Potential culprits include Jay-Z, Frank Sinatra, Darren Star, and pretty much anyone who has ever lived in New York. If I’m being really honest, it may even be Nora Ephron’s fault, but I hate to blame anything on her so let’s just say it was Sinatra. If you can make it there, you’re gonna make it anywhere. New York City, by gosh it’ll chew you up and spit you out and if you don’t know your blue from your cerulean you’ll be laughed off the streets!
That’s all just way too much to put onto a lowly little traveller from anywhere else on the planet.
The result is anxiety, self-restriction, and way too much traffic driven to brutally lame articles that purport to teach the pathetic know-nothings how to survive the mean streets of the only city that counts. You have to walk fast! Traffic lights are for losers! New Yorkers love to wear black! For the love of god do NOT stop to read a sign and, if you absolutely must take a photograph, you should prepare yourself now for the fact that you will be mugged and you will have deserved it. Being intimidating is like 80% of the city’s brand so, naturally, the internet is rife with advice on how to do New York “right”: guides to eating like a local, how to avoid looking like you don’t belong, and all the many reasons you should never ever go to midtown.
There’s some ok advice in there in certain situations. Sometimes, if published with care and not just designed for SEO-optimized opportunism, articles like that are, at their hearts, a frustrated plea for attention to be paid to the less cliché aspects of the town- the neighbourhoods that actually feel like neighbourhoods, the independently owned restaurants doing cool international cuisine. But there are only two groups who I think have any obligation at all to care about what those articles say- tourists who are visiting the city not because it’s New York City but because it’s legitimately the closest big city to where they live, and people who actually live in New York City.
“How to avoid looking like you don’t belong” is bullshit at all times unless we’re talking basic common sense safety like keeping an eye on your possessions and not blocking the stairs to the subway. But guides to interesting local restaurants and cool places to visit that aren’t in the central tourist hub are a really valuable asset in any big city. But it’s that “any big city” part that’s key. Every city is filled with interesting local restaurants and cool places to visit. Cities with large immigrant populations in particular provide awesome opportunities to experience a huge range of cultures and foods and activities all intermingled in one place. If you spend a lot of time in New York and you’re not taking advantage of those things, you’re wasting your opportunity. It’s important for people from smaller places to experience what makes city life unique and the best way to do that is not by sticking to touristy areas and tourist-oriented activities. If you’re visiting New York because it’s a big city and not because it’s New York City, then by all means follow the internet advice to the hip fusion restaurant that you can’t find in your small town but you could totally find in Toronto or London or honestly probably any place with more than 500,000 people.
But the people I’m talking to right now are not those people. They’ve been to cities, they know what that’s all about. A really good Ethiopian restaurant is not novel. I’m talking about a real New York City tourist, someone who is visiting not for the City but for the New York. We don’t get mad at someone visiting Paris for wanting to see the Eiffel Tower and eat French food, so maybe let’s drop the ego and let the tourists embrace the clichés that, whether you like it or not, are the things that are truly “only in New York”.
In the rest of this series, I’ll share my recommendations based on how I most like to visit New York. There is nothing hip on this list. It’s a lame list of fun things that are totally fine to do whether or not they’ll make the locals roll their eyes. Other things that are totally fine include: waiting for the light to change before crossing the street, saying “excuse me” when you bump into someone, letting a couple taxis go by rather than mad dashing to beat someone to the closest one, taking an extra minute to double check the subway map, stopping to take photos as long as you step out of foot traffic to do so. It’s a big city, with lots of people, but it’s just a city and they’re just people so don’t let them push you around.
If you take nothing else away from this series, I want you to take this: it’s cool to be a tourist. You left your couch and are seeing the world, good for you. There is no shame in seeing the thing you’ve always wanted to see or eating the food everyone who visits wants to try. Tourism infrastructure doesn’t build up randomly, it’s a response to existing points of interest. Avoiding the infrastructure on principle often means missing the real stuff it was built around. So don’t be afraid to be a cliché because, at least for me, cliché New York is the best New York.