The message of New York City

A few weeks ago, I read a really fascinating essay by Paul Graham, titled Cities and Ambition. While it was written back in May 2008, I think it’s certainly still very valid today – and extremely thought-provoking. The opening lines give you a pretty good idea of the gist of the piece, so I’ll excerpt a few of them here (but highly encourage you to go read the entire thing when you have some time and are in the mood for some serious contemplation:

“Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.

The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.

What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you’ve been meaning to.

When you ask what message a city sends, you sometimes get surprising answers. As much as they respect brains in Silicon Valley, the message the Valley sends is: you should be more powerful. That’s not quite the same message New York sends. Power matters in New York too of course, but New York is pretty impressed by a billion dollars even if you merely inherited it. In Silicon Valley no one would care except a few real estate agents. What matters in Silicon Valley is how much effect you have on the world.”

The essay goes on to examine other cities around the world, ruminating on their messages. I had never before thought about the messages a city sends to its inhabitants, but traveling across the country and running in all 50 states opened my eyes to the simple fact that not everyone thinks the same way as the people around me. Some of the things I’ve taken for granted as high priorities aren’t really valued in other places. When I first discovered this, I assumed those cities/places were backward – how uncultured of them to not want XYZ! We New Yorkers are clearly so much more sophisticated. But it didn’t take me long to realize that the “problem” wasn’t with other places. In fact, there wasn’t really a “problem” at all; it was just different values and different cultures, all equally valid.

In his essay, Graham says, “Not all cities send a message. Only those that are centers for some type of ambition do. And it can be hard to tell exactly what message a city sends without living there.” Having kind of “lived” in Boston, DC, and New York, I can definitely see the differences in how each city runs, what is valued, and the general attitudes of the population. I’m impressed at Graham’s ability to put these “messages” into words, as I’d be hard pressed to articulate the differences between Boston, DC, and New York, but anyone who has lived in them knows that there are major differences.

Which brings me back to where I currently call home: New York City. Graham characterizes New York as being a city that values money. While at first I wanted to disagree with that, I thought about it and realized that it really is at the crux of New York City living. When Hurricane Irene came through this weekend, the shortages weren’t so much on bread or bottled water… but Trader Joe’s ran out of wine, and liquor stores were getting cleaned. Because everyone wanted to throw/attend a trendy “hurricane party,” with the girls wearing oh-so-practical short-shorts and knee high rubber boots purchased specifically for the occasion. (I saw many girls like this when I was out running along the Hudson on Sunday afternoon.) New York has a very “see and be seen” kind of culture, and money is often what people want to be seen.

Recently, I purchased a Groupon that gave me one month’s access to an upscale fitness club near my apartment. I used to work out at Equinox in Boston, so I thought I knew what I was getting myself into with a chi-chi club… until I arrived at Club H (yes, that’s seriously what this gym is called) and immediately felt like an outsider. I know my way around a gym – the appropriate etiquette, the right steps/callouts in a class, and how to use the machines and weights properly. What I wasn’t prepared for was how everyone would look me up and down – and it was then that I realized New York City has changed me.

From Graham’s essay: “No matter how determined you are, it’s hard not to be influenced by the people around you. It’s not so much that you do whatever a city expects of you, but that you get discouraged when no one around you cares about the same things you do.

When I first came to New York, my gym clothes were my ratty old t-shirts and whatever cheap shorts I found on the discount rack at Walmart when I’d go back upstate. I worked out at an extremely unpretentious gym in my building, and didn’t worry so much about what I looked like. I was there in my not-so-flattering clothes to sweat, not to pick up a date. I couldn’t see the point in spending a lot of money on fancy gym clothes, so I didn’t.

When I got more into running, I found that in some cases, it was worth it to spend more money on my gym clothes. For my long runs, it helped to have non-cotton wicking gear and really supportive sports bras. But I still continued to purchase mostly Nike, Reebok, etc – nothing too high-end, but good enough to avoid the chafing and provide support. And if I was going to the gym or going on a run of less than 5 miles or less? Back to the cotton sweats I went – it didn’t make a difference what I wore for those activities. I think there are definitely times when it’s worth it to pay for performance gear, but for some workouts, you don’t need all that fancy stuff. I’d rather buy a mix of high performance and apparel, saving hundreds of dollars, and only use the good stuff when I actually need it.

