Your really useful guide to New York neighbourhoods

Six months ago we moved to New York for six months, and in that time we lived in EIGHT different neighbourhoods. Here is a (hopefully) useful summary of them all.

Park Slope

Prospect Park, Park Slope
GREEEEENness in Park Slope
Everyone (well, New York magazine in 2010, at least) considers Park Slope to be one of NYC’s most desirable locations. And I can see why: it’s pretty, for one thing – there are lots of brownstone houses and leafy streets. Then there’s all that green space in Prospect Park – actual green, regular, open space rather than carousels, bridges, fountains and a shrine to The Beatles. There are also enough restaurants, bars and nightly events to justify getting a babysitter every night of the week.

There’s more: according to the American Planning Association, Park Slope has an “active and involved citizenry” (which some might consider to be a euphemism for “nosy and interfering” but is surely better than “ignoring that guy who’s peeing into a kid’s stroller while the parents enjoy their foie gras”).

Park Slope is the butt of many anti-gentrification jokes, but if you’re a fan of organic peanut butter, botox, and bottles of red with a decent vintage, who cares? Park Slopers certainly don’t: everyone is so smug that it’s like joking about the decor in Donald Trump’s apartment and then remembering that he couldn’t give a rat’s arse what you think about his penchant for gold leaf.

Park Slope – good if you:

  • Are a dog or dog owner (there are lots of others to talk to)
  • Are a baby or baby owner (ditto)
  • Have good earplugs (lots of car alarms go off at night)

Bad if you:

  • Are looking for marriage material (everyone’s taken)
  • Don’t like hills (it’s called Park Slope for a reason)
  • Don’t like dogs… or babies (see above)

Williamsburg

McCarren Park
McCarren Park – the best people-watching you’ll ever do

Six years ago, Williamsburg was just a building site with a really cool park in the middle. (Oh, and a bar that did a weekly spelling bee, which is still going strong and is properly amazing.) And just look how it’s grown!

The recession stunted that growth for a while, but now Williamsburg has got beautiful new apartment buildings, an uber-cool hotel, and restaurants that Manhattanites are willing to change trains for (I base this on the fact that absolutely no one lives or works within walking distance of an L train stop).

Sure, the men’s beards will make you think you’re in a gorilla sanctuary, and their tight-tight trousers will cause you to worry on their behalf about future fertility issues. But everyone’s so nice. And so happy. And so charming – even the girls whose bottom cheeks are visible beneath their cut-off shorts.

Williamsburg – good if you:

  • Like beards (either wearing them or being with people who wear them)
  • Enjoy late nights
  • Think it’s the coolest thing ever to run around a running track while a man with a limp hobbles beside you, a woman in a wheelchair races along in front of you, a kids’ soccer game takes place in the middle, there’s a bench-press tournament at the outdoor gym to your left, and someone’s dog is running through everything looking for its ball. (If you don’t think this is cool, I don’t think we should be friends)

Bad if you:

  • Don’t like building sites (I figure it’s roughly halfway towards full gentrification)
  • Prefer to buy first-hand clothes (there are a lot of thrift stores)
  • Work on the Upper West Side (not gonna happen unless you’ve got a helicopter)

Upper West Side

Upper West Side brownstones
Pretty Upper West Side brownstones

On Quora you’ll find some pretty heated arguments about whether the Upper East or the Upper West is the place to be. Most are rooting for the Upper West, and I agree: the atmosphere is much friendlier, the apartment buildings (lots of brownstones) are prettier, the ladies don’t wear gym clothes for no reason all day (see below), and the dogs are cuter.

What else does the Upper West have going for it? Trains: there’s the 1, 2, 3, B and C to take you anywhere you probably need to go in Manhattan. And a massive park on your doorstep – either the Central one or Riverside one.

The Upper West also has an almost holiday-like vibe along Amsterdam Avenue on summery evenings: all the restaurants have outdoor seating, so it can feel like you’re in a lovely Spanish village (a big village, which consists of just one very long, very big road).

There are downsides. There are way too many kids, who are all far too loud for my liking (I don’t think their parents are members of any sort of Gina Ford appreciation society). Another downside is Broadway, which is bloody ugly and confuses the hell out of you when you think you’ve finally grasped which avenue comes next.

