Why I Chose New York City

Occasionally I revisit the reasons why I chose New York City as my next home. I had narrowed it down to cities with relatively solid mass transit: NYC, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Philadelphia, Washington (DC), and Boston. I had considered Los Angeles, but don’t want to spend 900 hours annually in a car while breathing the fumes you can see rolling across the highway. I considered San Francisco – great food, but the hills make walking a chore, there’s the addict culture, small size, and the lack of subways ruled it out. My criteria also included arts, street culture (including street food), and a cutting edge attitude in at least one category of business or art. I dropped Seattle, because of the hills again, and the fact of the electric buses being stuck in traffic twice a day. I love Portland, but it’s got 11% unemployment – a depressed economy. Along with Chicago and Boston, it inhabits my fall back plans. DC and Philly mass transit are “depends on where you want to go”, and the quantity of stuff I like would just be too small a footprint for me. That leaves NYC, Chicago, and Boston. Boston is way up there on my radar, and I might still do that at some point. But there is no rent savings at all, so for now it’s NYC and Chicago, which come down to rent, amenities, and culture, and that’s what I based my decision on. I feel no loyalist impulse toward boosterism, so this is simply a life optimization choice for me, and a personal one.

INTELLECTUAL PROWESS: New York nudges me into hyperdrive – an enhanced tendency toward multitasking and performance that’s like switching to a faster processor with more RAM in the PC world. Being in an environment teeming with input and people who are working at their highest capacity makes me respond in the same way, and this is fundamentally good for me – I’m quicker, sharper, and move faster – more like an athlete. Slower paced urban cultures encourage spending life too easily, being less than the best, or at least less than all you can be. Someone said that New Yorkers are smarter – he didn’t mean academic scores – he was talking about what NYC pulls out of the human mind. It ups the IQ on a practical, every day basis. Chicago is nice, but I can get away with snoozing there. I like the extra brain enhancement I get from NYC.

LIFE CHOICES: New York discourages me from wasting time. If I was about to indulge something that takes a few extra minutes, there’s a quick calculus that tells me how much of something else it will cost me. There’s always this cost, but NYC reminds you. A half an hour of piddling at something non-essential burns an hour of time I can’t sell to anyone, can’t use to improve my situation or work on a long-term project, and won’t ever get back. In regard to time, New York keeps me lean. In that sense, I get back more of my life and more control over my life, than I do in slower paced urban cultures. I like Chicago’s 24/7 trains and buses, but there’s just more sprawl, and sprawl inherently wastes some of my time. Being locked on a finite island with the world’s human rocket men, carves one out of wood.

TRADING USEFUL FOR NICE: New York is helpful. I hear a lot about other cities being “friendly”. I don’t want friendly. I don’t need to feel like I’m part of a big family. I don’t care much for superficial sweetness, and this is something I share with New Yorkers in general. New Yorkers will help you right and left if you don’t just dump on them, are doing the best you can up til now, and can state what you need without wasting their time. They aren’t going to stand on a street corner and wave you in with a welcoming howdy, but they’re also not going to stand on a street corner and tell you that you don’t belong there if you don’t speak English, are gay, are ethnic, or whatever. Most people in New York are an immigrant, transplant, or vagabond of some kind, so in that sense, it’s harder to be marginalized in the midst of otherwise superficial courtesies. On a day to day basis, New Yorkers respond to reasonable requests for help all the time, but not to whining. Unfriendly I definitely don’t like, and Chicago comes off, frankly, as more demographically polarized and sometimes hostile. There’s a racial divide when you get past the North Side, that I don’t find conducive to anything. Also, I just don’t like the cop culture there. I don’t like it anywhere, but Chicago cops ride the train with their hands on their guns, and act standoffish, suspicious, defensive, and abrasive like they’re a squad of head bashers ready to deal out blows, and it doesn’t change if you’re clearly not a threat. NYC cops aren’t to be messed with either – they’re sharks in a bloody pool – but they will have a pleasant conversation with you and not hand out the armour jacket responses right of the bat. As a gauge of the “friendliness” of a place, it conveys a lot. Police in NYC are civil servants, at least partly. In Chicago, they’re head breakers. Sorry, that’s how I see it and, yes, I’m aware of the history of police culture in both places. As far as being helpful, I also find that New Yorkers will often spill information on how you can optimize something, quite easily, as long as you catch on quickly. Too many requests for clarification do get met with increasing impatience. But with everyone looking around at the best way to do something, save time, gain ground, etc., there’s a lot of ongoing information exchange that I really dig – in that sense, it’s like LA.

