Newcomers Adjust, Eventually, to New York
Sometime over the course of a person’s first year in New York, there usually comes that moment. It can happen in the first days or weeks, or after 10 months. It can happen repeatedly, or without people noticing, at least not at first.
Newcomers suddenly realize either that the city is not working for them or that they are inexorably becoming part of it, or both. They find themselves walking and talking faster.
The subway begins to make sense. Patience is whittled away; sarcasm often ensues. New friends are made, routines established, and city life begins to feel like second nature. In other words, newcomers find themselves becoming New Yorkers.
“It can be lonely, very lonely, and I knew I would find it hard,” said Lisa Phin, 25, who moved to New York from Dallas in late May, and is building a network of friends through events listed on Web sites like Meetup.com. “But if you can stick it out for one year, you’re home free.”
Rebecca Thompson’s moment happened shortly after she moved to the city in January. On a visit home to Oklahoma, Ms. Thompson, 24, found herself flummoxed when a hostess at a party and everyone else there were inexplicably acting so nice.
Gabrielle Sirkin’s moment came on the heels of Thanksgiving Day last year, five months after she moved to New York. Every day until then, she felt as if she was doing battle daily with the city. But suddenly, on a night flight to Kennedy International Airport from California, Ms. Sirkin, 26, caught sight of the glittering skyline, and, to her great surprise, felt a surge of joy.
“I was really caught off guard by my reaction,” she said. “But I could see Central Park, and the lights on the Chrysler Building, and I wasn’t looking at it as a tourist. I was looking at it as though I was home.”
Ian Ingersoll’s moment happened within weeks of his move from Seattle to New York last fall. He suddenly found himself exasperated by slow moving pedestrians, and, like a true New Yorker, began darting around them instead.
“That was when I realized I was getting in sync with the city,” Mr. Ingersoll, 25, said.
For newcomers, there is often great comfort in these flashes of recognition, which can serve as signposts along the often arduous path to integration with New York.
For Mr. Ingersoll, the sense of getting aligned with New York felt like balm, because the city, for all of its exquisite appeal, ended up nearly breaking his spirit.
Mr. Ingersoll painstakingly saved $8,000 over a year and a half in Seattle, working three jobs to prepare for life in the city of his dreams. He burned through it in no time when he could not find full-time work. While he had admired New Yorkers’ famed acerbic attitude from afar, he found the brusqueness wounding once here. Making friends also proved hard; Mr. Ingersoll spent last Christmas wandering alone through Central Park.
But slowly, more than halfway through that crucial first year, life is brightening for Mr. Ingersoll, who is an actor. A close friend moved here, too, and now shares Mr. Ingersoll’s basement apartment in Union City, N.J. Mr. Ingersoll found a full-time job and has an audition or two lined up.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy — it was something I had to do,” said Mr. Ingersoll, who grew up in Alaska. “I am in love with the city. And what relationship is good if you don’t work for it?”
Young people have flocked to New York City by the tens of thousands for generations, to chase their dreams and test their mettle. And they continue to come in strong numbers. In 2006, nearly 77,000 people in their 20s had been in the city for a year or less, according to the annual study by the United States Census Bureau for that year.
But for many, the thrill of arrival is often tempered by the sinking realization of what an alienating place the city can be, especially for those who are not wealthy or who do not have a pre-existing network of friends. Nothing comes easily, even if one can get past the dauntingly high cost of living. The subway maze seems indecipherable. People are everywhere, but ignore each other on the street. Friends might live in distant neighborhoods, and seeing them often requires booking time, like an appointment, weeks in advance.
“Any time I want to see someone and catch up with someone, everyone takes out their BlackBerrys and says, ‘This weekend isn’t good; how about three weeks from now?’ “ said Ms. Sirkin, who moved to New York from Milan in June 2007. “How can you form really good and solid relationships with people if you see them once a month?”
