DestiNATION: New York City

How to Know When You Can Cut It as a New Yorker

If you're even thinking of being in NYC, check out the rest of our DestiNATION: New York City guide. It's stacked with expert advice from locals on what to eat, where to drink, and what to do in the Greatest City on Earth.

New York is billed much too often as the Greatest City on Earth and too rarely as an up-charged frenzy of chain restaurants, tourist traps, finance bros, and hideous new-construction condos. Can you explain in detail what’s so Great about it? I’m asking because I see a lot of you visitors wandering around here, fresh from JFK or LaGuardia or the Port Authority, your eyes betraying your confusion: Holy shit, there are a gazillion buildings in this city and I have no idea where the Greatness is!

It’s out there, friend. But to find it you have to know why you came here, and too many of you don’t. I’ve read your TripAdvisor itineraries. You arrive with a vague notion that you’ll do some City Things. You putter around Midtown. You hit a Ray’s Pizza and fold a cheese slice in half. You clomp over to the base of the Empire State Building, gaze upwards, and discover that it looks like any other building from street level. You go to the Met, stare at priceless antiquities and try to look impressed. You take in a show, and it’s usually Phantom. If you’re feeling bold, you take the A train one stop into Brooklyn, stand on the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights, and look across the East River at the darkly gleaming fortress that is the Financial District. “Finally did Brooklyn!!” you tweet.

You will return to Peoria or Fredonia or Bentonville having done some mildly diverting sightseeing, and having absorbed a nice contact high from being around a sprawling, three-state megalopolis of 24 million people in a big hurry. “Fascinating place,” you’ll say, “but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

There, in this formulation, is Midtown, Times Square, and Central Park. And you’re right. I wouldn’t want to live there either.

But if you want to see what actually, might, by some metrics, give New York City the right to call itself the Greatest City on Earth, go to the places in the city where you would want to live. They exist. And to find them, you have to ask yourself what you really, truly love.

When New York was only sin and derangement  

If, in the summer of 1990, you had told 7-year-old me that he’d spend most of his adult life in New York City, 7-year-old me would have screamed.

Seven-year-old me had spent his life in rural southern Rhode Island. Our town was less than three hours from the city -- more in Boston’s orbit than New York’s, and far enough from either that both cities’ civilizing coronas dissipated before hitting our yard. I knew chickens and goats, little farms and big woods. The first time I saw an office building, I gasped.

My dad was unhappy, a heavy drinker who believed his misery to be symptomatic of a malaise in society at large. Some evil person had handed him a copy of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, a work of pop-eschatology predicting an imminent apocalypse, and dad told 7-year-old me that my generation would be the one to witness the end of the world. (Ronald Reagan had said something similar not long before. America was in a bleak mood.)

The good life, dad said, was the one lived by people like us. Woods, swings hung from trees, radishes in the garden, fish in the pond, familiar old Portuguese and Sicilian faces behind the counters in every store. The bad life, whence came the stench of the world’s onrushing ruin, was lived in the cities. You could see it in the TV shows and movies of the ’80s. The graffiti, the toughs, the ugly unadorned concrete, the rubble, the punk-rock clothes, the plastic and pleather everything, the sin and licentiousness, and all these hell-bound idiots with lipstick and enormous hair smiling in the middle of it all, smoking cigarettes, indifferent to their damnation.

The worst city, of course, was New York.

East 161 Street
East 161 Street, The Bronx | Nielskliim/Shutterstock

My mom and I moved to South Florida in 1990, and it was much too urban for my psyche. Fort Lauderdale wasn’t New York, but I was sure I could detect Satan’s hand at work there, too. I saw poverty, drugs, revealing clothes, flagrant homosexuals. (I was three years away from realizing I was one.) I feared my new home for a long time, and even when I came to love it, I believed it was in some sense exceptional. Fort Lauderdale might be OK, I thought, but other cities were still rotten.

Long after I stopped believing in a literal Devil, but before I gave up my suspicion of urban environs, two brief trips to New York City convinced me I was right to hate the place. The first, when I was 13, involved helping one of my dad’s friends empty out his dead grandfather’s apartment. It was February and freezing and gray, and the apartment was in a forbidding brutalist building in what I think was the Lower East Side. Everyone we saw wore black – because, I assumed, they were mourning their terrible geographic luck. (In retrospect, they were Hasids.) We were in the city for three hours. The second trip, also with dad, was on Christmas Eve, 2001. We visited the stoop where John Lennon was shot (the Dakota, in the Upper West Side), the Lennon memorial in Central Park, and the still-smoldering rubble at Ground Zero. Afterwards, we went to McDonald’s. It was a doomy day.

Uncle Kenny knew I loved music, theater, and food, and in 72 hours he dazzled me with New York’s capacity to deliver all three.