Today, though, working out in New York City has become as much an expression of how much money you’re willing to spend on workout gear as it is on your actual workout. Read around the many NYC fitness blogs and you’ll find so many women extolling the virtues of Lululemon fitness apparel. Really? $80 for a pair of plain black yoga pants that don’t function any better than a $20 pair, but have the Lululemon logo like a tramp stamp at the back of your waist? Thanks, I’ll pass. But when the rest of the class comes into the studio with makeup on, headband perfectly color-coordinated with the accents on their sneakers, and clothes that seem less suited to the actual workout and more suited to suavely sipping recovery drinks at the smoothie bar at the front of my gym… it’s hard not to want to fit in with everyone else.

(I realize I’ve just taken a really incredible and thought-provoking essay and turned it into an exposition on fashion, but I was thinking about this example all last night at the gym; the Graham essay just happened to fit in with it. Hopefully by acknowledging this trivialization, I can make it clear that I thought about the essay’s implications across many more areas than just a vapid and shallow discussion of clothing.)

The city is starting to change me. If I’m doing Insanity in the privacy of my own room, I’ll do it wearing a good sports bra and underwear – with the profuse amount of sweating that I do, there’s no point in wearing much more clothing unless it’s functional. If I’m traveling for work (read: not in NYC) and I know I’m going to be lifting weights in a hotel gym, I’ll go back to those ratty old sweats I used to wear for almost every workout. But if I’m going to Club H for a class, or going for a run in Central Park, I’m pulling out the cutest, trendiest fitness stuff I own – it’s time to see and be seen. Yesterday, I actually changed sports bras before my bootcamp class at Club H, not because the one I started out wearing wasn’t supportive (it was!), but because the straps showed with the sexy crossback Uniqlo tank I was wearing with it. I switched to a less functional but more fashionable sports bra… and paid for it when my boobs were bouncing as we did squat jumps on a double step. Ugh.

If New York City’s message is about money, then New York City is not for me. I’ve never been someone who thinks money is very important (heck, any raises I get have always just changed what I save as opposed to changing anything about my lifestyle/standard of living). I’ve always been someone who’s scoffed at buying brand names for the sake of the brand names (as opposed to a legitimate increase in quality from a quality brand). But I see the little changes in my personality and preferences since I’ve come here (some of that Lululemon stuff is kind of cute), and I wonder if that will always be the case.

Is that who I want to be? And if it’s not, am I really able to stop myself from becoming that with all the external influences making me think that “this is just how everyone is”? we’ll see.


  1. I don’t get the whole makeup at the gym thing, but I do love my Lululemon! I try and get things on “sale” (ie $59 for a pair of crops instead of $86, LOL) but that isn’t always possible. I just like the company as a whole…free fitness classes, super nice employees, free hemming, an optimistic/inspiring/you can do it mentality that eminates from the store and people working there. Not all my stuff is from there – some of my favorite workout shirts are $10 Champion ones from Target!

  2. I thought the essay and your post were very interesting. I’ve lived in Boston, NYC, a small southeastern city, and now Baltimore. NYC is definitely about money. I felt it all the time – constantly a ‘see and be seen’, name-dropper attitude. I worked in finance and a well-meaning colleague pulled me aside and asked if surely I was planning to upgrade my work bag because I really shouldn’t be seen with it in front of clients…it was from Banana Republic. I moved to Boston and worked for an equivalent financial company but the attitude was much more laid back. (I did get addicted to lululemon in Boston though.) And where I live now – the fashion and the money and the lifestyle just isn’t as important as other things. It’s interesting. Thanks for sharing the essay.

  3. I really like this post! I notice some of the same thing in Boston – if you go to a more upscale fitness studio (i.e. Exhale Spa or a fancy yoga studio) everyone is wearing Lululemon, but I can’t afford an entire Lululemon workout wardrobe. I still wear $10 pieces I picked up on clearance or from Marshall’s. I also work out in my PJs if I’m working out first thing in the morning – I just add a sports bra.

  4. As I’ve been reading, it seems like you’ve recently come to a reevaluation point in your life about what you want and what’s important.

