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Eleven Lessons Learned After Living In New York City For 11 Years

Eleven years ago today, I stepped off a plane at JFK International Airport. It wasn’t my first time visiting New York City. I had been here enough times to not be in awe of the city skyline as my plane was touching down. I even lived here once, albeit temporarily for a three-month summer residence between my junior year and senior year at Howard University. I lived with my brother in Astoria Queens and interned at Vibe magazine in Manhattan. Instead of awe and excitement, my feeling was firmly one of anxiety as I loaded up a cart with my luggage. Unlike my previous visits, this was a one-way trip. I was here to stay and I had no idea when I would leave.

All these years later, I still don’t know when I’m buying a one-way ticket out of here. These days whenever I’m asked if I see myself staying (and as long as you tell people you’re from somewhere else, they will always ask you when you’re leaving) I shrug because I don’t know if that day will ever come. I’m not a New Yorker but New York City has become home, and that is a very bittersweet thing for me to say. Outside of Seaside, California, the city where I was raised, I have spent more time living in New York than I have anywhere else. And while I always grew up with a dream of one day living in the Empire State, I don’t know if that dream ever entailed me staying this long.

But here I am with no exit strategy in mind. This puts me in the unique position of being able to help those who are either thinking about moving to the city or packing their bags to do so. As long as I have been here, I still identify more with the wide-eyed newcomers than the natives. I was once you, but didn’t have very many people who I could talk to not just about living here but trying to figure out how to call this place home. These are the lessons I’ve learned in my quest to get comfortable in New York, New York, big city of dreams.

The city can be affordable
Yes, it costs a lot of money to live here, but there’s way around this and it has nothing to do with knowing someone who has the skinny on a great place with no broker’s fee. What you never hear someone say when you read these stories about someone barely being able to pay for one month’s rent in a place with a shoe box is how they choose to live like that. They could’ve lived somewhere else in the city, but they chose a certain place based on things that have nothing to do with what is between those four walls. If you want to stay here, be careful about how you choose to live here. There are places that have space and won’t absolutely kill your pockets if you look beyond Manhattan. You’ll never hear someone say, “I live in a closet in the Bronx.”

Learn to like people
In a city where your ceiling is more than likely someone else’s floor and your floor is someone else’s ceiling, and when you say “my car” you really mean a subway car you had to share with 50 other people, this city can be a hard place to find solitude. It’s out there, somewhere in this vast mashup of islands, but ironically if you do find a place where you’re the only person, you probably don’t want to be there because it’s most likely not safe. One of the reasons this city has grown on me is because it has a lot of people. Crowds can be stressful, but they can also be comforting. New York isn’t New York because of the buildings but rather the people inside of them. So if you don’t like people, go somewhere else and if you decide to come anyway, don’t get on the subway.

Don’t eat at chains just because you can
Back home where I grew up, one of the nicest restaurants you could go to was Red Lobster. You know when the last time is that I ate at a Red Lobster? When I was growing up, back home. I don’t care that they have Red Lobster here in New York City. Nostalgia doesn’t taste that good to me. What does taste good is a lobster roll from Red Hook Lobster Pound. When you come to this city, get some standards. I don’t begrudge people when they want to say things like Shake Shack is overrated, but if they want to act like Burger King is better, I have to question their taste and outlook on life. I get Chipotle because it’s delicious, cheap, and right across the street from my office. My favorite taco truck on 14th and 8th has two of those things going for it, which means if it was across the street, I’d be having lunch there instead.

The city does sleep for two hours
If you’re awake from 5:00 AM to 7:00 AM, city noise is a whisper, still finding its voice from being dormant for 120 minutes.. My affinity for noise isn’t the same as my affinity for people, which is why I have learned to appreciate it when Gotham finds a time to go quiet.

