 Million New Yorkers Suddenly Realize New York City A Horrible Place To Live“). But in honor of the last decade of my life in this city, here are ten truisms about New York that I’ve picked up.

  1. Everything that sounds fun will be crowded. On most days in the city there are probably at least five unique/interesting/entertaining events that you’d like to attend (likely more) but anything that sounds really great will be crowded, sometimes unbearably so. Free screening of Ghostbusters in Bryant Park? Better arrive four hours early and be willing to run, push and jump over people to get a spot sandwiched in with strangers (see video below).

    A short list of other things New Yorker’s have waited in line for several hours for:
    a donut/croissant hybrid
     the opportunity to go down a big slide
     or to cuddle cats.

    Bottom line: there are a lot of amazing things to see and do in the city that you can’t do many other places, but there are also over 8 million people and it’s not a very big place. The seasoned New Yorker knows how to find the still fun but not as crowded option, when it’s worth standing in line or pushing through a crowd, and when it’s better to just order Thai food and watch Gilmore Girls.

  2. Everything costs more than it should. You know your city has some issues on cost of living when a candidate repeatedly runs on the sole platform that “rent is too damn high”And our current mayor was elected in large part for pointing out how unequal the income levels in the city are. Truly there are some people in the city that are the 1% of the 1% and the excess of their wealth is astonishing and honestly disgusting. And on the other side of the coin there are millions of people in the city who can’t scrape by — homeless yes, but also families and friends sharing one room and going hungry. The extremes of poverty and wealth in New York City are a concentrated example of what’s going on in the rest of the country. But there in the middle are a lot of people paying way too much for way too little. There is a lot that a person has to give up in order to live here.

    And many of those people are willing to pay way too much for their apartments: $2,500 a month in rent for a one bedroom isn’t “a good deal,” but here we believe it is. Space is at a premium here, and there is a lot of competition for everything, but I refuse to believe that spending close to (or over) a million dollars (likely up front in cash) for 600 square feet of living space is an acceptable way to live. I was lucky when I answered a Craigslist roommate ad ten years ago and ended up in a rent stabilized apartment that I like with a good landlord, but most of New York City is built for only the very wealthy. And a surprising amount of people put up with it.

  3. People are the worst. One morning several years ago I was riding the subway to work when I started to feel very ill, my vision was starting to darken and I was seconds away from fainting. There were no open seats, so I told the person closest to me that I didn’t feel well and asked if I could have her seat.

    She glanced up at my pale, stricken face, said “no” and went back to reading. I sat on the floor until the next stop. In a city so big it’s easy to slip into feeling anonymous and to categorize the millions of individual human beings as one annoying anonymous mass of “other people.” A certain amount of disassociation is necessary in order to squeeze into packed subway cars and walk past people sleeping on sidewalks everyday. It’s a stereotype that New Yorkers are rude, but it’s not completely untrue.

    I am by no means outside of this. There is a certain degree of self-centeredness that you need to survive. The result of a city of people looking out for number one is of course a lot of obnoxious behaviors that can make you hate humanity. Here is a very abbreviated list:
    -walking while texting
    -carrying one of those giant golf umbrellas on crowded sidewalks,
    – talking during a concert or play
    – lots of street and subway harassment from creepy ass dudes

  1. People are astoundingly kind.The amount of assholes in New York is the law of averages. If there is a large enough group of people then there will undoubtedly be at least 15-20% jerks. But that also means that you are guaranteed to encounter the other side of humanity. I’ve witnessed the kindness of strangers helping each other, from giving directions to lost tourists, to giving food and money to the homeless to offering empathy to someone crying in public.

    But the largest way that I’ve seen kindness manifest is in the myriad of ways the New Yorkers (who are stereotypically overscheduled and self-centered) have given generously of their time and resources: volunteering after hurricane Sandy, and in my work with New York Cares and Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC, I’ve tried to give my time and money, but there are people far more generous than me giving so much of themselves to those around them.

  2. It’s a big city that ends up feeling like a small town. A person could live in New York City for a lifetime and still only experience a fraction of the city. New York City is geographically insignificant, but the astonishing density of people means that there are more bars, restaurants, theatres, parks, beaches, neighborhoods, and events then one person could ever visit. Actually that’s not true, you probably could visit the entire city if you really wanted to but you won’t. In a city of infinite choices you’ll spend 95% of your time going to the same seven to ten places. You’ll always order the same thing from the “good” Thai place in your neighborhood and go to brunch within walking distance. You’ll branch out occasionally for a show or concert to try a new restaurant, but by and large most people (myself very much included) will find their comfort zone and stick to it.

    This is unfortunate since it limits your experience and can lead to the annoying sweeping generalizations that people make about places like Brooklyn (no it’s not all hipsters and yuppies) but mostly it’s not unique to life in New York, humans are creatures of habit regardless of where they live. But this kind of self selection of lifestyle does lend itself to something that can seem like a cosmic coincidence: there are over 8 million people in the city but in my ten years here I have randomly run into every single person from my small town high school that has moved to the city, I’ve worked with the same people at multiple jobs and have several friends who know or have meant other friends. In short: it’s a big city but with very little effort you end up building it into your own personal small town, even if you don’t mean to.

