The Energy of New York City
If you’ve heard one thing about New York City you’ve heard about its unique energy, the buzz, crackle, and electricity that cuts through the air. Like every legend about this city, this energy exists, but not quite as ever-present as you might think.
I can tell you the energy of New York City does feel different than every other city I’ve ever been. Granted, I haven’t stepped foot in every metropolis around the world, but I have been around the block more than some, and New York City’s energy is every bit as unique and as palpable as you’ve been told.
But this unique energy doesn’t exist everywhere in the city. To experience this magical Electric Magnetic Field you need to stick to Midtown Manhattan, from about 59th street (the southern tip of Central Park) down to about Union Square, 14th Street, North to South, and 7th Ave to Broadway, West to East. When people talk about New York City’s signature energy they’re talking about the emotional charge you’ll find within this large block on the city’s central island.
When you leave this energetic locus you’ll find yourself crossing through many distinct neighborhoods each with its own tone. The Upper East and Upper West sides feel different from each other. The East Village and the West Village contrast youthful exuberance on one end and laid back sensuality on the other, and in between the two you’ll encounter the student-centric city blocks surrounding New York University’s main campus. Soho feels different than South Ferry, and travelling up the island on Broadway you’ll encounter a marketed shift as Columbia University gives way to Mexican West Harlem which gives way to the “Little Dominican Republic” of Washington Heights all within the span of a few dozen blocks.
With that you’ve only covered a fraction of Manhattan alone. The city’s other four Boroughs also experience their own dramatic shifts in tone, ethnic identity and energetic fingerprint. As soon as you leave the center of Manhattan you realize New York City doesn’t feel like just one thing. Depending on where you choose to explore, New York City can feel like anything, and anywhere, you want.
The Downside of Anything
Unfortunately this means that even though New York City can be an incredible place filled with some of the best experiences the world has to offer, it’s just as equally home to the worst of everything. Visitors to New York City often ignore this possibility, the potential for badness in badness’ most boring expression. Visitors tend to assume that just because something’s in New York City, it has to be great, unforgettable, life changing.
This isn’t true, and the disconnect between New York City’s romanticism and reality was driven home to me when a Spanish friend of mine, fresh from Madrid, recoiled in absolute shock when she bit into a piece of pizza she found in Midtown and realized it was inedible.
New York City, home to 10 million, spills over with mediocrity, with people who don’t care, who aren’t driven, who don’t desire achievement in life’s station. The city is filled with cooks who can’t cook, store owners with no taste, and artists without inspiration. Living in New York City by no means insures that you are any better than anyone else, or offer anything better than one could find anywhere else.
Yet New York City’s ambitious image isn’t entirely unfounded. In this city you can stumble upon the best the world has to offer. You can discover incredible restaurants whose dishes are as innovative as they are masterfully executed. You can encounter stores curated with the greatest collection of wares, whether clothes or shaving creams or antiques, you will ever find. You can meet the world’s greatest artists, comedians, and writers as they perform revelatory shows for just $5 a ticket.
New York City does not default to the incredible, but it is home for more incredible people and experiences than just about anywhere else in the world. You simply need to put in a little work to find them.
Getting the Most Out of New York City
Lose the preconception you can simply walk down the street, turn into the first shop you see and receive the best of the best. Wandering around New York City with this mindset will lead to sore feet and shattered expectations. Instead, leverage the community of bloggers, reviewers and hobbyists who are hard at work categorizing and rating everything the city has to offer. Know what you’re looking to experience and then do the research needed to find the best in the city.
The one service I’ve found most consistently useful for navigating New York City and identifying great places to eat, shop, and relax is “Yelp”. I use the Yelp app for my smartphone every time I’m in an unfamiliar neighborhood, or in a familiar neighborhood and find myself with an unfamiliar need to fill.
But to help you get started on your trip, here are a few of my favorite haunts in Manhattan, all of which are absolutely worth checking out:
- Housing Works Thrift Stores – Most “thrift” stores in New York City are more accurately labeled as “second-hand” stores and are filled with clothes that are massively overpriced and staffed by disinterested past-their-prime club-kids. By contrast the Housing Works brand offers true thrift stores- their locations are regularly restocked, inexpensively priced, well-organized, and all proceeds go towards fighting HIV/AIDS and not towards supporting some over-aged scenester’s cocaine habit. I recommend shopping their locations in the wealthier neighborhoods of Manhattan, including the Upper West Side and Chelsea.
- Grounded Coffee Shop – New York City has no end of coffee shops, most of which are underwhelming. Skip the mediocre cafés and go to Grounded, located on Jane Street off 8th Ave in the West Village. Grounded features all the tasty lunch foods, smoothies, caffeinated beverages and baked goods you could ever want, all at good prices, plus free wireless and a cozy interior filled with exposed brick and a small jungle of beautiful plants allowed to run wild.
- Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater (UCB) – There are few entertainment venues as consistently entertaining as the UCB, which features live improv, sketch, and storytelling events every night of the week. Nearly every single show rings up at just $5-$10 a ticket, including intimate shows featuring big-name comedians such as UCB co-founder Amy Poehler (Parks & Recreation).
- Dumping Man – Sitting in the East Village at easy-to-remember 100 St. Marks Avenue, Dumpling Man offers one of the best values for your dining dollar in the city. Choose from a small but delicious menu of dumplings and side dishes that are prepared en-mass by a conspicuously placed cadre of short, sturdy middle-aged Japanese women. Enjoy a Sapporo with your ample dumplings all for under $10 a meal. WAY better than the over-hyped Rickshaw. Pro tip: try their signature desert is sweet-potato dumplings drenched in condensed milk and dusted with cinnamon.
- Any Gyro Cart, Anywhere – I know I said you always need to do your research in New York City lest you stumble upon overpriced mediocrity, but there is one exception to this rule. I have never had a bad Lamb Gyro in New York City, and I have never paid more than $4 for one of these tasty sandwiches. Walk up to the first gyro cart you see and you will walk away smiling.
Depending on whether you’re willing to perform a little research or not, visiting New York City will be either a tremendous let down or an incredible thrill ride. Leave room for spontaneity, but seek outside counsel when trying to find your way through the expensive garbage in search of those experiences that make New York City so special.