Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: Why do people pay expensive rents in Manhattan when there are far cheaper apartments a short subway ride away? Here is one of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread.
As far as I can see, the true answer is based on cultural norms and thepsychology of Manhattan as an island.
I also think, unlike most cities, New York almost projects a certain lifestyle or “rite de passage” that should be followed. There is almost this route that you are supposed to live where you are expected to live in Manhattan, in a shitty apartment with curtains as walls, with drug addict roomies, with crazy parties, and with no air conditioning. And that one day you move up, out and look back on those days with fondness. It’s almost like the hardship and ridiculousness is part of the charm and a datum to measure progress from.
I live in central Manhattan and having lived in several cities, what strikes me is the incredible snobbery and judgement that New Yorkers have about where each other live. I have no idea where this came from and how it prevails but there is absolutely a quantifiable sense that you should seek nothing other than to be around people like you, and choose a place that reflects how you want to present yourself.
There is a curious sense of psychology to New York living.
1. New Yorkers use incredible precision to describe their neighborhood.
This may seem to be true for many cities, but the precision of the area and the strength of opinion have no equal.
I live near Penn station, I have an incredible apartment on the 47th floor with 180 degree views of all of Manhattan (I see both rivers). I love my apartment. I live about 5 mins walk to central Chelsea, about 13 mins walk to the Meatpacking district and I can be in any single trendy part of this island in less than 5 mins and $7 in a taxi.
I never cease to get incredible grief about my choice of location (until people see it).
In London, if you lived 13 mins walk to a local tube station, the name of that station would most likely be the name of your neighborhood. 10 mins walk from Brixton means you live in Brixton, a 14 min walk to Parsons Green means you probably live in Parsons Green. While London is an incredible collection of different villages, it would be absurd to say that anyone a 10 min walk away from an area, is somehow missing out by not living in that area.
Now don’t get me wrong, there are significant differences in areas, the type of people, the quality of services, the time it takes to get to certain places, but New York is very unlike other cities and it makes no sense to me.
2. New Yorkers somehow expect easy fast commutes, and for some reason the faster commuter train lines are particularly ignored.
Most Global cities dwellers have terrible commutes, if you live in Madrid, London, Paris, Berlin, Los Angeles etc, you pretty much expect that in order to have a decent mixture of quality of live and quality of accommodation and money left over, that a commute of 2 trains and 45 mins is about average.
My experience of London is that the entire 80 mile radius outside London is a commuter belt and just look of this map that features only the most frequent rail services.
In London, it’s unheard of to walk to work, and even an hour commute with 3 changes is not remotely notable.
In New York it seems unusual to commute for more than 30 mins unless you have chosen to live outside the city and in a big house.
Commuting in New York is way different too.
Whereas New York seems to have way way fewer lines, but also a very limited service.
And whereas a typical commuter train line in London has perhaps a train every 5 mins, most New York commuter lines seem to at the very best have one train every 30 mins.
Somehow the folks of New York have different expectations.
– Anything outside of Manhattan or trendy parts of Brooklyn is awful.
– Unless you have a family and live in a huge house in Connecticut or Long Island.
It creates some a VERY curious situations to me (as a Londoner).
3. There are loads of stations less than 20 mins away from central NYC terminus that are not developed.
Take for example:
Secaucus, this is less than 10 mins away from New York on 6 train lines, with 10 trains per hour and 24 hours a day, it’s near major freeway.
Yet this is the area around? How is it that somewhere that you can get to Times Square in less than 20 mins, door to door and the station not crowned with massive blocks of accommodation.
By contrast, Reading, is a 30 mins journey to Paddington, which is then a 15 min journey to the center of London. There are a similar number of trains but the cost is about 5 times greater than in New York. But yet the area around the station is massively dense with loads of accommodation based on the fact that the station is a really good commute.
4. This is not a freak example- New York is full of them.
How is Newark, 20 mins from Penn Station (and great for Newark Airport), not a thriving commuting hub with trendy flats above it?
How is Jamaica, perfectly located 20 mins from Penn Station and great for JFK not a great choice for those looking for good access to the world and to New York?
How are not all the towns on Metro North up the Hudson Valley not very prosperous commuter towns with people enjoying both the space and beauty of the river and a pleasant train journey to Grand Central?
In fact the only parts of New York metro that seem desirable for commuters would be a handful of towns on Long Island and New Jersey.
5. In London it is simply impossible to find parallels.
Anywhere in the IMMEDIATE ENVIRONMENT less than 20 mins from a central London station will be very very desirable.
Add in proximate to Heathrow and the land is even more special.
Add in any natural beauty (like the Thames or Greenspace) and the area again becomes super nice.
In short, there are virtually no towns or villages within 45 mins of London that are not super desirable commuting locations.
I think there is a curious snobbery to Manhattanites and a sense of herd mentality. Maybe it’s being afraid to be the first to make the move.
I’d love nothing more than to find a billionaire friend and develop an incredible new town on the Hastings or in the Newark marshes and show the joy of semi-urban living. But somehow I just don’t think New Yorkers could ever do it.
BTW – I am not saying “How is it that people don’t want to live in Newark?” — I have been there, it’s a shithole. What I am saying is, how is it that nobody over the last few decades has changed Newark such that it has become a desirable place to live? In other countries Newark would have been considered ripe for exploitation many many years ago.