Four years after that I was in Florida at some kind of family function, having a conversation with my great-uncle Kenny. Kenny was and remains an interesting guy. A computer programmer, a piano player, a jazz-head, blind since birth. He’s lived in New York since 1964. His wife, Rochelle, was a poet and novelist and honest-to-goodness New York intellectual. Why, I wanted to know, would two smart, resourceful people actually choose to live in that terrible place?

“Brandon,” he said, in the vaguely cranky know-it-all voice that remains his default tone, “the people who’ve taught you about New York are idiots. Come spend a weekend with me. I’ll show you what New York’s all about.”

In 2005 I took him up on the offer. In return I got the most revelatory three days of my life. Uncle Kenny knew I loved music, theater, and food, and in 72 hours he dazzled me with New York’s capacity to deliver all three in quantities and qualities unimaginable elsewhere. He took me to two jazz clubs (Birdland and the Village Vanguard), a Broadway musical (Avenue Q), and a dizzying succession of fine-dining restaurants both trendy (the Tribeca Grill) and classic (Chez Josephine). Late at night, from his 28th-floor windows in the Upper West Side, I stared at the innumerable lights of Midtown, and thought I’d never seen anything so lovely, or so full of mystery and promise. In the mornings I had my first loxes and pickled herrings, in the afternoons my first dry martinis, in the evenings my first truffles and foie gras.

Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center, Manhattan | 4kclips/shutterstock

Mostly, though, I imbibed my first understanding of what it might be like to make a great city my own. To select, out of an infinity of blocks and shops and venues and eateries, a cafe that was my cafe; a bar that was my bar; jazz clubs that were my jazz clubs. Kenny had done this to a nicety. He was greeted by name almost everywhere we went, and he spoke with easy, proprietary feeling about this coffee shop, that park, this wine bar, that avenue, these subway lines. I knew before dusk on day two that I wanted what Kenny had: a constellation of places in the baffling city that was my own design, configured uniquely by me, for me.

Five years later, at the end of 2010, my partner and I moved to Brooklyn. Life has been OK. It’s insultingly expensive, frequently lonely, and continuously humbling, but mostly it’s fine. Because I came here for jazz, food, and to stake some territory, and the jazz is sublime, the food really is the Greatest on Earth, and the territory has proved ripe for staking, because in New York there’s always room for one more settler with hinterlands dust on his Converses. But that’s just my New York. Yours is here somewhere, if you’d like to create it.

To make it here, you must love something

When I imagine the physicality of the city, I envision the skyline just after dusk, thousands of yellow windows beaming mellowly from the heights on a velvety blue night. This is a fictional skyline, ultimately. The Statue of Liberty stands to the left. Then a watery lull, and then the tough, teeming rectangles of the Financial District, made gentler by One World Trade’s lithe immensity. Then another lull, and then Midtown -- smaller and busier rectangles than in FiDi, mostly just supporting characters for the traditional architectural showstoppers, buildings Chrysler and Empire State. Somewhere in there you’ll see the modest modernism of the Bank of America Building (the one with a lot of triangles) and the vaguely Gothic mesh ensconcing the spire of the New York Times building.

Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan skyline
Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan skyline | oneinchpunch/shutterstock

Before I moved to New York I could already picture its skyline. Most people can. My conception of this place was thin enough that, back then, I mistook the skyline for the city. In a sense, I had a New York already, as you already have yours, owing to the city’s privileged place in the human imagination. Not because it’s the world’s biggest (Tokyo), or its prettiest (maybe Utrecht or Stockholm), or even its richest (Dubai!). But because it happened to be America’s cultural center at the moment when America was the world’s cultural center, which also happened to be the moment when the world was developing a global pop culture for the first time. And so your 90-year-old grandma who’s never set foot in Midtown knows all about 42nd Street, where “the underworld can meet the elite,” because Ruby Keeler sang about it in 1933. The Jazz Singer, the very first talkie, was set here. When King Kong needed to imperil Fay Wray in an iconic locale, they went with the Empire State’s spire, even though the building was just two years old. Even now you see the city daily in commercials or the intro sequence to The Late Show. Walking out of the subway for the first time in Times Square or Columbus Circle or West 4th Street, you’re bound to have an almost surreal sense of coming home.

Most of our artists are tending bar. Most of our musicians have to get up at 7am for a desk job.

So allow me to say here: My original, diabolical understanding of the city was not entirely incorrect. The glittery view I got from Uncle Kenny’s 28th floor apartment was a bit of a con. Few people actually live in that perfect skyline, and a lot of those who do are scum. This city is full of carnivorous capitalists who abide in a state of perpetual bloodlust, like hyenas in a drought. You’ll meet the younger ones in bars around Midtown East. The women are hard to pick out, but the guys always look and sound like frat boys at a kegger. Meanwhile, most of our artists are tending bar, most of our musicians have to get up at 7am for a desk job, and our legions of writers and editors are half-paralyzed with fear and sadness over the ongoing, slow-mo collapse of the publishing industry. Most of us are lonely, because everyone’s busy all the time and prefer, above all else, to travel toward home once they’re off work, often long after dark.

