What makes someone a New Yorker? Are you one?

By Caitlin Kelly

No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.

  • E.B. White, Here is New York (1949)
New York City
New York City (Photo credit: kaysha)

Few cities continue to have the gravitational pull of New York City.

A new book, a collection of 28 essays, all by women, reflects on when and why they came to New York City — and why some of them later chose to leave.

Here’s an audio interview with them from WNYC’s Leonard Lopate show.

I moved to New York in June 1989, alight with ambition, optimism, high hopes for a stunning career — yadayadayada. Take a number!

English: A 4 segment Panoramic view of the Gra...
English: A 4 segment Panoramic view of the Grand Central Terminal Main Concourse in New York City, New York, United States. Taken with a Canon 5D and 24-105mm f/4L IS lens. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week, in conversation with an editor who once sat atop the masthead of a Very Big Magazine, she called me “so talented.” She’s a sweetheart and I may well be talented, but my years here have since toughened me up to well-meaning flattery. It’s lovely, of course, but it doesn’t pay the rent.

“Sweetie, everyone in New York is talented,” I replied.

What does make someone a New Yorker?

Do you have to be born and raised here? Some say yes, but I disagree. Millions of us have arrived here from distant towns, cities and countries, whether to study, take a job, marry a sweetheart, see how we stack up against the toughest competitors in our field.

New Yorker Hotel building from below
New Yorker Hotel building from below (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had worked in my native Canada in journalism for years and was doing well there.

But the thought of 30 more years doing the same thing amidst the same people? Not for me. One Toronto magazine editor, without exaggeration, held the same prestigious, powerful and much-coveted job for more than 20 years. That sort of stasis struck me as really boring. The place was just too small.

It’s an interesting experience trading your Big Fish-ness in a much smaller pond to the guppy-ness of arriving in a place where the greasy pole of fame and fortune looms into the stratosphere.

I admit it — I’ve never lived in the city itself but in a small town 25 miles north, a 38-minute express train ride. The sort of place snotty New Yorkers dismiss, incorrectly, as “upstate.”

I have a great apartment for a much lower cost. Would I live in the city if given an affordable choice? Maybe. Maybe not.

But I’ve seen myself change in some  basic ways since I moved here, as do many who choose to come here…

So, what makes a New Yorker?

— We’re direct

There’s a sort of conversational bluntness here that’s shocking to me, even today. I was at the movies recently and an older woman I don’t know snapped “Make sure no one takes my seat.” How about “Please?” Typical. For better or worse, strangers here often address one another as others rarely do in more formal/polite places, with the familiar tone of old friends — or despised relatives.

— We’re here to make money

Why else choose to stay in/near a city where the costs of living are so crazy-high? Where simply driving to the airport to pick someone up can snatch $13 from your pocket in tolls and parking? Surviving on ramen and free shows gets old after a while.

— We’re street smart

With people getting shoved onto the subway tracks more often than any of us would like, you learn fast to guard your wallet and your personal space and not to stare anyone in the eye. You learn not to engage potential psychos.

— We walk fast

When I visit other cities, everyone is walking sooooooo slowly. Tourists are the bane of our existence, clogging the narrow, crowded sidewalks, sometimes four abreast. Move it, people!

— You can cry in public and no one will notice

That’s possibly a mixed blessing, but I’ve cried in public here a few times and, just as we studiously ignore celebrities, observers will pretend everything is OK.

— We talk fast

If someone else has time to make small talk with the bank clerk or grocery store bagger, we’re tapping our foot and sighing.

— We’re not mean, just in a hurry

Being brusque doesn’t mean we’re cold or unkind, although it can certainly look that way to a newcomer or visitor from a slower-moving, more social place.

— Our bullshit meters are highly sensitive

We’ve heard just about everything in our years here. We watch our local and state politicians being sent off to prison for corruption or sexual crimes on a depressingly regular basis. So if something sounds soooooo amazing, we immediately look for the fine print.

— We’re driven

People come here to succeed professionally. (You can do much better more quickly in many other places.) That means climbing over the thousands of other smart, ambitious, highly-educated people who also want that job/promotion/grant/fellowship. We know how tough it is. We’ll do whatever it takes to achieve our goals.

— We relish the mix of people here

Rockettes, cops, artists, editors, actors, Wall Streeters, lawyers, NGO types, UN diplomats. They’re all here.

— We put up with the longest commutes in the U.S., some up to two hours each way

The cost of Manhattan being sky-high for rentals or ownership, thousands of “New Yorkers” live far outside the city limits, traveling in every day to work by car, bus, bike, train or ferry. Some, like Mr. Rockefeller (yes, that one, the billionaire whose enormous estate lies 10 minutes drive north of me) come in by helicopter.

