The Biggest Misconceptions About Life In New York City

No city has been the subject of as much obsessive pop-culture attention as New York. Sitcoms build it up; action movies knock it down. In TV shows (Sex and the City, 30 Rock, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), films (Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally, Do the Right Thing), and songs (Frank Sinatra, Jay Z, Taylor Swift), the Big Apple does not merely have a character — it is a character.

It is also, despite this bright spotlight, often misunderstood. Is New York the frightening, crime-ridden place it was when Dick Wolf first debuted Law & Order 25 years ago? Are New Yorkers all wealthy, snobbish Upper East Siders, as portrayed by Gossip Girl? You can't trust everything (anything?) you see on TV. Ahead, see some of the most common misconceptions about the city that we call home (and that you might, too, someday).
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Photo: Moviestore/REX Shutterstock.
Misconception #1: New Yorkers are mean.

I was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and have also spent chunks of time in sizeable cities like Copenhagen and Jerusalem. I am a reasonably confident, competent person who likes urban living. Yet, 11 years ago, I was paralyzed with dread at the idea of moving to New York, in large part because of how brusque — and even cruel — its inhabitants are reported to be; fictional mean girls like Blair Waldorf and Kathryn Merteuil have been programmed into our minds as women we're bound to encounter (and fear) in the city.

Was I wrong to be scared? Not exactly.

The first man I asked for directions on the street gave me a look of such contempt that my heart stuttered. The first human-resources person I interacted with at my job was a Yankees fan who fired people with such relish, I was convinced from day two that I would be lucky to make it to a month. My first housemate was a pothead training to be an art therapist, and even she erupted with such unpredictable malice that I took to hiding in my room to avoid her. My first bosses cursed like gangsters in a Tarantino movie, only with less wit. Even my first interactions with a native animal ended badly: Days after I moved into my apartment, my roommate’s cat turned on its owner and tried to kill her.

But as I grew more comfortable in the city, things became more pleasant. I learned some crucial, helpful facts, too: Like, if someone doesn’t like you, you can’t make them like you, and when you stand up to bullies, often enough they stand down.

I also learned that when you need rescuing, New Yorkers will actually be there for you. They will accompany you to the emergency room in the middle of a workday. They will offer you water when you nearly pass out in Union Square — and not merely any water, but a jumbo-sized plastic bottle of Pellegrino. Strangers here run into burning towers and jump onto subway tracks for each other.

It helps if you walk with purpose. This city will forgive a lot, as long as you’re not a meandering and distracted walker.
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Photo: Courtesy of NBC.
Misconception #2: The city is filthy, noisy, tawdry, and unsafe.

Yes, New York is noisy. To live here, millions of people sacrifice yards, cars, pools, clean air, and the ability to go one block without being accosted by some bright-eyed kid with a clipboard. They don't come here to live quietly.

But these days, trash collection — including recycling and, in some areas, compost — is regular in most neighborhoods; former mayor Giuliani closed down most of the smut peddlers; and New York is — thanks in part to the real-life versions of people like Benson and Stabler — one of the safest cities in the entire world, as well as the safest big city in America.
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Photo: Courtesy of CW.
Misconception #3: The city is the boring, sanitized playground of the rich.

Large swaths of Manhattan are indeed more homogenous and corporate, most famously Times Square. The punk-rock CBGB of yesteryear is now a metrosexual mecca. The famously gritty, vomit-speckled Mars Bar is being replaced by “a health café and spa with a mini Barneys.” The Meatpacking District is as shiny as the new Whitney museum recently dropped into its midst like a diamond onto a platinum setting. Head uptown and you'll find the construction of what's being dubbed "Billionaire's Row": a section of multimillion-dollar apartment buildings fit only for Gossip Girl-esque socialites (and, well, billionaires).

Some neighborhoods of Manhattan have resisted aristocratization. Hell’s Kitchen remains moderately hellish, or at least limbo-like. There are still artists on the Lower East Side, though I imagine most of them actually pay rent. Murray Hill may be known as "Frat City," but its apartment complexes are still relatively affordable compared to its neighboring 'hoods.

And once you get out of Manhattan, the city remains dizzyingly diverse, from the hidden graffiti of Fort Tilden to the creepy grandeur of Woodlawn Cemetery, the vibrancy of Flushing to the verdure of Governors Island. Dance in Brighton Beach or stroll through Staten Island and you’ll be rewarded with a memorable, only-in-New York experience.
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Photo: Courtesy of NBC.
Misconception #4: The city is astoundingly expensive.

Living here is much more affordable than visiting. You learn to use your monthly Metrocard to get everywhere, from the office to the beach, and you likewise learn your way around your cramped, tiny kitchen, to which you bring ingredients from ethnic markets and food co-ops. When you’re too busy to cook, you figure out which bodegas serve the cheapest yet most satisfying egg sandwiches, and which Asian restaurants offer the most affordable yet delicious lunch specials. If you're making minimum wage, you find side jobs (like waitressing at the Central Perk, guest-bartending at MacLaren's Pub, or backup-dancing for Jennifer Lopez) to help pay the bills.

You take advantage of happy hours, of sample sales, of consignment and secondhand stores, of the YMCA, and of great-bang-for-your-buck entertainment like live improv and storytelling. You realize that, since you live here, you don’t have to go out every night, or even every week; and that sometimes merely walking around the neighborhood offers more pulse-quickening excitement than the latest overpriced blockbuster.
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Photo: Everett/REX Shutterstock.
Misconception #5: New Yorkers are intimidatingly beautiful and well-dressed.

A glance at a map of the five boroughs will make it clear that Manhattan is the skinny borough, while the others are much more average. In the same way, in certain stretches of rich and fashionable Manhattan, yes, pedestrians may awe you into silence with their looks, the same way a giraffe might, or an exotic bird. You may even find yourself wondering why every woman on the street looks like a doppelgänger of Holly Golightly or Becky Bloomwood.

The vast majority of people who live and labor in the city, though, are normal, workaday folks. Some of them do wear nosebleed heels or rock dyed, asymmetrical hair, because why not? Living among them may inspire you to change up your own look in ways you couldn’t have imagined. But you don’t need to worry about being the only mortal in a sea of models. Mortals still outnumber models at least 10 to 1.
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Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Misconception #6: New Yorkers can't afford to live here.

The best advice I can give about New York real estate is to live in a no-name neighborhood. After Greenpoint was featured on Girls, rents reached Chrysler Building proportions; yet the area itself, while fine, remains as inaccessible transit-wise as it ever was.

If you’re looking for a deal, avoid overhyped, overheated markets in favor of still relatively affordable and yet accessible places, like Hudson/Washington Heights in Manhattan; Flatbush and Sunset Park in Brooklyn; and Glendale and Forest Hills in Queens. You may still have to live with roommates, only perhaps one or two instead of three or four.

If you’re willing to travel further to pay less, you can get a nice three-bedroom, single-family house in places like Kingsbridge, in the Bronx, or settle in near-suburban splendor in Bloomfield, New Jersey.

Wherever you live, be open to the city. Your experiences here will inevitably defy your expectations, so try to come in with as few of those as possible. Allow yourself a year to adjust to New York City life. And enjoy.