How to Be a New Yorker

Terribly useful rules for life

In my early years in the city, I would head to the East Village on weekends to bar-hop with friends. I remember cabbies questioning whether I really wanted to go to "Alphabet City"; that area wasn't the safest, they'd explain. Of course, I went anyway. Later I moved downtown and lived on those same blocks, suddenly heavily populated with twentysomethings, small dogs, chain stores, and even the occasional high-end baby carriage. Cab drivers would laugh to themselves as they dropped me off: "You wouldn't believe what it was like here 10 years ago," they'd say. Oh, but I would.

Maybe we're losing our edge, our character, our authenticity. Or maybe we're just being New Yorkers. As Whitehead writes: "To put off the inevitable, we try to fix the city in place, remember it as it was, doing to the city what we would never allow to be done to ourselves. . . . New York City does not hold our former selves against us. Perhaps we can extend the same courtesy."

Do no harm. Jeremiah Moss, the writer behind Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, expresses a frequent complaint: "Newcomers to New York want backyards, bicycles, and barbecues. They want Greenwich Village to be like their hometowns in Wisconsin," he says. "Underneath this—and not very far underneath—there's a seething hatred of urban life. They don't like the dirt or the smells. They don't like the kvetching and the neuroticism. They don't like the layers of history. They want to tear it all down and make it clean and new."

Les and Joan Rich on their wedding day, in 1961. “She was the most beautiful girl,” wrote Les.
Courtesy Steve Rich
Les and Joan Rich on their wedding day, in 1961. “She was the most beautiful girl,” wrote Les.
Les Rich mugging for the camera with Joan in the early 1960s.
Courtesy Steve Rich
Les Rich mugging for the camera with Joan in the early 1960s.

In some ways, New York is the Madonna (Ciccone, not the Virgin) of cities, constantly re-envisioning itself—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, and always in a way that draws a crowd of people who follow their city's lead and reimagine themselves as well. "What's new," says NYU professor of English Bryan Waterman, "is the rate at which the old is being wiped away and replaced with this homogenized reality with a really high entry point."

Progress is varied and debatable, as is what we have to lose through change, and the two will be in conflict until the end of time. Until then, it's up to us to defend the stories and histories we see as integral to our future, whether that means standing up for art, architecture, businesses, neighborhoods, culture, people, politics, and ways of life, or simply not doing anything to hurt them. Let the layers of history exist. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that the most anti–New York behavior of all would be stagnation.

"The thing about New York is it's based on the idea of change," Glaser says. "It doesn't cling to its own history and has been free to invent new ones. Some changes are horrible, others lead us somewhere. They're discomfiting because no one likes change, but eventually, you end up somewhere else, and you discover you like that place. You may hate Starbucks, but it's done something, and eventually it, too, will disappear. This endless capacity for reinventing itself defines the city and also the opportunity that exists here."

Have no other choice. Perhaps you think of someday owning a cottage in Maine or a flat in Paris overlooking the Eiffel Tower, or of going back to rule your suburban town with an iron fist and a ranch house. In fact, those are options. You could move. But while you might think or talk about it, just to test the waters, even getting out of town for a weekend is a rarity that can send you into an emotional tailspin. Where will you find a 24-hour bodega to buy whatever you need, whenever you need it, should whatever need it be happens to arise? What if you require an escape and, gulp, there are no cabs or subways or buses? What if it is too quiet to sleep? After all, the country is where scary Children of the Corn–type shit happens. In the city, if you scream, someone will surely hear you and call 311 to complain. (Note: The Riches recommend developing "the proper mental attitude" toward thin walls.)

For a New Yorker, our urban landscape becomes the norm, and anything else is bewildering and foreign. Ardai says: "I literally can't imagine living anywhere else. I view concrete the way other people view soil, buildings the way other people view mountains. New York is humankind's greatest triumph over the natural world, a testament to human resourcefulness and persistence and sacrifice and desire. . . . That I get to live inside it is one of my greatest pleasures in life."

Write the Riches: "We're hooked. We're New Yorkers. We'd move to San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Louisville, but we know we'd never be able to stand all the rude people."

Disagree at will. A New Yorker will immediately claim the prerogative to argue with any and all of these rules, "I'm a New Yorker" being an intensely metropolitan brand of fighting words. As Waterman says, "When you hear someone say they're a New Yorker, you kind of get suspicious of them."

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