UPPING YOUR GAME: New York draws your best game out of you, because in New York, no one leaves any money on the table, and everyone is looking to optimize their life. If your property company can get $20 extra for you putting in an air conditioner, and the super can get you to bribe him to leave the service elevator available for your painters, it’s going to happen. If you have a business idea, you keep it to yourself as long as you can, because casual conversation of that type is an all ears environment – people are looking for the next thing for them and in general, always. It’s the deep end of the pool – people who don’t want to be forced to optimize and perform at optimal capacity go elsewhere. New York competes very closely with LA for the life optimization capital. There’s snobbery and superior snottyness galore in both NYC and Chicago, but I get more of the “because we’re corporate” vibe in Chicago (which is nothing to be proud of), and in NYC it’s often because there’s really something behind it – they really are delivering top shelf, which is one reason people take it. Your corporate title doesn’t impress me, but if you’ve got the best of something, OK then, I get that there’s a waiting list. This is one reason you don’t get a lot of NYC people shouting “we’re the best with the most”; they don’t have to. You get some petty snobbery about area codes and boroughs, but it’s mostly for show, and there are shallow people like that everywhere. The great thing is that, in NYC, you can pick and choose from just about anything and anyone. A friend of mine observed that only on NYC subways will you see ads so well designed and cleverly phrased; it’s a small thing, but reflects the “top of game” atmosphere that really is the bedrock of NYC. Every day, it’s churning out and whipping into shape the cream of the cream. FYI: What I’m describing is a societal version of the Pygmalion Effect, in which being with gifted people all the time tends to elicit a gifted response – compare that to the Big Fish Little Pond Effect – elsewhere. you can more easily think of yourself as a “rock star” at what you do with the caveat that it’s in the context of a less competitive environment with fewer stellar people – a place where other people, in general, are just OK at what they do. Both of these, if you remember studying research for grad school, are directly related to the Hawthorne Effect, by which we see that context, especially context in which other people are observing what you’re doing, affects outcomes and indeed breeds excellence (a process called social facilitation). In short, it’s not just me seeing this – it’s bedrock social science.

THE COST: Rent is the biggest complaint, though I think it should be the taxes imposed on small businesses and solopreneurs on top of the city tax. That’s a bigger concern, because it punishes the attempt at growth. On rent, if you do the math and come from anywhere that requires a car (in NYC a car is either just showing off or a needless expression of affluence), the rent difference basically goes away, at least mostly. It depends on where you live and how much space you really need. New Yorkers do a lot with a little, in everything, not just in space. Upscale couples still keep it tight in studios by thoughtful arrangement and design choices, without feeling cramped – instead, they feel mobile. There are whiners, but mostly that’s for show. If they didn’t find the trade off worth it, they’d leave, since any of the less populous areas of the country are instantly more affordable. It’s New York – why would you spend all your time in your apartment anyway? Even at $800 rent increase, which is what I’m looking at, if you can’t make $400 more a month *because* you’re in New York and save $400 by ditching the car, yeah you shouldn’t go. Complaining about the price of milk and bread in New York compared to one’s own state is just posturing – New Yorkers also avoid wasting that stuff. You don’t stock your small fridge until it’s bristling with moldy goods, because there’s a market every other corner – you’ll see food again – just go outside. The NYC atmosphere is that you live on what you can carry. It’s tribal-mobile. Incidentally, rent-wise, Boston, Seattle, and LA are making New York look quite affordable. What you’re buying with the rent difference is everything *outside* that apartment. If cost is the primary factor, really, then Chicago is your city. But you can make it work in NYC if you’ve got some game and put in a little extra effort. Doesn’t mean you want to, but it’s doable.

THE ARTS: New York looks like it has fewer arts festivals than Chicago (Not really, but it may feel that way, because arts are everywhere in NYC – but big outdoor festivals are more frequently a Chicago thing, as they are throughout the Midwest). There are arguably more significant ones in NYC – Tribeca, Slamdance, Dumbo, Fringe – there’s not a week without one, generally, but either way it has far more arts and artists. Which do you prefer? If you’re an art spectator, or want to take arts classes in the park (in the warm months), Chicago or another city might be for you. Don’t get me wrong, I like this aspect of Chicago a lot. But if you want to be driven by constantly being in an environment of other artists working continually at their game on the cutting edge – if that will make you push to be all you can be – then it’s NYC hands down. You’re going to see artists you recognize, in whatever field, in line for an ice cream cone or getting a cup of coffee – you’re going to feel them busy as bees and that will challenge you. And seeing what they’re doing, which is more important, you’re going to be inspired to keep working, to work harder, to come up with new things yourself. You just aren’t challenged like this, in general, anywhere else. It’s frustrating, as nice as the little theatres are around Chicago, and even the big ones in the theatre district, to know there are things playing more frequently, with the original cast, and more of it in America’s ‘first’ city. Admittedly, you’ve got to work hard so you can go.