Most of us are as provincial as anyone in Peoria or wherever you’re from. We eat unhealthily, don’t see the sun enough, worry about money. Most of us are working-class people who don’t particularly care about jazz or the theater. We have never run into Azealia Banks on the A train. We have never seen Billy Joel on the Hudson River Line.

The city’s most beautiful places -- its most historic neighborhoods, its buzziest restaurants, its most exciting parties, most of its best theater -- are out of reach for the vast majority of the people who live here, many of whom have been pushed east, north, and west by gentrification. These are the people who serve you food, sell you magazines and gum, and operate your subways. We all need them, but the city does not welcome them nearly as warmly as it welcomes you, with your out-of-town dollars and your uncomplicated affection for the landmarks we all forget to notice. Contra popular myth, New Yorkers are quite friendly. Contra some devious PR, New York City isn’t friendly at all. It’s a colossus that would just as happily eat you as show you a good time.

New Yorkers are quite friendly. New York City isn’t friendly at all.

New York isn’t here to make anyone happy. It’s not going to give itself away. I talked this over with my Uncle Kenny the other night, and he disagreed somewhat. In the ‘60s he didn’t have the money to do much, but he remembered hearing some world-class band tuning up and kicking ass in front of Lincoln Center, playing for anybody who happened by. “You can’t get that in Wichita,” he said, and he was right.

And on that note, just today, on my way into the office, I passed a lyric soprano in the 42nd Street A/C/E station singing “Vissi d’Arte” from Tosca, and she was incredible, her voice steely-sweet, transcending the station’s tin-can acoustics to pierce 1,000 commutes at once. And there was a not-terrible slam poet performing for tips on my train tonight, and some remarkably inventive breakdancers rehearsing near my home yesterday, near the end of Fulton Park park where guys play chess 24/7 when the weather’s clement. None of this costs anything, and it all comes unbidden. Spend a few days wandering the city, and you’ll find dozens of these discrete pockets of wonderment.

Chess in bryant park
Bryant Park, Manhattan | Federico Rostagno/Shutterstock

The pockets cannot sustain your life, however, or even your vacation, unless you’re a very peculiar person. At some point, the most that can be said of them is that New York offers some unusually compelling strolls and commutes. So I tell you this again, because it is essential: Be in love with something when you get here.

It doesn’t matter what it is. If it’s art, or jazz, or classical antiquities, or cute hipster bars, or cute hipsters, or soul food, or opera, or parks, or nightlife, or macrame, or independent cinema, or Armenian dancing, or Bengali cuisine, or cosmetics, or pony play, or whatever. New York is infinitely mutable. Whatever your thing might be, no matter how obscure or perverse, there are other people whose thing it also is, and they’re here in greater numbers than they will be anywhere else.

If you’re into tabletop games, Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons, and Secret Hitler, you’ll visit the Twenty Sided Store in Williamsburg, The Uncommons in the West Village, Forbidden Planet in Union Square, the Compleat Strategist in Midtown, and the Geekery HQ in Astoria, and in these places you will find a bestiary of fellow weirdos of a diversity and quantity undreamt of in your hometown. This is how it happens. If you lived here, these stores and the apartments of the people you met at them would form the first stellar bodies of your own constellation; the first mapped coordinates of your own New York.

Picture the city that way. Not as its skyline, but as a superimposition of cities 24 million layers deep.

On the trains, as you traveled from coordinate to coordinate, you would sit beside professional ballet dancers and baristas who want to be computer scientists and junior high school kids who want to be Carmelo Anthony. You probably wouldn’t meet their eyes -- we ride these trains because we have to, not for company, so we endeavor to create a kind of public privacy for our fellow straphangers and hope they’ll do the same for us -- but you would occasionally think about them, and be awed that they, too, have their own constellations, their own particular New Yorks that are homes to them and mysteries to you, and that it will always be thus.

Picture the city that way. Not as its skyline, but as a superimposition of cities 24 million layers deep. One of those cities is full of the things you love, if you love anything. Don’t look for New York City: Look for that New York City. Research the shit out of it. And when you arrive, live in it for a week or two, or a year or two, or forever. The New York of the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and all the souvenir kiosks and overpriced diners in Times Square is here to lure tourists -- it’s Pedro’s South of the Border with better architecture. The other New York, filled with the things you love, is waiting for you to create it. Whether you’re here for a weekend or for the long haul, it will be the only version of the city to ever truly love you back.

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Brandon K. Thorp is a former theater critic with Village Voice Media. He has written for Gawker, CNN.com, The New York Times, and elsewhere.