It is the brunch capital of the world
I used to hate brunch, now I appreciate it. To me, there’s nothing like a New York City brunch. Name a city that does it better and I’ll call you a liar. Brunching here is so serious we do it on Sunday and Saturday, at Midnight and int he morning. If there was a national competition to determine what city is best for brunching New York would wipe the floor with every other place in America.

Don’t let social media tell you how to live here
When I moved here in 2004, social media was not as prominent in our lives as it is today. Now it practically rules our lives, and what I find most interesting is how it’s changed the way people move in this city. No matter where we live, FOMO affects us all, but in New York it can fool you. Yes, La Marina may look like it’s popping on Instagram, but there are so many other places that are active in this city. You never miss much when you’re enjoying yourself.

This place is good for relationships too
Few people have met as many single and dating people as I have in this city. I’ve also talked to and read stories from a lot of people who are single and dating in other cities. The thing they both have in common is they either love it or hate it. Single life is its own purgatory, ruled more by our state of mind than the general populous of an actual state. So when people tell you it sucks being single in the city, trust me, it’s not the city. Once you find someone though, your love for this city will double down. For one, you have someone else who has their own version of the city they can show you. The other thing is, you naturally want to try more places because you have someone with which to explore it. I lived here nine years before I met Gina, and have probably have seen more of this city in the two years I’ve been with her.

You will make this city smaller than what it is
People say New York City is small, but that’s because we all choose to socialize in our own little circles within the confines of our own little neighborhoods. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just something to keep in mind when you move here and six months later you’re tripping because you keep on seeing the same people at your favorite watering hole. If you want to see all that Gotham has to offer, you have to go far and wide and float in more circles than just one.

It’s not New York City’s fault
When people tell me they want to live here, I try to remind them of one thing: New York City owes you nothing. There are very few places with as heavy of a burden to provide for its residents as New York City and I’ve learned to just not expect anything out of it. I’ve been unemployed here and I’ve had some very cool jobs here, good times here and bad. Most of those times were of my own doing. Meanwhile, New York City keeps doing whatever it wants. Sometimes it’s been great to me and other days, not so much, but that’s all cities right?

It’s about living in New York City, not being in New York City
Like I said, I have no exit plan for leaving. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to, but I’m not feeling that urge to do so. I’m here, enjoying all the rides of this sprawling amusement park of a city. Once I stopped trying to figure out how I was going to get the hell out of here, the city opened up. I learned to love it and be comfortable here when I stopped trying to make it into the place I pictured in my head. I wanted to live that Joan Didion, “Goodbye To All That” life where I lived here and then went back to my native California married and relieved. That’s how Didion did it. But eventually I realized outside of the both of us being native Californians and writers, my New York City wasn’t much like hers and I didn’t have to move back to California like she did. New York City isn’t a pit stop. New York City is my home.

Get in the cab THEN tell them where you’re going
Just trust me on this one.

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  • Tiffani

    Figured I’d actually comment here too. You just don’t know how on time this is. I’ve been trying to figure out what to do after quitting my job in February. Still just never had any intention of moving to NY till I met a guy from there. And thought, “why the heck not?” NYU seems like it’s been calling me for a couple of years (so I’ll be visiting Tuesday, flying up this Saturday! Yay!) And then L.A. started calling, like, WTF!! But at least the hiring manager offered to let me freelance till I decide to do something else. So, in the meantime, still don’t know what I’m going to do, but, I keep getting more and more signs pointing to NY. So, thanks for this!!!!

  • MzNewAgenda

    Yaaaaay! I am glad to hear you say all these things about NY. I get it and you are right, when you are from somewhere else, where ever you land as an adult, folks always want to send you back. LOL I am in the DMV and I have taken the megabus it up to NY to explore the city once. I do have plans to do it with my honey for NYE this year and opted to stay in a Boutique Hotel instead of a chain (Jolly Madison). My dad was a diplomat and traveling far and wide has taught me to explore local digs, eclectic spots to get the full appreciation of the city.