As I write this, I’m sitting at my desk in an uncluttered 372 sq ft studio apartment in a repurposed hotel on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My queen-size bed and the aforementioned desk are accompanied by a task chair, a lounge chair and ottoman, a credenza, and a dresser, all chosen for their handsome midcentury modern spirit.
Everything I own, including every article of clothing and one hundred collective pounds of dog, all fits within the four walls of this tiny but miraculously uncluttered atelier. The square footage is certainly a constraint, but constraints force us to be more resourceful. It’s all about carefully curated and edited living here.
On the floor to my immediate left, in the baffling elegance of its folded state, is my bicycle. Barring rain, snow, ice or extreme cold, it is my preferred mode of getting around this exquisite city, taking me where I need to go and keeping my ass in the same place it’s been since senior prom. If not by bicycle, I get around on foot, on the subway or bus, or by the very occasional ride share or taxi. I haven’t owned a car since 1994.
For the most part, my food shopping happens online via FreshDirect, who also delivers my order within hours in a van dropping off groceries to dozens of other New Yorkers on the same trip. When I’m feeling more social, I’ll virtue signal with my canvas WNYC and New Yorker tote bags over to Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, or Zabar’s, which are all within walking distance.
Between the space I occupy, the goods I consume, the energy I burn, and the trash I generate, I would argue that I create a comparatively small footprint for an American.
As everybody who knows me knows, I love city living. Aside from its unparalleled cultural offerings, amazing restaurant options and unyielding excitement, it’s incredibly efficient. One of my favorite statistics about New York City is cited by former transportation commissioner under Mike Bloomberg, Janette Sadik-Khan, in her 2016 book Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution:
“I often tell people that if they want to save the planet, they should move to New York City. But it could be any big city… New Yorkers have a carbon footprint 71 percent lower than that of the average American, a function of driving less, living vertically, and the economies of scale that come with centrally located goods and services.”Janette Sadik-Khan
As she said, this could apply to any big city. London, Paris, Rome, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Berlin…
When I moved back to Cleveland in 2016 and lived downtown for two years, I did so without owning a car. People thought living in Cleveland without a car was weird. But in terms of day-to-day living and working, (almost) everything I needed could be found within the 3.1 square mile confines of Downtown Cleveland, i.e. the urban center where the tall buildings are. There is also a free trolley that runs a loop all around Downtown, all day. On the occasions when I needed to venture into suburbia, I would either take the bus or get an Uber or Lyft, which ultimately ended up costing me much less than owning/leasing and maintaining a car.
Many times during my three years back in Cleveland, I would fantasy shop for a car online, because having a car is what we’re supposed to do. But then I crunched the numbers. Some reliable sources cited higher numbers, some cited lower ones. The numbers I cite below are about average for the American car owner, give or take a buck or two.
Monthly Costs of Owning a Car
Car payment: $648*
Car Insurance: $132**
* According to Zebra / ** According to The Balance / *** According to AAA
These numbers don’t include the costs of parking or other incidentals, like accidents or tickets. In some places, $1,306 is a month’s rent in a very nice apartment! So, no… I don’t envy that extra expense. And let’s not forget the factors of time spent and joy, or lack thereof. I see a lot of drivers unhappily stuck in traffic or looking for a parking spot every day. Of those drivers, the percentage who look like they’re having a good time is pretty much zero. Again… when it comes to having a car in the city, I’ll pass.
After nearly 30 years as a New Yorker, I think I’ve managed to crystalize the biggest bonus of city living into one word, which is basically a byproduct of the city’s efficiency: access. From anywhere in the city, I have quick access to art, restaurants, cocktails, theatre, movies, shopping, parks, books, people, solitude, live music, quiet, opportunity, whatever… I can jump on a train/plane/bus or rent a car and be at a beach, in the country, or on a mountain with relative ease.
And access to people, i.e. networking, breeds access to opportunity. As a mere function of density and numbers, there is simply a higher likelihood of running into someone on the subway, on the street, or on a bike and being presented with an opportunity that could change your life. (It’s happened to me more than once.) I’ve made connections and had opportunities through those connections that would have been far less likely if I were in a suburb or in a car.
None of this is to say that other models of living don’t have their charms. I grew up in suburbia and tooled around town in a cool stick-shift convertible. It was a lot of fun. I’ve spent many lovely weekends in houses on the beach and in the country, and I plan on doing more of it because it’s fantastic. But in terms of everyday living, nothing beats the city for me.
Eventually, the whole world comes to New York City, either to live or to visit. The city’s natural density produces an unparalleled diversity and sophistication. That’s not an elitist brag; that’s just how it organically shakes out. As a friend once pointed out so eloquently, New York is the only city in the U.S. that doesn’t have an inferiority complex. Walking a city block, I can hear five different languages, see a half dozen restaurants with cuisines I’ve never even tried, and observe dozens of people of different cultures, backgrounds, beliefs, educations, etc.
And then there’s the glamour. There’s a reason people write about, photograph, and shoot a lot of movies in cities. Cities are glamorous, and that’s fun.
So if you’re young, think about living in the city. It’s one of the only things I knew I wanted from a very early age. If you’re not so young, you should also think about it. This is a great time to make bold changes. (Well, anytime is a great time to make bold changes, but that’s just me.) It could be NYC, it could be Chicago, it could be D.C., it could be London. Sure, cities like New York are expensive. That’s not news. But look at what we get! The parks, the people, the shows, the art… the efficiency and the access.
City living. I’m a happy customer.
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Great editorial! And thanks for the shout out… ” It could be NYC, it could be Chicago, it could be D.C., it could be London.” Twenty years for me in DC, Penn Quarter. Love it.
The gas estimation is way off. $90 a week would be more accurate for most… but I digress. I am a new Sacramento resident after 10 years in Los Angeles and 15 years prior in New York City. I always missed New York City during my time in Los Angeles. Now that I am in Sacramento I miss both L.A & NYC. I’m realizing despite finding a network of like-minded people in Sacramento there’s an overriding oppression of heteronormativity here that does not exist in the aforementioned cities. There’s a warm sense of brokenness in the people of NYC and L.A that is absent here. They are wonderful places for those of us who’ve never fit in to feel safe and nourished, those wanting for more than mundanity. A place believe and dream and actualize those dreams. New York City IS one of those places that ones dreams DO become ones reality. Love you much George!
That’s why they call NYC, LA, and San Fran the “Emerald Cities.”
You write as well as you dress and that’s saying a lot. I’m a fifth generation Manhattanite. I love New York. Its beauty never ceases to stir deep emotion and wonderment.
Great piece. And you are correct about some cities having an inferiority complex. I blame the the highway system among other things. Pre-WWII, a lot of U.S. cities we’re fully formed in regards to operational public transit, zoning, etc. Then we destroyed it with cars, highways, redlining, etc. and ultimately threw away thousands of years of city planning in favor of stroads.
I live in Chicago. In the late 19th and early 20th century planners took the trouble to build a boulevard system that connected large city parks. Objective: leisure and cycling. Then decades of nothing. What happened to that? Why did it take until just the last 30 years to once again build bike lanes, elevated trails, and more parks?
Great read George, My son who graduated from college in June is moving next month to San Francisco. Once said he could never live in a dense city like that. He’s renting a 400 square foot studio. Leaving his car behind in Southern California. That took a little convincing, but he gets it now. Walking distance to great shopping, restaurants and parks. Can even walk to work. He knows he doesn’t need much. And as you said, the access and efficiency of city life is unbeatable for a young person starting out. I’m excited for him and I think he’s excited to start this new adventure.