Upper West Side – good if you:

  • Like your avenues to have names (like “Columbus”, “Amsterdam” and “Riverside”) rather than numbers
  • Like the idea of going to a Manhattan grocery store where the staff are friendly (seriously: the Gristedes on Columbus and 84th has the NICEST people I’ve ever met. If you’ve been to any other Gristedes in the city, you’ll know what a revelation this is)

Bad if you:

  • Prefer your coffee shops to have wifi (practically non-existent on the UWS)
  • Have any sort of convictions that prevent you from going near kids (you’ll be housebound)

Upper East Side

Upper East Side
Women who wear spandex ALL DAY LONG live in apartments like these

The Upper East is where you’ll found lots of young women carting around children of a different colour. Yes, this is Nannyville – where Filipino girls spend all day with the kids, while the mothers shop for marinated artichokes in Agata & Valentina, get their eyebrows waxed at John Barrett, and go to meetings with their lawyers about alimony settlements.

There’s more to the Upper East than this, of course. For one thing, Museum Mile (along 5th Avenue) means you can get a heckuva lot of culture without walking very far. And when you’re famished after a long day of looking at pretty pictures, there are some cheap, yummy places to eat nearby (there’ll be a blog post soon about where to eat/drink in each neighbourhood).

Surprisingly, the Upper East is way better than the Upper West for bars and sports bars. A particular favourite is The Bullpen.

Upper East side – good if you:

  • Are Republican: it’s one of the few areas of Manhattan where Republicans constitute more than 20% of the electorate. And if you go to the southwestern part of the UES, Republican voters actual equal Democratic voters (the only such area in Manhattan)
  • Like small, yappy dogs (they’re as ubiquitous as the women who wear gym clothes all day even though they don’t seem to ever do any exercise)

Bad if you:

  • Like public transport options (the 6 is the only local train in the area, although a new line is coming soon)
  • Get annoyed by old people at the checkout who take forever to count their change (they make up a big chunk of the area’s demographic)

Chelsea

High Line
Most of Chelsea isn’t like this

Chelsea’s an odd one: not so long ago, it was a horrible place and no one wanted to be associated with it. These days, it’s still nowhere near as fashionable as the Meatpacking District (below it) or as edgy as Hell’s Kitchen (above it), but it’s managed to get some cool points from somewhere – probably the realtors – so that basically everyone in Midtown West likes to say they live in Chelsea.

And the realtors/propagandists have done a good job, because – apart from a few nice parts – Chelsea is a bit shit. It looks like a tourist trap (busy, trafficky, bad diners, and deafening bars with neon signs), but the only tourists there are the ones who’ve got lost on the way to Times Square.

Now for those nice parts – which are worth a trip, but in my opinion not a lease. West of 10th Avenue, everything’s rather lovely. You’ve got the High Line, which is a beautiful way to walk downtown without needing to cross any roads. And then of course there are all the galleries, which are in awesome warehousey buildings and provide some fascinating (mostly modern) art that’s definitely worth a look.

Chelsea – good if you:

  • Need good transport links
  • Like to know (through honking and cheering) when a local team wins at Madison Square Garden
  • Love ice skating outside of the Christmas season (Chelsea Piers is nearby)

Bad if you:

  • Like greenery
  • Don’t have a washing machine (there are very few laundromats)

Astoria

Astoria houses
People get to live in ENTIRE HOUSES in Astoria – true story

Ask a New Yorker what they think of Astoria, and they’ll ask you what Astoria is.

Astoria is quite possibly the only under-the-radar area left in NYC. And that’s odd, because it’s got a thriving nightlife, lots of fun restaurants, and great links into Midtown Manhattan (it’s in Queens).

The neighbourhood is eclectic, to say the least. Loads of nationalities have settled there over the years (including Dutch, German, Maltese and Bangladeshi), but today it’s all about the Italians, Greeks and Arabs. They all live in little separate pockets of the neighbourhood, and their respective restaurants are also grouped into separate areas. (And trust me: regardless of what Yelp says, once you’ve tried one plate of pasta or one Greek salad or one shish kebab in Astoria, you’ve tried them all.)

