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Who Is A New Yorker?

For your listening pleasure may I present to you “City Gorl,” a playlist of songs about New York from every era and genre. Now that you’ve got your soundtrack, let’s get on with the show.

The interrogative title is not just for the sake of cheeky, high-brow rhetoric. I really mean it. Google “real New Yorker” and, besides the magazine and the hotel, you’ll find page after page of articles with titles like “51 Ways You Know You’re a Real New Yorker”, “How To Experience New York City like a True Local”, “How to Be a New Yorker in 10 Simple Steps,” and “What NOT to Do in New York City.” Is there another city in the world whose membership is more contested?

Fact: Like all American towns, New York has been a city of transplants since its inception. Its rich fabric was woven by natives and transplants alike. In a 2017 NYT article called “New York Today: Who’s a New Yorker, According to New Yorkers,” an elderly man living in the East Village answers this question with “‘...the people who come from somewhere else. It’s these people who have the ambition to elbow their way into New York City life and, in the process, juice it up with their energy and native culture. ‘Native’ New Yorkers, like me, are just fortunate to be born in the right place.’” Many identify personality traits while others stick to the idea that only natives may brandish the title. Former Mayor Ed Koch says to give it six months and see how you fit in.

People around the world may come with their own set of stereotypes but the residents of the Big Apple have an extra weighty reputation. It’s the epicenter for fine art, music, fashion, literature, journalism, food, sports, finance, diplomacy, theater and dance, film, advocacy, medicine, LGBTQ groups, architecture, comedy, and probably more. It’s fabulous, cultured, cool, chic, exciting, and inspiring while also being fast-paced, cynical, mean, dry, tough, loud, dirty, restless, gritty, infested with rats and cockroaches and garbage. You never know who you’re going to run into on the streets of New York: the local weirdo, a celebrity, your ex. Anyone and everyone is here, from the richest Central Park millionaire to grungy Bushwick artist types to immigrant cab drivers to babushka-clad, hand-cart-wiedling elderly women who somehow manage the stairs to the fifth-floor walk-up they've lived in since the 60s. These people are all New Yorkers. So what unites them, makes them “real” rather than phony?

Some of the most notable New Yorkers have been so-called transplants. To name a few: Patti Smith, Fran Leibowitz, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Sean Combs, Diane Von Furstenberg, Frank Sinatra. And forget riches and fame! How about the millions of immigrants who have moved here to remain nameless on a world scale but contribute to the city’s ecosystem? Even “New York, New York” is about finally fulfilling the dream of moving to the world’s greatest city. And we also would be absolute fools to neglect the “three bucks, two bags, one me” line in Annie’s “NYC” number.

New York is the American Dream made reality. “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” Emphasis on the “if.” This city’s societal extremes represent the ever-widening inequality gap; its toughness exposes the bare bones of capitalism’s brutality. It’s a feral animal whose hunger is never satisfied, forever looking for “the next big thing.” Its penchant for the weird and the rough is not for everyone, but boasts such a fascinating existence people cannot help but idolize.

New York promises the world. It draws you in with tales of the Harlem Renaissance, Beat poetry and Greenwich Village, Studio 54, Babe Ruth, Wall Street tycoons, the tapping toes of 42nd St, CBGB, the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City, hot dogs and pretzels in Central Park, shopping on 5th Ave, the list goes on. The siren song of cultural history echoes in every genre of fiction as well. New York is a city of myth, not like Atlantis or Shangri-la, but the product of a collective imagination fueled to the point of reality.

According to the aforementioned listicles, being an authentic “New Yorker” is one of the most celebrated identities to carry around. It means you’ve mastered all of the brutality and ascended to a higher realm, usually one with lots of name-dropping. In the current age of clout we live in, this debate of who is “real” and who is “fake” is raging. Concerns over who knows who, who’s wearing what, who was spotted where, etc. is not new to New York, but the TikTok arena has certainly taken this element to new heights.

