Last Friday marked one year since I made the move from San Francisco to New York. To recognize the occasion, this week’s blog post focuses on a question I’ve heard a lot over the past year:
What are the biggest differences between San Francisco and New York City?
In no order of importance, here are my observations on the two cities and how they compare.
When I lived in SF, public transportation wasn’t something I thought about much. I lived on the 1 line and took the bus to and from work. Outside of that, the SF transit system wasn’t something that could get to most places in the city with much efficiency. Ride-sharing apps became the default. This didn’t have a huge impact on weekends; on weeknights it was an additional tax to see friends.
Conversely, it’s hard to overstate how big of a role public transportation plays in the life of every New Yorker. The subway is everywhere. It’s fast. It’s consistent. It runs 24-7. It’s cheap. The subway makes a big city small and accessible. It never seems like too big of a task to go meet a friend somewhere in the city. At the most, it’s a $2.75 subway ride.
It’s no surprise that a large contingent of SF commutes down to the valley. My impression (in no way statistical) was that at least half of my friends, maybe as many as 75%, were leaving the city for work every day.
This sucks for a couple reasons.
1. Commuting sucks, in itself.
2. Commuting time adds up. As someone who commuted to South Bay for two years, I can confirm that it is hard to make that drive without constantly calculating the aggregate time it takes you, and knowing that the time would be better spent elsewhere.
3. It means less time spent in the city on weeknights. This means less time spent at restaurants, at venues, at events. Commuting, when it occurs at the scale in which it happens in SF, exerts an externality on both the economic and cultural aspects of a city.
The commuting situation in NYC is much better. The majority of people in NYC don’t leave the city for work — they stay there. Because most offices in NYC are already located in Manhattan, new companies have an incentive to start their offices there and not outside of city limits, where they’d have a difficult time hiring due to the added tax of commuting. (This effect is somewhat present in SF, where startups have started relocating to the city to try and attract talent, but it’s not as strong as it is in NYC, where there’s no Palo Alto area to draw employees.) Additionally, because of the aforementioned advantage of public transportation in NYC, everyone can take the subway to work. This makes for snug morning rides on the L and 6 trains, but it beats the 2-hr slog up and down the 101.
Cost of living.
Rent is ridiculous in both cities. In Manhattan, SF-level rent gets you a closet. In Brooklyn, it gets you an SF-sized apartment.
Nightlife costs are the same, unless you participate in NYC’s nightclub scene.
Overall, NYC can become more expensive, just because there are more stupid ways to spend money. Summer share houses in the Hampton’s are a good example. Some people I’ve chatted with tell of dropping $5k (per person) on a month-long rental in the Hamptons. In contrast, a 5-month Tahoe rental outside of SF runs around $1k.
In SF, you’re likely spending your weeknights commuting. Even if you’re not, probability states a good portion of your friends are. To my earlier point on commuting, this can often mean less casual nights out with friends during the week.
In NYC, everyone’s within 30-minutes of each other thanks to the subway. On top of this, there’s simply a lot more happening on a given weeknight in NYC (plays, events, new restaurants) than there is in SF.
The Great Outdoors.
Pretty straightforward category.
SF has Tahoe, Yosemite, Stanislaus Forest, the Marin Headlands, the bay itself, Big Sur, Monterey, Pinnacles, et al.
NYC has the Hudson river, the East river, the shore, and upstate hiking and leaf-watching. (There’s a tone of glib condescension in that sentence. In all seriousness, there’s a lot of beauty in the area around NYC. It’s different from the rugged empty spaces of the West — e.g. deciduous trees, windy country roads, and geese — but it’s beautiful, nonetheless.)
The Casual Intra-city Park Scene.
The parks of New York are better suited for a calm afternoon stroll, no matter the season.
The Saturday Afternoon Intra-city Park Scene.
San Francisco has Dolores Park. Dolores Park is quite a good time.
Moments of The-Streets-Are-Alive-with-the-Sound-of-Music-and-the-Smell-of-Refuse Excitement.
On the occasional morning in NYC, you climb out of the subway and into a mess of hustling madness. The buildings inspire and surprise and you feel a burning inspiration to walk briskly to work and get something done.
There is an energy to New York. An unrelenting pace. It’s exciting.
Moments of Aesthetic Beauty and the Evening Golden Hour.
In contrast to New York, San Francisco is at its best when it’s in repose. There’s a moment that occurs most nights in SF. Sometime in the evening, before the sun is about to go down over the heights, the streets and hills are washed in golden light.
It’s beauty that you almost never get in New York (partly on account of one’s never seeing the sky within city limits) and one of the things I miss most about SF.
That’s my take on SF v. NYC after a year. To those of you reading from SF (and the rest of the west,) you are missed. To those of you reading from NYC, here’s to another year.