The Real.Est List
An expat's view of 8 NYC neighborhoods (in 6 months)
Six months ago, my husband and I (both copywriting and web development freelancers, both British expats) moved to New York for six months. We’d both been loads of times before, but this time we wanted to experience as much of the city as possible.
So we made the slightly crazy decision to move every few weeks. (If you need help with packing suitcases, we’re your people.)
All in all, we lived in EIGHT different neighborhoods. Here’s what we observed about these areas -- in the order that we did them.
Upper East Side - East 77th street between Second and Third Avenues
I’d lived on the Upper East Side before, so I kind of knew what to expect: lots of little yappy dogs, heavily perfumed older ladies, 20-something women with high ponytails and spandex, posh stores, and supermarkets that sell cellophaned brownie bites and mini-cookies instead of anything remotely useful.
I’d expected right. But of course there’s more to the UES. The atmosphere is friendly and laid-back (especially on weekends), and there are plenty of cute little boutique shops that SoHo devotees possibly miss out on. I was also surprised by the number of fun sports bars east of Lexington - I’d just assumed the UES was too stuffy for that kind of thing.
Museum Mile means you can get a heckuva lot of culture without walking very far. And when you’re famished after a long day of looking at pretty pictures (or confusingly simplistic wooden blocks at the modern art repositories), there are some really unique and reasonably priced places to eat nearby, like Via Quadronno and Mimi’s Kitchen.
Of course everyone moans about the poor transportation links -- the 6 is the only local train -- and I agree: it can be a hassle to walk to your nearest station. But we found the 6 trains to be a dependable and regular mode of transportation to plenty of useful places downtown. And eventually, there’s going to be a new subway line along Second Avenue.
Lower East Side - Attorney Street (just south of East Houston Street)
If you want to experience a culture shock without traveling very far, forget Kuala Lumpur or India -- just move from the Upper East to the Lower East.
The Upper East screams wealth, privilege, outdoor brunching and $65 eyebrow waxes (no lie), whereas the Lower East looks how I imagine East Germany looked before 1989: monotonous gray buildings (albeit livened up with graffiti), inhabited by skinny people all wearing the same clothes and sneaking into underground “hush-hush” bars and restaurants late at night.
The LES is home to a particular kind of “fun” -- a fun that requires you to know secret phone numbers, learn special knocks and climb down hidden stairs before you’re allowed to eat or drink anything -- which you don’t (eat at least), because then you won’t fit into your already-too-tight clothes.
The neighborhood wasn’t always like this, and it’s still popular with the minority ethnic groups who’ve lived there for decades -- which means when you’re heading to an overpriced hidden bar, you notice kosher delis and Latin American cuisine.
Chelsea - West 29th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues
Two weeks living on the Lower East Side was crazy-fun, but we did feel very uncool living there, and there wasn’t much prettiness or a community-like atmosphere.
So I was REALLY looking forward to living in Chelsea. These days, everyone in Midtown West likes to say they live in Chelsea -- thanks to some restoration of the area as well as excellent propaganda by local realtors.
The realtors did a great job, because apart from a few lovely bits, we didn't think Chelsea was all that great. It looks like a tourist trap with its busy streets, traffic levels, ugly buildings, bad diners and neon signs, but the only tourists there are the ones who’ve gotten lost on the way to Times Square.
Now for those nice bits - which are worth a trip, but in my opinion not a lease. West of Tenth Avenue, everything’s quite lovely. You’ve got the High Line, which provides a beautiful way to walk downtown without needing to cross any streets. And then of course there are all the galleries, which can be found in awesome warehousey buildings and provide some fascinating art that’s definitely worth a look.
Upper West Side - West 82nd Street (between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues)
Compared to Chelsea, the Upper West Side is like a beautiful suburban village where the parents are all soap-star polished, the kids act like they’re trying out for some “kid of the year” award and the dogs actually look like they’re smiling.
Seriously: this place is just so happy. It probably helps that there are massive green spaces everywhere you look (a slight exaggeration, but it felt like we were living in the countryside after Chelsea).
And there’s a great vibe along Amsterdam Avenue on summery evenings: all the restaurants have outdoor seating, so it almost felt like we were on vacation.
The UWS has yet more going for it: the brownstones are some of the prettiest you’ll find in Manhattan, and there are enough subway lines to get you to most places you’ll need to visit in the city.
One downside is that (as with the Upper East), you’re quite far from everything going on downtown. Although there are many train lines, it’s all too easy to decide not to head out to the East Village or Midtown for a party or event.
Astoria - Broadway (between 45th and 46th Streets)
Astoria is one of the more under-the-radar areas left in NYC, and (as British expats) we didn’t really know that much about it when we moved in for the week.