Smacking New York like a hammer in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic set in motion a gigantic ripple of changes–duh. People left, some to return, some gone forever with a new influx of transplants in their place. “Good riddance” said “true” New Yorkers who stayed, reaffirming the typical attitude of the city: on one hand, leaving for wide open spaces in a time of economic instability represented a privileged existence many New Yorkers will never know; on the other, it illuminates how staunchly loyal and willing to endure for the sake of endurance New Yorkers are, the trait that can sink or float the boat. As the pandemic moving shuffle occurred, TikTok was on a swift rise to being the It Girl of social media platforms thanks to the collective boredom of quarantine. The general public’s fascination with the city was at an all-time high as nosy onlookers hoped to peer into the epicenter of the pandemic as it rose from presumed-dead status. NYC-based content creators sprung up with videos about dating, blow-outs, shopping, lattes, brunch spots, clubs. All fun and light-hearted but overly sugar-coated.

Of course a “day in the life” of someone who doesn’t work and has a seemingly unlimited budget is going to look like the most fun day ever. This free advertising for all the cool factor New York has to offer primed us for the post-quarantine real estate boom this year, when rents rose by 33% on average and eclipsed pre-pandemic prices. Natives and long-time New York dwellers are justifiably outraged. And with anger and outrage comes a need for someone to blame. The out-of-touch influencers are an easy target because a) they’re annoying and b) they do play an important role in the domino effect here.

So who’s experiencing the “most real” version of New York? Reality is subjective, especially in New York where millions of very different kinds of people live very different kinds of lives, all uniquely real to the person experiencing it. I’m thinking of a RHONY Season 1 Ramona Singer who refused to travel from the UES to Williamsburg and how similar it feels to Audrey Peters’ asserting she won’t go above 14th St. Then there’s Tik Tok’s @VIPList duo of white blonde girls who order one of everything from the menus of four- and five-dollar-sign restaurants to take a singular bite and tell viewers to “go cry about it.”

Besides snobbery, anyone relying on the MTA might certain neighborhoods to be completely inaccessible to where they live. Everyone here is in their own little world, whether you’re a native, a transplant, or a tourist. Tiktok has created even more refractions in our understanding of what is real as people are encouraged to “romanticize” their lives, something potentially impossible without the aesthetics of wealth. (Though there is something to be said for emphasizing how small tweaks to your life can make it feel more luxurious and create a greater sense of presence, a la many savvy Tiktokers.) Moreover, it’s easy to groom a generation into believing they’re main characters adrift on some solo quest when we’re already isolated from each other and continue to force divides between us with the transplant v. native, who’s in v. who’s out culture.

Compare New York of its garnered reputation as a haven where outcasts from small towns could express their queer identities to New York of today, populated by clones of the hyper-edited Carrie Bradshaw wannabes from Tiktok, who move here in droves with finance bros in Patagonia vests to continue the party left behind at state schools. Trust-fund babies have existed long enough for this to not be a novel concept. But what’s considered “cool” has shifted. Refinement, coordinated outfits, expensive heirloom jewelry, organic produce, $7 wellness drinks. Being at once unique and plain. Broadcasting your life online means every inch needs to look aesthetically polished. And nothing is safe from its clutches. The backlash against this polish points out a downward sterilization of all that was good about the city. If New York becomes too appealing or approachable “all the wrong people will move here,” further moving the city away from its true coolness, the place where outcasts and artists and thinkers can mingle.

The story of this city, like any interesting place, is multifaceted and ever-changing. Everyone wants to move here because for centuries, it’s been the place to be. Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids is a document, even a love letter, to the gritty, open, and inexpensive New York she met in the 60s. In reading it, you get the sense that a newcomer with little to their name could charm their way into the Chelsea Hotel and brush elbows with musicians, writers, photographers, actors, painters, whoever. Stories like this became the hallmark of a New York experience: brimming with life, chaotic, energetic, dirty. Starving artists could afford to starve; now, many have no choice but to commercialize their talents. As the line in Rent goes “bohemia is dead.” But even this is a glamorized perspective on suffering. Suddenly, we’re falling down a dangerous path of nostalgia where we all think we have the right to say who the “wrong people” to live here are.

In the Rolling Stones’ song “Shattered,” non-New York-native Mick Jagger sings “to live in this town you must be tough tough tough tough!” The city’s notorious toughness is supposedly capable of weeding out anyone too “weak” to live here. Yet, this Darwinist perspective on “true” city life perpetuates an unhealthy isolationism. It also hurts the working class, who are told their toughness is an admirable choice rather than a survival mechanism. In the wake of the April 2022 Subway shooting in Sunset Park, commuters waiting on the very same platform just one day later were asked about their fear of taking the train. They all kind of shrugged it off, saying it was just something they have to do. They can’t clutch their pearls and check the Citizen app for updates from the penthouse. The Tough New Yorker myth celebrates the working class like the passive aggressive friend who comments “you’re so brave to dress like that in public!”

