Thursday, November 21, 2013

Impressions of NYC, November 2013 (revised)

[revised 11/26/2013]

This was my first trip back to NYC since about 2004 or so. For my benefit more than anything else, these are my notes about what has and has not changed in the city from my lowly point of view.

1. It was shocking to me how quickly my knowledge about how to get around had deteriorated. You forget which streets are one way, you forget which is the uptown/downtown entrance to the subways. You stop at crosswalks instead of blasting right through with an eye on the incoming traffic. I reached for my little fold out map maybe 200 times in 8 days. When I lived there, I never needed a map. You spend a LOT more money on taxi's because at some point you just say, "fuck it, get me there", where a local would just walk or take the subway. I got lost maybe a dozen times and I never used to get lost in Manhattan.

There is obviously some backstory here

2. There continues to be a disturbing trend towards branded nationwide chains in Manhattan.

3. The taxis have done away with the celebrity greetings, which were there to try and make tourists feel better about using taxicabs. I miss hearing Rodney Dangerfield remind me to take my bags as I left. There is in its place a nice GPS map of Manhattan showing you where you are if you knew how to get at it on the touch panel display. Oh Brave New World !

4. Pizza has gone from being $1.50 for a slice of plain to $2.50.

My barber in Little Italy

5. People in NY, or at least my friends in NY, are constantly visiting people, galleries, parties, and/or other social events. Constantly. I know one person in LA who lives that way, but no one else. There are no social events worth speaking of down where I live.

6. The perceived expense of visiting NY is real. NY is much less expensive to live in than to visit assuming you have a reasonable place to live. The money is spent on hotels (or whereever it is you stay), transportation and to some extent on food depending on whether you eat out all the time. Is this worse than other cities? Not really, I think. Maybe hotel rooms are more expensive overall. But taxis are less expensive in NY than in LA, although of course you tend to use them more in NY.

7. Taking a taxi from LAX to Culver City is nearly $40.00 today.

8. More of NY is going upscale, and some of the older neighborhoods are changing. Broome street, where I was staying, is midway in the process of becoming a trendy, soho-like place.

Tom Brigham in front of House of Vegetarian

9. The new "world trade center" is just ok. Its a nice enough building except for the stupid tower on top to try and make it seem taller than it is. It is not the WTC in either scale or impressiveness, but I don't think anyone will really care in a few years. Lets see how they do with the monument. I am not holding my breathe.

10. Little Italy is much reduced. Apparently this happened long ago, when I was still living there, as a way of reducing the influence of certain Sicilian families, they tell me.

11. Chinatown is still there and as weird as ever.

12. But most of all what impressed me is that NYC is drop dead beautiful. The architecture, the lighting, the weather and the people all makes for a dramatic and fascinating place to live.

13.  As always when in NY one should buy a Metrocard, which is a little card which keeps subway and other transit fares, like a phone card.    You can put any amount of money on the card, but when one buys a certain amount you get a decent discount so you should do that.   What the Metrocard does for you is to make any of the mass transit systems in NY easier to use.  No fumbling for money, no exact change, no waiting in line for a ticket.  You just swipe your card through the turnstile and it lets you through and tells you your balance.

On this trip I was staying in a part of town I rarely spent much time in (Broome street near Christie, near Chinatown) and I did not know how it really fit into the subways.   I needed to go to B&H Photo at 34th street and as I was pondering whether I felt like walking 30+ blocks, a 3rd Avenue bus went by.   So I took out my Metrocard and I was on the uptown bus, which stops at 34th street.   Ok, admittedly, I got a little lucky here.  But the idea behind a well-designed and run transit system is that tourists and residents should get lucky now and then.

14.  I always have conversations with my cab drivers.   I dont know why, maybe it puts me at ease, but they are almost always interesting people to talk to, usually recent immigrants (where recent can be as much as 10 years or so).  Usually pretty fluent in English.

15. I found that after a while, I enjoyed staying at Arlene's Home for Wayward Children, where I had a couch and shared the bathroom with six other people.  Everyone was well behaved and easy to get along with, even Arlene when you calmed her down.   I could live there for a while and be perfectly happy.  If only I could afford it.   Not a giant fan of that part of town (Broome and Christie) but there are people who swear by it.  I am more of an upper west side kind of guy, I suppose.

16. Its nice to see a technology community thriving in NYC.  I hope it persists and continues to thrive, it gives me some hope that I would be able to find suitable employment there one day.


  1. Very interesting to hear your impressions after a decade away. The city has changed a lot over the years...especially from the bad old days in the 70s and 80s when it was more feared than appreciated. The balance has sure shifted and one part of that is that there are *way* more tourists (from everywhere) now than ever before. This is one of the downsides to the otherwise mostly good changes. Fortunately the city is so big and vibrant that the of tourists don't come close to overwhelming it except in certain pockets. But as a result you do have to try a bit harder to find the undiscovered gems, whereas before even places like the Met felt like something you could call your own.

    Speaking of relatively unknown gems, I just went to a great exhibit on ancient maps at Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (part of NYU), just a half block east from the Met. Never been there before. In a beautiful converted 6-story limestone townhouse/mansion. And it was free!

  2. Bob -- I love ancient maps and I did not know about this exhibit.... And how funny since you had come to visit me at NYU the other day. One of the things I miss most about NY is this kind of thing. I once attended a lecture sponsored by the NY chapter of the american institute of archaeology that had Adrienne Mayor speak about her theory of the origins of the Griffin in mythology. It was really a peak experience for me. She was/is such an art historian geek. See

  3. Yeah too bad I didn't think of mentioning it to you (I didn't know/remember about your interest in ancient maps).

    Very interesting book/hypothesis. I just ordered it!