New York City: The subject of countless songs, the setting for beloved TV shows and movies, the City of Dreams, the Capital of the World. Thousands move to New York every day in hopes of experiencing that magical Something the city promises.
I did exactly that when I packed my bags and left Austria with nothing but a few dollars and my own dreams for the future. Six years later, I’m still living in New York City and loving every minute. I even published an ebook about my move last year, in hopes of helping others move to the States and live in New York.
That book inspired this article, and hopefully it will inspire many more. Pop culture gives us big and romantic ideas about living in New York, and some of them are perfectly accurate. Others, not so much. Let's compare some of my expectations with the harsh reality.
Expectation: Most of us imagine getting our big break in New York City. That’s what happens in every movie and TV show and Broadway musical, isn’t it? You hop off the bus, the cloud of exhaust clears to reveal you, smiling and arms thrown wide, ready to finally be discovered.
Reality: Job hunting is hard everywhere, and the NYC job market can be especially tough. Thousands move here every day looking for work, so companies have their pick from the best talent out there. Just like anywhere, you’ll have to work hard, be persistent and take what you can get until you get your dream job. Depending on where you come from (I like to compare it to Europe) there isn't much job security really. In New York, you could technically quit (or get fired) from your job in the morning and start a new one on the same day. While that may sound exciting it's also pretty scary knowing that nothing really is safe. Especially for those of us on work visas, we can't just switch jobs whenever we like.
And we haven’t even talked about the most unromantic part about working in New York: Getting a work permit and visa. I’ll spare you the visa stuff here at least for this article – there’s also a whole chapter about this in my ebook.
So basically, the reality is that we always have to prepare ourselves for the worst, while at the same time stay optimistic and try our best. It's always harder in the beginning. The pace of New York and the way of working will feel like home after you've experienced it for one or two years, but it all can be quite shocking and stressful in your first year of living there.
Expectation: When we think of NYC, our eyes turn to dollar signs. I mean, why else do some of the biggest companies make their home there?
Reality: Yes, you might score a larger salary than you ever saw in your hometown. But remember the cost of living in NYC is outrageous. Pay your rent and buy your food and suddenly your salary will feel pretty much the same as the one you had before. It’s all relative to the city you live in. New York most likely will pay you more, but it will also cost you more.
Expectation: When I moved to New York I had grand visions of living in a trendy SoHo studio (spoiler: the word “studio” in NYC basically translates to “your bedroom is your kitchen is your living room is your whole apartment”).
Reality: I hopped from shitty apartment to shitty apartment when I first moved to NYC and had to fight for those (apartments go faster than jobs here). Even the nicer apartments will have their quirks – almost every building in NYC does. Lower your expectations, then lower them some more. Unless you have some high power job or a large family inheritance, you’ll likely be living in a shoebox like the rest of us.
Depending on where you come from, the quality of buildings and apartments in New York will seem low. It's either new buildings with horrible build quality, or it's old buildings that are slowly falling apart but still cost as much as the most expensive apartment in your little hometown. Just to give you a little hint: Average rent for a one bedroom in Manhattan are around $2600 to $3000. And we're talking one bedroom apartments.
"Of course there are exceptions and I’m typically not chatting up strangers on the subway, but the negative reputation New Yorkers receive is hardly deserved."
Expectation: People in New York City are mean and cold, always in a rush to their next destination with not even a moment to meet your eyes and say hello. They’ll steal the purse off your shoulder before shaking your hand.
Reality: In my experience, New Yorkers are the nicest. Of course there are exceptions and I’m typically not chatting up strangers on the subway or in an alley, but the negative reputation New Yorkers receive is hardly deserved. Most people in New York are incredibly helpful, probably because many of them also moved here from somewhere else and can understand the struggle.
Expectations: Pizza, every day! Then maybe gyros, and then you’ll try that Indian place everybody’s always Instagramming, or get Chinese delivered for lunch, and yay for the hot dog stands I've seen in the movies! It’s NEW YORK. You gotta take a bite out of that Big Apple, right?
Reality: Food poisoning, for a week! OK, that’s not everyone’s experience, but it was mine. Yes, New York City is the food capital of the world, with some of most diverse, authentic and celebrated cuisine anywhere. But you have to beware restaurant gradings (more on this in the ebook as well) and of course, most of us can’t afford to eat out every day, nor will we want to.
After a couple years of living in New York you'll get a good eye and sense for which restaurants and food stands you can eat, and which you should avoid. Funny enough, in New York these two can be right next to each other.
Expectations: Every hour a different party.
Reality: Unless you have a ton of money and an easy job, chances are that most of your days just consist of you going to work, going home and repeating the whole thing again. I remember the first year of New York for me was just me commuting from and to work, and that was pretty much it. Of course there are some parties and socializing mixed in here and there, but most people spend their days working and getting used to the New York speed of life for their first year of living there.
In the end, I don't even think there is anything negative about it. New York is the city people go to when they have an idea, when they want to achieve something and do something. That's the magic of New York, a place full of people who have a dream.
Expectations: Of course you’ll just stand on the corner and hail a yellow cab, like a regular Carrie Bradshaw.
Reality: First of all, try to get that cab. It’s not that easy — and it’s gonna cost you at lot. And then, we haven't even talked about the traffic. You'll be stuck in traffic a lot and going anywhere with a car will take ages. You'll slowly learn that using your bicycle is the best way to get around in New York, but at the same time, it's also the most dangerous way to get around. I guess you'll have to decide.
"New York, despite its craziness – because of its craziness – inspires like almost no other city on the planet."
Expectation: We expect inspiration to be endless in New York. That something new and exciting will always be happening, with diversity and culture and craziness all around.
Reality: It’s true. New York City always inspires. Of course there are times when you feel like you’re suffocating and might have a nervous breakdown if you have to spend another minute in this fast-paced, expensive, unforgiving city. But then you leave and realize how much you miss that weird guy at the deli on your block, and the way your A/C rattles all summer and breaks down almost daily, and how the leaves transform Central Park in the fall, and how there is always something new happening every single day. New York, despite its craziness – because of its craziness – inspires like almost no other city on the planet.
If you’re interested in moving to New York City, (whether you live outside the country or not) check out my book, Let’s Go to NYC. Moving to New York was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and with this guide I hope to make it easier for you.
If you’ve visited New York, how did it meet or not meet your expectations? Send me a tweet @vanschneider and let me know 🙂
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the author of this blog, nice to meet you!