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ABOUT NEW YORK’S NEIGHBORHOODS
Apart from the actual decision to relocate, perhaps the most significant and challenging decision you’ll have to make when you relocate to New York is deciding where you’ll live. New York itself is geographically small, but your day-to-day life will center around two even smaller areas: the neighborhood where you live and the one where you work.
Many aspects of your life (the restaurants you frequent, your gym, the services you utilize, and to some extent the friends you make— especially if you have kids) will flow from your choice of neighborhood, and even from your choice of block (New Yorkers often say “block” instead of “street”) and building. Still, all is not what it seems on the surface, and your ultimate choice of neighborhood may be very different from what your first instinct might lead you to believe.
In an ideal New York City, you’d be able to get a large, airy, sunny apartment in your neighborhood of choice for exactly the amount of money you’re willing and able to spend. But in the real New York City, even multimillionaires have to make some compromises—and the rest of us have to compromise a whole lot more. The delicate balance between the need for a space in which you’ll be happy and the need for a few dollars left over to cover other essentials (like food) is an elusive target for most every New Yorker.
When considering a neighborhood, you’ll want to weigh the following primary factors:
•Your personality and the personality of the neighborhood •Cost of housing •Availability of desirable housing •Safety •Proximity to work
Consider these factors against the backdrop of three very important distinguishing factors about the neighborhoods in New York City (as opposed to neighborhoods almost everywhere else):
First, although the human brain uses generalizations to make sense of the world, the neighborhoods of New York City are mind-boggling in their diversity, and they defy generalization. Although it’s possible to characterize neighborhoods based on the characteristics of the majority of their residents, the simple truth is that every kind of person lives in just about every neighborhood of New York. Sure, some neighborhoods have greater percentages of families or hipsters or gay men or specific ethnic groups, but without question you’ll find everyone living everywhere.
For example, Chelsea is known as a gay neighborhood, but plenty of young, upwardly mobile, heterosexual thirty-something couples with kids choose to live there, perhaps because they work downtown and found a good apartment in the London Terrace complex, because they love the boutiques and cafés that that neighborhood boasts, or perhaps because they just like their neighbors. The stereotype of the Upper East Side is that it’s stodgy and wealthy, but some young artists choose to live there rather than in SoHo because, ironically, there are now more housing bargains to be found on the Upper East Side.
Not every building can be on Fifth Avenue facing Central Park—the side streets are full of deals—plus, though the galleries may be downtown, the museums are uptown. You’ll find plenty of corporate lawyer- and investment-banker-types too, some of them living in the working-class neighborhoods of Car-roll Gardens in Brooklyn, or Astoria in Queens, because there’s more space for the money and the commute to Wall Street is more convenient than from many neighborhoods within Manhattan. And Staten Island is not just for the big-haired crowd anymore (like Melanie Griffith and Joan Cusack in Working Girl)—there are plenty of young professionals who choose to live in the apartments near the Staten Island ferry because they work downtown, the view is great, the rent is lower, and all they have to do is walk off the boat and one block to the office—an easy and interesting commute by all accounts.
Even within a specific building, it’s hard to generalize. Almost every brownstone in New York has one highly desirable ground-floor garden apartment with a backyard—and a nearly identical apartment (with no yard) on the fifth floor, which can be reached only by climbing five flights of stairs. These two apartments may be in the same building, with the same internal square footage, same exposure, and same address—yet one may cost three times as much as the other! While the garden apartment may be occupied by a lawyer and a doctor, their newborn baby, and a golden retriever, the fifth-floor walk-up may be shared by three aspiring actors or models.
Second—and this always takes newcomers a while to grasp—neighborhoods in New York change dramatically in just a few feet. For example, in the case of East 96th Street, one of the most genteel neighborhoods in America (Carnegie Hill) ends on the south side of the street, and one of the formerly most rough-and-tumble (East Harlem) begins on the north. Until a couple of years ago “El Barrio,” or “Spanish Harlem,” as it was known, used to be one of the most run-down and dangerous neighborhoods in Manhattan, but now, East Harlem is changing, and young professionals, artists, and tree huggers are moving into the neighborhood.
Most of the Upper West Side was a slum in 1970. Now it’s perhaps the most desirable (judging by popularity and cost) neighborhood in town. TriBeCa, a former manufacturing district, has gone residential, as have the areas of Williamsburg and Dumbo (an acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). Only a decade or two ago, it would have been almost unthinkable for a newcomer to live in the neighborhood now known as Clinton, which used to be called Hell’s Kitchen. Now it abounds with hipsters, families, wannabes, and longtime residents, which translates to more restaurants, coffee shops and cafés, and, of course, higher rents.
