September 5, 2009

Reasons To Stop Avoiding New York City

The city streets burst at their seams
And flood the earth with people's dreams
— Stan Ridgway,
Our Manhattan Moment

The search for opportunity pulls some west towards Los Angeles. Others are drawn to New York City, the topic of this post.

The Unforgettable Fire
In 1987, I went to the United Nations to see The Unforgettable Fire, paintings made by survivors of the atomic bombs that struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This haunting art inspired U2's earlier album of the same name.

Back then, even Manhattan didn't feel safe enough. Times Square felt decrepit. The subways were sprayed with graffiti. Aggressive panhandlers would ask you for money inside stores. The radio casually reported that a gang doused a homeless man with gasoline and set him ablaze in Central Park. One street looked inviting and the next frightening. Add crowds, noise, grime and smells. Contrast that with my hotel where an attendant handed you soap, hand lotion and a cloth towel.

Yet the appeal of the Big Apple remained. I thought of moving there and had the opportunity through the generosity of Metropolitan Life. However, I wanted to finish my actuarial exams first and stayed in the Ottawa office.
I like the rush
The pushing of the people --- I like it all so much
Such a mass of motion --- do not know where it goes
I move with the movement
--- Peter Gabriel,
I Have The Touch
You could find the best of the best and the worst of the worst in Gotham. Sometimes within walking distance.

I moved to Toronto in 1991 and now have a family. I wanted them to experience the magic of New York City but had concerns about the impressions. So we waited until now. Manhattan feels much safer. Here's why:
  1. genuine improvements
  2. greater police presence, including video surveillance
  3. experience with big city life
New York City feels cleaner. There's less graffiti, fewer panhandlers, cleaner buses and subways, less noise ($350 fines for honking). The air is reasonably breathable. The smells lingered in some areas due to humidity but the wind and rain from two hurricanes freshened the air during our week-long visit.

Video cameras spy everywhere, inside and outdoors. You'll find airport-style security at many attractions. Police are everywhere too. You'll find about 36,227 of New York's Finest. Compare that with 9,976 for Los Angeles and 5,710 for Toronto. It's unnerving to see some police with rifles, helmets and bullet-proof vests. The "fix broken windows" approach works: punish minor crimes to reduce larger crimes.

Big City Life
I grew up in London, Ontario. This city had a population under 200,000 and is midway between Detroit and Toronto. Those cities seemed so intimidating. Who would want to live in such busy, crowded places? Who would want to breathe polluted air and spend hours upon hours travelling?

Bigger cities have their appeal, though. While life is tougher, there's so much to do and see. Some survive. Others thrive. The rest leave.
He cried out in his anger and his shame
I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains
--- Simon & Garfunkel,
The Boxer
Living in a larger place like Toronto changes you. The city has 2.7 million residents, the largest city in Canada and 5th largest in North America. You get used to the buzz of round-the-clock activity. With 8.3 million residents, New York City has taller buildings, bigger museums, larger crowds and greater contrast between wealth and poverty.

Your reaction to New York City will depend on where you've lived. We found the transition fairly easy and returned home more confident.
If I can make it there,
I'll make it anywhere.
— Frank Sinatra, New York
Podcast (5:36)

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