    From what I’ve read, I think you’d like Seattle or Portland, but the west coast feel is worlds different from the east coast. Maybe you wouldn’t like it at all.

    I think that Seattle’s message is, “you could be more active.” Of course, there is the rain, but if you were to find a job with an airline with more tolerable hours and vacation, you could go see the sun, snow and anything else.

  5. I loved this post. I’ve lived in the far-flung corners of the country (Providence, San Diego, Gulf Coast Florida, Phoenix, and Seattle-by-association while my husband was there for grad school). Cities definitely have a message.

    Providence: You should be very assertive.

    San Diego: You should be at the beach more.

    Gulf Coast: You should slow down a little.

    Phoenix: You should act more like you live in the Wild West. (Even if you live in a stucco apartment surrounded by palm trees.)

    And I agree about Seattle being “more active.” That (and the beer… and the coffee…) is what I loved most about that city. Rain does NOT keep Seattle-ites indoors!

  6. Laura, this was a terrifically thoughtful and thought-provoking post. You made some astute connections between your own life and the main points of the essay, which I personally think is the best and most honest kind of commentary.
    I’ve lived in Boston for several years, and it seems that every day I’m fighting against myself more and more to not become a raging a-hole. One of my best friends moved to NYC a couple years ago, and it changed her dramatically (into kind of a raging a-hole) – though she doesn’t even see it.
    I’m not really sure what Boston values (as opposed to Cambridge), maybe it’s kind of a baby NYC. Maybe time. Everyone seems to be in a huge hurry. Maybe it’s a certain kind of appearance, ambition, career independence. But it’s worth thinking about. I love Boston, the city, but whatever its message is doesn’t really speak to me any more.

  7. One this that always irks me is summing up New York City by a small section of the island of Manhattan (and I live in that small section of Manhattan).

    New York City is composed of 5 boroughs with a population of over 8 million people. Only 1.5 million live in Manhattan, and an even smaller subsection live below 96th*

    *a common dividing line

    I spent 6 plus years in Boston, had a great time, but needed more. New York always felt like home to me and so I came here.

    Yes, there is a subsection of New Yorkers who are driven by money, but New York to me and why I love it so is diversity.

    Where else could you stop a subway train and find over 100 nationalities represented at any one time? Where else, for $2.25 could you hop on a train and and “travel” anywhere in the world within your own city? Where else can you see a Broadway show for under $40 bucks? Go to any world class museum that fits your fancy?

    I used to have a friend who visited New York and would make comments about everyone being thin and beautiful (and the unstated implication of white). Ultimately being thin and beautiful was what mattered most to her in life and thus that is what she chose to see in New York.

    We see what we want to see in cities. I’m the first to say that New York isn’t for everyone, but also understand that many of us who love and thrive in this city love it for reasons other than money and trying to get ahead.

    Do activities that you love or push yourself to venture outside the bubble you’ve created. Next weekend go to a museum you’ve never visited; pick a neighborhood in another borough, take the train and allow yourself to travel and get lost. Wander into stores, see what you find, enjoy.

    If you limit your social activities to bars and gym going in lower Manhattan OF COURSE, you’re going to see a very narrow subset of the city and only a certain set of values. But also understand that our own values and world view lead to what we choose to see in a city.

  8. Thought provoking comments engendered by a thought-provoking post! I love Megan’s suggestions for expanding the way to perceive NYC (or any city for that matter). I had a friend who lived in Manhattan and would spend many a vacation never leaving NYC at all and yet could always find new things to explore.

  9. I couldn’t agree with this more. Especially this part:

    In his essay, Graham says, “Not all cities send a message. Only those that are centers for some type of ambition do. And it can be hard to tell exactly what message a city sends without living there.”
    Boring Adam recently posted…Turning the pageMy Profile

    • 1. Completely agree that it’s hard to tell the message of a city without living there, in that if you’re vacationing there for a few days, you see the city through the eyes of a tourist. But I spent months where I lived the life of a local in Phoenix (or at least, as local as I’d be with my traveling job): going to grocery stores, running errands, going to kids’ soccer games, etc. I saw as much of Phoenix as I did of Denver/Boulder in the last year.
      2. “Only those that are centers for some type of ambition.” By that logic, I would argue that Phoenix probably has no message at all.

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