Not every newcomer has trouble adjusting. Alexis Vuatrin, 27, from France, said that New York fit him from the start. The skyline, the bustle and the taxis seemed familiar, thanks to movies and TV shows, and he quickly fell into a sprawling group of French friends. Then again, Mr. Vuatrin had already lived in Geneva, Paris and Hildesheim, near Hanover, in Germany.
And by comparison, he said, “The people in the street here are so nice, and smiling.”
But nice is a relative thing. Boris Chen, 22, moved to New York from California early in July for a job with a finance company in Midtown. He is still trying to stomach what feels to him like a whole new brand of rude.
Mr. Chen also had to get over his lingering childhood fear of taxi drivers, which he believed came from movies. “I always thought any time I got into taxis they were going to kidnap me, and I was going to die,” he said.
That fear is behind him, largely because Mr. Chen refuses to indulge in it, and he is tackling city life systematically. He is cultivating friendships with people he met while apartment hunting on Craigslist. Through them, he has learned valuable insider city tips, like what kind of subway pass to buy (30-day unlimited), and whether he should tip deliverymen (yes) or doormen (it depends).
“Learning the transportation is sort of what I’m working on right now,” said Mr. Chen, who lives with two roommates on the Upper East Side. “I’m pretty good with the subways now, but at night it’s a little weird, and I don’t really know how that works.”
Ms. Phin already finds herself getting annoyed more easily, even though she arrived from Texas only two months ago. The culture at her job, as a marketer for an engineering company, was a lot more abrasive than she had expected. “Nothing is sugarcoated,” she said. And so, she is finding herself growing a tougher skin. “I thought I’d bring my niceness with me,” she said, “but already I feel an edge developing. Because you need to, to deal.”
Ms. Thompson, a native of Oklahoma who moved from Chicago six months ago, has adjusted to New York life relatively easily, she said, largely because she interned here a few summers ago. She also has friends from college in the city, and has made new ones through her church, St. Paul the Apostle.
But the city has changed Ms. Thompson, who lives in Hell’s Kitchen near the tourist-clogged streets of Times Square. “I’ve definitely become the pushy New Yorker who has to get around everyone on the sidewalk,” she said.
During a recent week back home in Oklahoma, Ms. Thompson said she found herself holding doors for others, but she was transformed again immediately upon her return. “I had a horrible flight,” she said, “and I snapped back.”
There also usually comes a time, early on, when newcomers must accept that the city is a power greater than they are.
“My friend said, ‘The city abuses you, and you just have to abuse it back,’ ” said Ms. Sirkin, who grew up in California and moved to New York reluctantly, after having visa problems in Italy last year. “The subway doesn’t work in the morning, and you’re a half-hour late for work, and that’s not in your control. You have to find ways of surviving.”
Ms. Sirkin’s friend Sarah Kasbeer also recalled being consumed by a common strain of existential New York City angst: the sense that no matter where one is, something better is happening — the real New York is in full swing — somewhere else.
“When I first got here, I’d go out in the city with people I worked with, and I felt I was missing something,” said Ms. Kasbeer, who moved to New York from Milan in 2006. I was going to clubs in Chelsea, the Lower East Side, things I wouldn’t do now.”
But sometime during her first year, she stopped trying so hard. “I just realized that I didn’t need to find ‘it,’ that my place in the city would fall into place,” she said. “Now I don’t make an effort; I roll with things. It’s not just the city, it’s yourself that you have to deal with as well.”
Ms. Sirkin continued to resist feeling part of New York long after her revelatory experience last Thanksgiving. And, yet she has begun to come around, taking acting and photography classes, and forging new friendships. It took a year, she said, but now, at last, she is starting to feel connected with what she describes as “this terrifying city.”
“Every day you encounter situations where you have to step out of your safety zone, and it’s really kind of a self-discovery experience,” she said. “I see myself fighting it, but I also I see myself, every day, becoming a New Yorker.”