THE BEAUTY: Besides access to some great natural wonders all around New York and Jersey – and not just Niagara – the Finger Lakes, Cayuga, the crazy huge mountains in Jersey, and more and more – there’s a lot of green space in the city, too – and not just Central or Prospect Park – there are urban parks in every neighborhood that actually get continual use. That beats, for me, sprawling parks that in other cities often seem like an afterthought, deserted during most days. And I don’t care much for long driving trips through flat lands, farm country, etc. People who like it elsewhere cite the trash on the curbs, because there are no alleys, but it’s not every day, and it’s more than balanced, in my experience, by the distinction between where you walk through and where you walk to. Personally, I don’t find suburban environments beautiful and don’t equate the presence of trees with automatic loveliness. That’s like saying if I’m vegetarian I want to eat salad all the time. I like the mix, and I find beauty all over New York. If you’re inclined to a single definition, it’s maybe not for you. Frankly, NYC is consistently rated with a better overall walk score than any city in the US. I like to walk, and I want to be able to walk anywhere. If I want to go from Harlem to Wall Street, I can, on foot, no problem. I don’t have to, but I can easily. I can also walk between Manhattan and Queens or Manhattan and Brooklyn, if I want. I can walk with a friend from Nat Sherman’s on 5th Avenue, smoking a cigar, and end up at the Park, or cruise over to the flea market on the West Side for some kimchi. To me, being able to actually enjoy a New York day on foot is fantastic. Chicago is good, very good, but it’s just not built for that kind of walking to anywhere near the same degree. Beauty, in other words, is partly in how you can experience it. A great painting as a print or behind glass isn’t the same thing as being able to see the texture up close.

THE 24-HOUR THING: It really does matter to some of us. The difference between having to get dinner by 9pm and being able to plan dinner at 9pm simply affords more options and flexibility. If you don’t have a lifestyle that needs lots of both, you can live easily in other places. Personally, I place a premium on what I am doing, however long it takes, and when I am ready to stop for food, then I don’t want someone telling me it’s too late, it’s bed time now, decent people aren’t awake anymore. I want my 24/7 hot and cold organic food just down the tracks, and that 5am or 2am onion bagel, if I’m up early or out late. I do like the fact that cities across the US are getting everything from ZipCar to Seamless to Box Butler to grocery delivery to Amazon Lockers, cutting down on time and raising convenience in general.

CULTURE MATTERS: Someone that tells you his culture is superior to another in some kind of absolute way is confusing subject and object, subjective and objective. But preferring one’s own tribe, place, time, whatever – that’s not only normal, it’s useful. I never felt at home in the middle of the country. It’s just not my vibe, not my place. It’s OK not to want these aspects of life in New York City. But these things are what you get if you choose it. Your goals, your mentality, your preferences (the trade offs you prefer) will shape the decision. There’s a real difference though, in intangible cultural aspects. What people eat, buy, wear, do with their time, how they talk, what they say, when they do certain things, how they do them, how they solve problems, how they respond to challenges, inquiries, or requests for help – all of these things are signposts of cultural difference. I’ve lived in the South and in the Midwest. There are good aspects of each, but it’s not really home for me. Corporate culture is the same everywhere, as is college dorm culture, and I’m not a fan of either. Williamsburg at night makes my flesh crawl, but it’s not all of NYC. Context is everything and, as the context shifts from place to place, city to city, I can tell where I fit best, feel most comfortable, and where what I do and how I am is accepted or at least well tolerated. For me, that’s New York. I’m a little too intense for Portland, as much as I love it, and Chicago is still the Midwest. I dig Berlin, which is like a cross between NYC and Chicago – maybe I’ll do that one day. In the US, though, as soon as I get off the plane in NYC, I can breathe and, like a lot of transplants, I know I’m home. At least for now.

There are a handful of other reasons for NYC: 1. the publishing industry, 2. it’s the obvious choice for opening the next geographic market for a corporation I’m involved with, and 3. I’ve spent enough time there to come to know it well, feel comfortable, know my way around (I can walk blindfolded around Jackson Heights), and 4. a close friend and business partner is a New Yorker who is handling the other side of the country for our startup rollout from LA (start at the ends, and work toward each other) – so I get a lot of perspective from years of collaboration with him as I’ve been in and out of New York for business and personal stays. But overall, it’s the above reasons that drive me.

The two best and most fun articles I’ve read on this are here:

Here’s a [set of comments] on how living in NYC forces you to up your game.

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