— Income Inequality ‘R Us

Indeed. Just stand at the corner of Madison and 42d at rush hour and watch the endless parade of gleaming, spotless, black Escalades taking the 1% crowd home to the Upper East Side. See the Town Cars idling outside the restaurants and shops. Then cross Park Avenue at its northern end and you’ll see a cliffs’ edge plunge from the plutocracy to deep poverty.

— We treasure anonymity

If you want to be left alone to just get on with it, whatever it is, you can do that here without small-town nosiness, gossip or scrutiny.

— We expect open-mindedness

Whatever your religion, (or lack of same), your gender or sexual preferences, (or combination of same), your political views (or lack of same), it’s all good. This is not a place where (most!) people will dismiss you for not attending church every Sunday or voting for a specific party.

— We know what we want (even if we can’t afford it!)

The costs of living here are punitively high. This tends to focus you quickly on what you want and what you need to do to achieve it.

— We want to be here, no matter the (considerable) costs

Many of us came from smaller, quieter and far less expensive places. We chose New York.

Some of us are massively entitled

This recent New York magazine article about parents cheating in every way possible to boost their kids’ chances of success is sadly instructive.

— We’re (outwardly) confident

This is not a great place for the tongue-tied, shy or self-deprecating. People assume that if you’re successful, you’re telling us about it and we’re read or heard about you. Or we will soon.

— We brought NYC-specific dreams

Mine was to succeed in journalism and to publish a few books with major houses. The bitterly cold winter’s day in 2002 I walked through the halls at Simon & Schuster, with my agent, surrounded by the framed covers of their best-sellers, felt like a dream to me. That afternoon, to celebrate the imminent acquisition of my first book, I went around the corner to “21”, another Manhattan institution, and ate profiteroles. I went to Saks and bought myself a silver ring to commemorate this huge milestone.

— The people we really need to work with are here

Depending on your field or industry, this still remains the place to be. It’s said that “writers can live anywhere” and while that is technically accurate, there are few other cities where you can so quickly and easily meet and work with the people who can kick your career into high(er) gear.

— 9/11 remains very real to us, not some random historical fact

We lost friends, family, neighbors, co-workers and our fantasy of invulnerability. Thousands of us heard the roar of those planes coming in, and the F-15s that followed, and smelled the bitter tang of the fires after the towers fell and saw the smoke filling the sky. I know Richard Drew personally, the photographer who shot the terrifying photo, Falling Man, of a man falling (or jumping)_to his death. I know people here who are forever traumatized by what happened to them that day. It was also the day my husband was to have moved into my suburban apartment. Instead, he turned his Brooklyn apartment into a photo lab, scanning and transmitting film images to the Times’ midtown offices. (They won the Pulitzer that year for those photos.)

Are you a New Yorker?

What makes you one?

Do you wish you were?

36 thoughts on “What makes someone a New Yorker? Are you one?

      1. Well, yes…and no, of course. It is a wacky place but with many complex variations. I love the variety of culture and beauty of this smaller city–and the surrounding natural gorgeousness is what drew me originally. Still happy here after over 20 years.

  1. Excellent portrait of New Yorkers, Caitlin. I have been fascinated by New York for a long time and have read many books about it or set in New York. My impression of New York after visiting it twice in my life was that New Yorkers work very hard, no matter what the job is. I don’t think I would do well there – I am self-deprecating and very modest. It was interesting visiting Grand Central the first time – scummy “newspaper” hawkers in your face, a really threatening atmosphere. The second time around it had been cleaned up and was more civilized. We loved New York. being those tourists who are constantly looking up and around. And believe me when I say we all were devastated by 9/11; we all knew people who knew people, even in Maine. That evening, after the towers went down, a group of people, us incuded, went out to a rocky outcrop on the ocean, sat in silence and watched a low, thin cloud of gray smoke drifting up the coast.

    1. Thanks!

      I think if you come to NY and don’t work hard…you’ll be eaten alive by the people who are doing so. So it culls the herd fairly quickly in that respect. And, of course, there are plenty of modest people here but I really did have to break the Canadian habit of self-deprecation (very British) as it’s mis-understood here. I had to learn to chest-thump like a native. 🙂

      Grand Central is one of my favorite things about NY and commuting in and out of it. I did a story for the Globe & Mail about its renovation and learned a lot — and climbed the scaffolding all the way to the ceiling and cleaned one of those stars. Ironically, the woman who does PR for Metro-North lives a block from us and has become a friend, as her husband works with Jose…It can be a very small world here.

      Your story about 9/11 and Maine is amazing; I visited Malta and Tunisia in June 2003 and people were incredibly kind about 9/11 and everyone had stories about how they felt as well. We forget it had global impact.