Astoria – Good if you:

  • Like the idea of living somewhere “unexpected” (and up-and-coming: bars like the Queen’s Kickshaw are helping to get Astoria noticed by inward-looking Manhattanites)
  • Enjoy haggling for your shopping (nothing seems to be a set price there)

Bad if you:

  • Want your friends to visit you ever again (they’ll just assume you live somewhere terrible because they haven’t heard of it)
  • Enjoy fine dining

Lower East Side

Lower East Side

The Lower East side looks how I imagine East Germany looked before 1989: skinny people all wearing the same clothes, living in monotonous grey buildings (albeit livened up with graffiti) and sneaking out to underground, “hush-hush” bars and restaurants late at night.

Yes, the Lower East Side is home to a particular kind of “fun” – a fun that requires you to know secret phone numbers, learn special knocks and climb down lots of hidden stairs before you’re allowed to eat or drink anything – which you don’t (eat at least), because then you won’t fit into your already-too-tight clothes.

It wasn’t always like this. The Lower East Side is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city, and it’s historically been the home of the working class, the poor, and minority ethnic groups. It still is, to an extent. When you’re not hanging out in an overpriced bar hidden behind a hot dog store, you’ll notice all the kosher delis, synagogues and South American cuisine. There’s also still a lot of social housing around here.

The mix of old and new has caused tensions, but it’s also a great recipe for a night out: hit some insane bars, get drunk, then end up at at Katz’s Deli for a late-night pastrami sandwich before heading home.

Lower East Side – good if you:

  • Enjoy drinking
  • Think wearing clothes is overrated

Bad if you:

  • Have weak knees (most of the buildings are still walk-up, tenement style)
  • Want to get anywhere else in the city (there are lots of subway stations and trains, but they don’t seem to go anywhere useful)

East Village

East Village - St Mark's Place
FYI You can get a $1 slice at that pizza place

You don’t need to be a falafel-loving, shisha-smoking rastafarian artist/flautist to love the East Village anymore. For a start, loads of them got priced out and moved to Williamsburg (and then got priced out of Williamsburg, so heck knows where they are now). And secondly, there’s so much more to the East Village than all that hippie-dippie nonsense.

Proximity: that’s something no one really mentions. If you ever get tired of all the nightlife, restaurants, amazing sandwich shops, parks, theatres, boutique stores and cafes, it’s so easy to get to practically anywhere else in the city – either by foot or subway.

It’s also surprisingly quiet during the day. The homeless people – of which there are many – are nocturnal (makes sense: the whole place comes alive at night), and everyone else seems to either be working, reading or doing arty painty things in one of the many, many cafes.

East Village – good if you:

  • Like vegan food. Although this place isn’t quite so doolally as it was before, there are still a fair few residents who think it’s a good idea to spend a lifetime without hamburgers
  • Fancy living somewhere that actually feels like a community. Because it’s so clearly “different” from its neighbouring areas, there’s more of a feeling of “Hello, fellow East Villager!” when passing people in the street
  • Like the idea of getting hammered for next to nothing. This is Happy Hour central, and the bartenders aren’t stingy with their alcohol portions

Bad if you:

  • Aren’t a fan of Misery Tourism (after Ground Zero, this is the place where you can feel most depressed about humanity’s failure – there are desperate homeless people everywhere)
  • Like classy establishments (if you’re into Bergdorf Goodman and Balthazaar, I suggest you steer clear)
  • Don’t want to pay much (relatively) for accommodation (it’s expensive there these days, and you don’t get much for your money)
  • This post cracked me up! As someone who lived in a summer sublet back in 2004, I wasn’t picky at all where I lived (as long as it was near a subway stop) and I looked all over (except for SI or The Bronx, too far). I actually liked Astoria a lot, but oddly, ended up on the UWS, my favorite part of the city.

    • Mish

      Hey Rebecca,

      We should have spoken to you before we began our trip!

      We really loved the UWS too. Of all the places we stayed, I think UWS and the East Village were our favourites – which is weird because they’re so different from each other.

      Astoria’s great. I don’t think we’d want to live there, but it’s so much fun and there’s heaps to do.