  3. Walking 25 blocks is nothing, but you will never visit someone who lives five miles away Mark jokes that if I had lived in the Bronx when were single that we would have never started dating. It’s sad, but true. We meant online and we both selected the shortest distance that a potential partner could live, I believe it was four miles. I lived in South Park Slope Brooklyn and he lived in East Williamsburg, we were just at the cut off. If either one of us had ended up in an apartment even a few blocks further away we wouldn’t have meant, fallen in love and gotten married.

    Most anywhere else in the country where most people live at least 10 to 20 miles from their friends, refusing to date someone who lives more than four miles from you would seem extremely nitpicky. But in New York it’s incredibly common. Just look at that map – an hour and 36 minutes of travel time and three trains? It takes up about that long to drive to visit Mark’s family in Pennsylvania.Commuting via public transportation has a lot of pluses but the congestion and geography of the city can make some places that may only be a few miles apart feel prohibitively far. So we create our own little worlds (see number 3); most people will stay within their neighborhood (so realistically about a one miles radius or so) on the weekends.

    This also means that if a friend moves to another part of the city, you will most likely see a lot less of them. I have a friend from Michigan who lives on the Upper West Side but we only see each other back in Michigan because the logistics of meeting up in the city never seemed to line up. Yes I realize how ridiculous this is but we all do it.

  1. You are a nobody. So many people come to New York with the fiction we are fed in pop culture: The idea of “making it.” And of course there are those Cinderella stories of a girl from a Detroit suburb moving here and ending up so famous she only needed her first name (Madonna). Sure, there are plenty of famous people here, but that precisely the problem: there are so many impressive people here that no matter how much success you achieve, A) there will always be someone who is more “famous/successful,” or more intelligent, or more talented, and B) no one will care, you will walk down the street and ride the subway and stand in line and deal with all of the same BS as everyone else. (I’m sure many celebrities receive a lot of preferential treatment, but I have seen several celebrities in my time here in public doing normal stuff with nobody has given a shit.)

    You may move here and “make it” in whatever field “making it” is for you and you will still probably feel inferior because there are just so many people doing awesome things. I mean I assume, I certainly haven’t “made it.”

  2. You’ll need to escape. Most people feel like they need to a vacation from time to time. The walls of your life close in on you and you just want a change of scenery. But in New York many people talk about the real need to escape. The size and density of the city can wear on a person and I think a lot of people that live here can end up reaching a point of “I can’t take it anymore!” For most people it means a weekend trip or a weeklong vacation somewhere that you don’t have to lug your laundry and groceries 20 blocks. For others it can be a breaking point where they realize it’s not all worth it anymore and say “good bye to all that” and move to the suburbs or farther a field.
  3. Everyone doesn’t wish they were you. When I first moved to New York after a year living in London, the city was touting itself as “the world’s capital.” London is also a large city with thriving a culture scene and tons of history and beauty, but you would never hear Londoners talking about their city with that kind of egotism. That sort of arrogance is a uniquely New York trait.Many people love or have pride in where they are from or where they choose to live. New Yorkers however have a self-assuredness that not only is the place where they live the best of all possible places on the entire planet but that everyone who doesn’t live here wishes that they did. It probably has a lot to do with the desire to justify everything that we have to put up with to live here.

    We want to congratulate ourselves that they couldn’t hack it here. We disparage the majority of the country where millions of smart valuable human beings live as “flyover states.” But the truth is you should have to endure the place where you live and doing so isn’t really a badge of honor. Those people in the “fly over” states are probably happy where they are. If they wanted to live in New York, they would.

  4. Your New York experience isn’t universal. A trap that almost everyone who writes about New York falls into (and that I’ve fallen into several times while writing this post) is that we assume that our NYC experience is universal. For the amount of times we’ve heard the story of a white Midwestern woman moving to New York to “make it” as a magazine editor, it’s a far cry from the experience of a black gay southern man moving to New York to live with less judgement. And all of the stories of transplants aren’t anything like the life of native New Yorkers. And the life experiences and viewpoints of a native New Yorker raised in Park Slope with a nanny is vastly different than a kid bouncing around in foster homes in Brownsville or the child of first generation immigrants in Queens.

    That New York is an extremely diverse city is part of the appeal of living here, and yet the story of the city is usually narrated be people like me. My experiences may represent a portion of the New York experience but they far from represent the whole thing.

It might sound like I’ve grown disillusioned with the city. While I think that I’m getting a bit burned out on city life I am glad I moved here and glad I stayed so much longer than I had originally planned. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have thought that I’d be living in that same apartment from a Craigslist ad with my husband and three cats. I didn’t know that after lots of career ups and downs I would be in a job that I like. And I had no idea that I would grow a strong network of close friends. So maybe that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned in the last decade here: whatever my expectations are they will usually be wrong. I guess even after ten years New York might still have the capacity to surprise me.


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