It’s hard to believe it until you’ve seen it yourself, and even then it takes time for this reality to sink in. There are subtle and not- so-subtle dividing lines all over New York, and it takes a practiced eye to see them—the neighborhoods are always evolving, like living things. Apartments in New York can be bigger or smaller, more or less desirable, cheaper or more expensive, all based on these subtle dividing lines.
You can’t expect to know where you want to live right away, and for the majority of people who choose to relocate to New York (young folks with no kids), that’s not a problem. The thing to do is find yourself a space with which you’ll be reasonably happy for the money you’re paying and then spend the next year (the length of your lease, probably) exploring the town. Take this time to decide if the neighborhood you live in feels like home and, if it doesn’t, by the end of your lease you should know the city well enough to find a place to call your own.
Basic New York City Geography
New York City is made up of five boroughs: Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island, and Brooklyn. There is also an emerging “sixth borough,” which consists of the nearby New Jersey cities of Hoboken and Jersey City (discussed later in Chapter 4, “The Suburbs”).
That said, when most people think of “the City” they’re visualizing Manhattan, and Manhattan was, in the past, the most likely destination for the overwhelming majority of newcomers (most newcomers figure, Why move to the City if you’re not going to live in the City?). But in recent years, with the dramatic rise in real estate costs, there has been a trend for locals and newcomers alike to consider the “outer boroughs” (all boroughs other than Manhattan) and the “sixth borough” of Hoboken and Jersey City as equally valid options.
The primary focus of this section is on the major neighborhoods within Manhattan and the most popular and commutable communities within the other four boroughs. There are many other lovely neighborhoods within those boroughs, but they’re simply not as convenient or close to Manhattan. Also, this section contains an overview of neighborhoods and suburbs in northern New Jersey, Long Island, Westchester/Rockland, and southern Connecticut (the “tristate area”) and beyond, which are mostly of interest to families with children (who want a house with a yard). The areas covered in this section are:
New York City
•Financial District and TriBeCa •Greenwich Village and SoHo •East Village, Lower East Side, and Chinatown •Clinton (Midtown West) and Chelsea •Turtle Bay (Midtown East), Gramercy, Murray Hill •Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village •Upper East Side •Upper West Side •Morningside Heights and Hamilton Heights •Central Harlem •East Harlem •Washington Heights and Inwood
•Downtown Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, Dumbo •Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Red Hook •Williamsburg, Greenpoint
•Astoria, Jackson Heights, Long Island City
•Northern Staten Island
•The South Bronx (SoBro) •Riverdale
•Westchester/Rockland •Long Island •Northern New Jersey •Southern Connecticut
Outside the Area
•Upstate New York •Southern and Central New Jersey •Western and Upstate
•The East End of Long Island
Crime in New York City
By now it’s hardly news that safety in New York City has improved by leaps and bounds over the past two decades, and that trend shows no signs of abating. It is now safer to live in New York City than in any other large city in America.
Crime in New York has been dropping steadily since 1991, and the City now has the lowest crime rate of the ten largest cities in the United States. Murders in 2005 were at their lowest since 1963, and there has been a 75 percent overall drop in crime since 1991. New York City now has a rate of 2,802 crimes per 100,000 people, a far lower number per 100,000 than in the other large cities: 8,960 in Dallas; 7,904 in Detroit; 7,402 in Phoenix; 7,347 in San Antonio; 7,195 in Houston; 5,471 in Philadelphia; 4,376 in Los Angeles; and 4,103 in San Diego.
Major recent crime-fighting initiatives in the areas of statistics gathering, DNA testing, school safety, domestic violence, aggressive driving, and criminal justice reform promise to continue improving New York’s reputation as a safe, livable city. Plus, it’s important to remember that the bulk of New York City’s violent crimes occur in neighborhoods that won’t be under consideration in this book. In a safe neighborhood like Carnegie Hill, where my husband and I have lived for almost two decades, any incident of violent crime (and there are very few) is major news in the community, just as it would be in any small town anywhere in America.
Some crime is unavoidable, but most can be prevented through a combination of vigilance and common sense. Don’t let yourself be a statistic. Be aware of your surroundings, don’t get into situations or confrontations that you can’t handle, and don’t be afraid to call for help. Keep your doors locked and your eyes open. Plan for safety, and your safety is much more likely to be assured.
Also, safety is often in the eye of the beholder. Some neighborhoods, like Mott Haven in the Bronx, may be perfectly safe for groups of young males sharing an apartment, but not as comfortable for families with young children or women living alone (although that neighborhood is improving so rapidly that, by next year, it will likely be far more desirable). Up-and-coming, formerly unsafe (but not totally safe yet) neighborhoods are favorite destinations for young people who, in exchange for a bigger apartment with a smaller rent, are often willing to forgo conveniences (like twenty-four-hour markets) and dodge the sketchy characters who might be loitering around the area. Obviously, not everyone would make this choice.
From the Trade Paperback edition.