Here’s the first thing we noticed: whereas everyone basically looks the same on the Upper West, that’s definitely not the case in Astoria. The neighborhood is eclectic, to say the least.
Loads of nationalities have settled there over the years (including Dutch, German, Maltese and Bangladeshi), but today it’s all about the Italians, Greeks and Arabs. They all live in separate pockets of the neighborhood, and their respective restaurants are also grouped into separate areas. (And trust me: regardless of what Yelp says, once you’ve tried one plate of pasta or one Greek salad or one shish kebab in Astoria, you’ve tried them all.)
As well as all the fun-but-samey restaurants, there are plenty of relatively new and very cool bars and cafes; it’s surely only a matter of time before this place reaches the malfunctioning radars of inward-looking Manhattanites.
Park Slope - 8th Street (at Seventh Avenue)
It’s important to be a dog, a baby or a parent if you live in Park Slope. Or if you’re comfortable with being an outsider, that’s fine too.
Park Slope is the “suburb” to move to once you’ve grown too big for Manhattan apartments but are scared of real suburbs. And it does have a lot going for it: it’s pretty, for one thing - there are lots of brownstone houses and leafy streets. Then there’s all that green space in Prospect Park.
There are also enough restaurants, bars and events for parents to justify getting a babysitter every night of the week.
The neighborhood is the butt of many anti-gentrification jokes, but if you’re a fan of organic peanut butter, botox and bottles of red wine with a decent vintage, who cares? Park Slopers certainly don’t: everyone is so smug that it’s like joking about the decor in Donald Trump’s apartment and then remembering that he couldn’t give a rat’s ass what you think about his penchant for gold leaf.
And while Park Slope is, admittedly, fabulous, it lacks something -- some sort of excitement, or atmosphere, or even just smell -- that you get in lots of areas in Manhattan.
Williamsburg - Bayard Street (between Union Avenue and Lorimer Street)
A month was too long in Park Slope, and we were excited to get away to something a bit grittier and more exciting.
Unfortunately, the smugness in Williamsburg is just as extreme - although this time it belongs to young hipsters who are aware that they noticed the area’s potential before anyone else.
A few years ago, Williamsburg was mostly just a building site with a really cool park in the middle (that’s McCarren Park, and it’s just as cool today).
Gentrification began, then stopped because of the recession. And then it re-started in earnest: there are beautiful new apartment buildings, an uber-cool hotel, and eccentric bars that Manhattanites are willing to change trains for (I base this on the fact that absolutely no one lives or works within walking distance of an L train stop).
Sure, the men’s beards will occasionally made us feel we were in a gorilla sanctuary, and their tight-tight trousers made us worry on their behalf about future fertility issues. But everyone’s so nice. And so happy. And so charming - even the girls whose butt cheeks are visible beneath their cut-off shorts.
East Village - East 6th Street (between First and Second Avenues)
When residents got priced out of the East Village, they moved to Williamsburg - so we were expecting our East Village experience to be similar to our Williamsburg one (bars, clubs, young people in skinny clothes...).
We were also expecting to notice the legacy of the 1970s: rastafarian artists, vegetarian pot-smokers, “lost souls” sketching away in cafes, etc. We did see those things, but these days there’s more than just hippie-dippie atmopshere and a crazy nightlife.
Proximity: that’s something no one really mentions. If you ever get tired of all the bars, amazing sandwich shops, parks, theaters, boutique stores and cafes, it’s so easy to get to practically anywhere else in the city - either by foot or subway.
It’s also surprisingly quiet during the day.
The homeless people -- of whom there are many -- are nocturnal (makes sense: the whole place comes alive at night), and everyone else seems to be either reading or working in one of the many, many cafes.
Surprisingly, there’s a lovely community feeling. Because it’s so clearly “different” from its neighboring areas, there’s more of a sense of “Hello, fellow East Villager!” when passing people in the street.
And our favorite area was...
Every time we moved to a new area, we wondered if it was the sort of place we’d live permanently (or at least for a whole year). We doubt we’ll ever have the opportunity to spend such a large chunk of time in the city, so for no reason whatsoever we drew up a “pros/cons” lists and tried to figure out our top place according to our own personal criteria.
We couldn’t decide on just one place, but we managed to whittle it down to two: the East Village and Upper West Side.
They seem so different on almost every level. But the things they both have in common are super-friendly people, a real community atmosphere, heaps of restaurants and bars to pick from, great transport links, and just about enough open space.
Michelle Slade is a freelance copywriter and editor. Find out more on her website: www.makingitanywhere.com.