  2. While I’m no New Yorker, and know I would not feel well and thrive there (I’m not that amitious that I’d do anything to be best in one area, I want to enjoy and try more kinds of things) I’d fit better in NY than in, say, London, which is way more close to home. The Dutch are of the direct kind of people too, so on that part I’d feel great – at least you know where you stand 😉

    1. I’m still surprised at how willing people can be to talk to you here about work or business. Some won’t, of course, but there isn’t the polite evasiveness and passivity I saw (and still see) in Canada. It drove me nuts and it still does. I’d rather know (even if it’s bad news) where I stand.

  3. Thanks Caitlin! Great piece that verbalizes some of my own sentiments. I have been back to NY many times since I moved out and love coming back. Sometimes I get a tinge of longing to be back but every time I leave I realize I am happy I am not there full time. I do miss the people though, that bluntly lovable communication. At least they talk to you. In Toronto the icy unwelcoming stares really get me enraged. I guess I will just be the loud NY’er that lives in Toronto. With a NY mum it is kind of inevitable. Will be back in February 2014 if you want to catch up!

    1. You know it well, then….that difference between “unfriendly” NYers (who are not that way at all) and Torontonians who really are frosty.
      My mother was also from NYC…:-)

      Give us a shout when you’re back down here again.

  4. Pingback: People and places | Andi Marquette

  5. I’m not a New Yorker, and I don’t think I’ll ever be. I’ve grown my roots too deep here in Texas with a few branches in the Inland Northwest, but I think every person who wants to be a writer daydreams about living in a cool NYC loft and living some romanticized writer’s lifestyle.

    Really though, I think Piers Anthony has it right. Just write like mad and live on a tree farm in Florida with the people that matter most. Hopefully, one day, I’ll get my tree farm.

  6. My niece, Marjie Killeen, suggested I read your post. My first real experience with NYC was in 1960 when my Aunt brought me from Michigan for a visit. I was 15. We had cocktails and listened to Bobby Short at Bemelman’s Bar. In 1964 I dropped out of college and came to NY to work at the World’s Fair. I stayed at The Barbizan for a week then moved into an apartment on 73rd between Madison and Fifth with two other girls. I met my first husband, moved to Brooklyn and worked at Clarence House, before moving to Pittsburgh and later Washington DC.

    My current husband, Ed, and I are back in NYC, living in Chelsea for three and a half months in celebration of my 70th year. I consider myself a New Yorker in heart and soul, perhaps because I first lived here at such at such a magical and impressionable time of my life. I danced at the first disco, a private club, called l’Intredit.

    I love almost everything about NY. I hate the garbage in my neighborhood and the dog doo. The people are open, helpful and friendly.

  7. themodernidiot

    I shoulda been a New Yorker. This place just doesn’t get me.

    And yes, my GAWD people are slow. Especially here. “I don’t CARE about your kids’ school play lady, just pay for your damn groceries before we all die of old age!”

    Do you have a link to Jose’s photos that won the prize? Man, I’d love to see them. That guy, the more I learn about him the cooler he gets 🙂

    1. There are places like that. I did NOT fit in rural NH at all…

      Jose is a photo editor, so he was part of that team. But those are not his photos. If you Google him, maybe you’d find some of his earlier work…Jose. R. Lopez. His wedding site is thisido.com

      1. themodernidiot

        Hehe yeah, can’t see you slugging the syrup and pressin cider lol.

        Thx for the google tip. I’m on it.

  8. If we were to draw up a scale, New-york would be at one end of it, and my hometown would be at the opposite end. Your article has intimidated the wits out of me. I’ve always wanted to come to NY, now I want it even more. My experience of the city thus far has been through Hollywood/Suits. Nice article.

    1. Well, it wasn’t designed to intimidate, but NYC IS is an intimidating place, no question about it. People who arrive unprepared for its pace and competitiveness and costs don’t enjoy it much. It’s not an easy place, so people who like to meander and live on very little money will find that challenging here.

      1. Yes. I suppose so. Unless you are a hippie, ‘going wherever life takes you’. Although I could never figure how that would work. Thanks for getting back to me though. I’m new to blogging. Testing the waters right now.

      2. Your blog came up with wordpress auto suggestions. I’ve enjoyed going through your articles. Hope to hone my skills with time. Will look up your classes. Don’t think I can afford them right now. But thanks. Maybe later, when I’m not so green anymore, and could really benefit from professional guidance.

  9. What a great portrait of city itself and people who are living in it. I´m amazed by New York City and I don´t think that love will ever go away. The city is so inspiring on so many levels but on the other hand if you are not careful enough it can also consume you really fast. Despite that your article gave me hope I can become a true New Yorker one day too.

    1. Thanks much…I bet you’d hear many different ideas of what makes a “true” New Yorker. Heard someone on the radio today — 35 years here and extremely successful — say he **still** doesn’t feel like a New Yorker. (He’s from Omaha.)

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