I’ve spent a total of almost three years in this great city. While that may be peanuts compared to the lifers, born-and-bred New Yorkers are in the minority. People like me—raised in Wisconsin, college in Chicago, recently moved—are the pulse of this city. College grads and immigrants and families from all over the globe come here to work hard for their own futures, and to see the dynamic and sometimes clashing result of mixing so many cultures and backgrounds from both inside and outside the U.S.
The story begins with one of the basic human necessities, an initial hurdle all newcomers share: finding someplace to live. New York’s eternal youth comes from its transient community—the post-grads looking for a few great years to fast-track training or their career before moving on to a more permanent location to eventually start a family. So none of these kids want to purchase a coop or a condo or townhouse, even in a buyer’s market, when rents are even higher.
And so there is compromise. Every housing decision leans on three pillars: location, size and price. Those who prioritize space over neighborhood move to Murray Hill or some of the deeper (developing quickly, I might add) neighborhoods in Brooklyn, or the areas in upper Manhattan like Washington Heights and Harlem. Those who prioritize neighborhood over space end up in some of the few family-owned apartment buildings—those passed down as forms of income for generations among a single family—or they get lucky with an honest landlord company or even a rent-controlled apartment (the latter of which may even convince newcomers to stay in new York longer than planned).
Non-New Yorkers wonder why so many pre-war six-floor-walkup nightmares still exist. The short answer is this: At least a few buildings in those expensive neighborhoods downtown are owned by families and small landlord companies which are turning a profit on the new kids who offer demand for smaller, less expensive spaces in posh neighborhoods. Most of these small companies and landlords keep the buildings they own, but they don’t typically own entire city blocks but rather a few buildings around the city if not just one. For major real estate developers, it’s not enough to tear down just one of these tiny buildings to construct a new luxury high rise loft complex in Soho. The developer would likely have to buy at least two or three, if not half a city block, to make the investment worth it. The traditional circle of real estate life is slowed down ever so slightly this way, leaving space for the youngsters to live in their ugly old elevator-less buildings.
So, for now, the newcomers have housing. But they either live in teeny tiny apartments, or they live in neighborhoods they don’t love (or are learning to love and build themselves, if we’re talking Brooklyn). They typically last two years in an apartment before the landlord will jack up the price and force them to move again, so after living here for a few years and learning the ropes, New Yorkers figure out the best place to fit their needs. (Hint: It’s usually in Brooklyn these days.)
The solution? They just don’t come home. Instead of sitting on the couch after work, they go out to dinner at a new restaurant a few times a week, or stop by a bar for happy hour. On hot weekend days they donate $5 and spend time at the air-conditioned Met instead of their (sometimes non-existent) living rooms. They become consumers of culture, and they travel great distances to get there.
All of this creates a feeling in a New Yorker that I’ve never heard of in any other city. With all this time in the streets and frequent moving days, New Yorkers feel less of an attachment to their neighborhoods and an intense bond to the city as a whole. No matter how many times they move, Levain Bakery will be waiting for them on the Upper West Side. The Strand will always sit at 12th and Broadway. Your favorite BBQ will remain in its outpost in Chelsea. And while shops sometimes close and new ones open, the discovery isn’t as jarring as returning to your hometown two years later and finding your favorite coffee shop has been replaced by a T.J. Maxx. Because although you moved from Soho to the East Village, you were just in Soho last week. Change feels fluid in the city when you live here.
The New Yorker’s loyalty lies with New York, where every neighborhood is your neighborhood.
From the New Yorkers’ obsession with the exploration of their own city comes the huge pressure they place on New York City government for an efficient transit system. They’re not just going to work—they’re visiting friends who moved to Harlem and friends who moved to Greenpoint in Brooklyn. And working such long hours means less time for play, and less time to be wasted in getting from Point A to Point B. Complain as we might about cutbacks in the bus system and the MTA’s avoiding of many of its core issues, New Yorkers’ unrelenting demand for timely and efficient transportation has turned NYC’s into indisputably the best transit system in the U.S., and one of the best in the world.
There you have it. While the housing market is painful for renters in NYC, it has turned the city into a corps of hardworking and driven newcomers who spend all their time exploring the city they live in. Isn’t it a beautiful thing?
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