During Eric Adams’ 2020 mayoral campaign circuit, the now-elected mayor declared transplants need to “go back to Iowa. You go back to Ohio. New York City belongs to the people that [were] here and made New York City what it is.” An interesting take on gentrification from someone who took $238,000 in campaign donations from the real-estate sector. He made these remarks to a clapping crowd in Washington, who rightly identify with his observations of change: “Starbucks, sushi restaurants, and bike lanes” (apparently he also likes bike lanes). Only two years prior Adams stated that “gentrification” was too derogatory to describe the changes throughout the city, especially in his home borough Brooklyn. So which is it? Here lies another New York paradox: “cleaning up” the city implies a better quality of life for its dwellers and yet it often yields higher rent and pushes away local people and businesses in favor of wealthy transplants and corporate chains. Where is the line between progress and gentrification? New York’s tougher than ever with the crime rate up by 37% since last spring and Adams, a retired cop, seems to have no plan except to fill the city with law enforcement and get rid of the literal rats. He’s a native New Yorker, who might just prove that it’s not all wisdom and cool factor. Lest we forget that Donald Trump and Ronnie from Jersey Shore were also born and raised within city limits.

The collective has gotten so preoccupied with New Yorker-dom that we’ve lost sight of what we want that identity to mean. It’s easy to mark it as a black-and-white issue; if you were born here, you’re in and if you moved, you’re out. How silly! Does an UES-born-and-raised rich kid know more about the gritty hustle of the city than someone who recently moved here to follow their dreams with no trust fund to fall back on? Buying into the concept of a singular New Yorker identity feels cheesy at best and harmfully limiting at its worst. Maybe as New Yorker staff writer Rivka Galchen suggests “New York needs no more fans.” Maybe New York with its ability to over- and under-whelm is just a place to be, like any other place. Maybe all the movies, poems, photographs, and songs have garbled our collective brains with visions of sugar plums dancing over Broadway to the point of short-circuiting.

In the spring, I left the city for a weekend away, something I feel very lucky to do. While laying flat in the sunshine surrounded by the quiet hum of nature, I zoned into the fantasy of living somewhere like that, maybe on the West Coast. For the record I normally loathe the idea of moving to LA but I entertained my imagination. The thought of what's so good about living in New York kept sinking its cynical claws into my dreamworld. New York smells bad, it’s mean and loud and expensive. How could I be truly happy in a place like that? Upon my first morning back, I sprung to life quite literally strutting to work with a smile on my face. I still couldn’t answer for the city’s merits except to say look at it! When the sun shines in New York in the spring, it’s like the world is blooming for the first time. And even in the depths of frigid winter, tiny windows in the sky glow with warmth. There’s an indescribable feeling that can only be summed up by the wise, poetic words of Milton Glaser splattered throughout every souvenir shop: I LOVE NEW YORK.

New York, and New Yorkers don’t need anyone or anything to take care of them, right? I don’t buy it. New York needs to be loved. Not adored, not commodified, not put on a pedestal. We need to cut the shit and get realistic. The city doesn’t need more fans; it needs less trash, equitable housing, small businesses where people know each other’s names, bustling outdoor markets, clubs with cheap drinks where the next great minds can bump into each other under neon lights. It needs locals, cynics, and dreamers, whether they hail from down the block or from faraway lands. A sense of history and a willingness to change.

Sometimes I fear things are changing faster than any of us can grasp. Even worse is the thought that if only I was one of the blessed ones, with a trust fund or thousands of followers or a book deal (or d) all of the above) I would be able to swim faster than the current. Instead, I am very much caught–as I imagine many of us are. Here exists fright and empathy, superiority and inferiority, a yearning for safety and subculture. But isn’t it nice not to be all round edges, in a clique of normal Spongebobs unaware of the tectonic plates’ tiny shifts? Either way, most of us don’t have a choice. Maybe the current is a nice place to be. From the current, it’s easier to see what needs to change.

No one is coming to save us. So we need to save each other. That’s what real New Yorkers do. And go to the M&M Store.

Further reading/viewing:


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writer + pop culture Historian  

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