There’s a defining scene in one of my all-time favourite New York movies, Wall Street, where the characters discuss the merits of two rival Manhattan neighborhoods. The Upper West Side (as it was in the 1980s) is witheringly described as “the home of the exposed brick wall and the houseplant”, in contrast with its more salubrious competitor, the Upper East Side.
I’ve found that this inner city competition isn’t just limited to the movies – or the 1980s. It’s a real phenomenon. Everyone’s got their own opinion about which part of New York is the most authentic, the coolest, the best. “I never go above 14th street” is not just a common city joke, it’s also a reality. The Upper East Side is often disparaged for its sterility, while Williamsburg is celebrated (or mocked, depending on your standpoint) for its hipster reputation.
One of the first questions you are often asked is what neighbourhood you live in and the cross-streets you name will instantly pigeonhole you in the eyes of many. Fortunately, Hell’s Kitchen generally manages to have its cake and eat it, balancing as it does a gritty, trendy vibe with an abundance of luxury condos. Proudly stating you live on Roosevelt Island, on the other hand, would be borderline socially suicidal.
But the competition isn’t just limited to neigbourhoods. Choices of bars or restaurants will also draw praise or censure. Perfectly nice places can be judged to be ‘too touristy’, to not have a strict enough door or even worse, to be ‘frequented by the B&T crowd’ (standing for ‘Bridge and tunnel’ i.e. those who come onto the island from New Jersey). It seems that everyone in Manhattan is a critic – and everyone has opinions about what the best life in the city truly entails.
The Wall Street maxim that ‘you’ve got to live in Manhattan to be a player’ is no longer true. But your choice of neighbourhood (as well as where you eat and drink) can label you as either a sophisticated urbanite or yet another New York cliche.