New York can be an intimidating place. It’s loud, crowded, and there seems to be some kind of unwritten code of conduct that only locals can understand. But even though New Yorkers get a reputation for being the chilly “I’m-walking-here” types, we're generally a pretty nice group of people. Here, our rules for making your way around town.
Know What 'Downtown' Means
In New York, when someone says “downtown,” they don’t mean the commercial centre of the city. In New York (in Manhattan, specifically), downtown means “in a southerly direction” or one of the neighbourhoods below 14th street. So, if someone says “I live downtown,” it means that they live in one of those neighbourhoods. But if we were standing on 79th street and I said, “I’m heading downtown,” I could mean that I’m making my way towards anywhere between 78th street, one block down, and Bowling Green, at the southernmost tip of the island.
“Midtown” means the neighbourhoods in the middle section of Manhattan, between 14th Street and 59th Street, which also happens to be the busiest, most office-building-filled part of the city. So you’d say “I work in Midtown,” and “I’m walking to Midtown” (slight difference there—you need the preposition). And “uptown” means “north” or any of the neighbourhoods in Manhattan above 59th Street. So that’s “I’m taking a cab uptown,” (when you’re going anywhere north of where you currently are) and “I live uptown” (if you live on 98th Street, for example).
To makes things more complicated, there’s also a neighbourhood in Brooklyn known as Downtown Brooklyn, which sort of corresponds to the traditional notion of the word in that it’s busy and there are a lot of tall buildings there. But it’s not “the centre” of the borough by any means. Making sure you've got this all down will only help you avoid confusing the locals when asking for directions.
How to Get Around—Above Ground
New York City sidewalks have unwritten traffic laws. When in doubt, treat walking down a busy sidewalk like you would driving on a heavily trafficked highway: keep right, don’t come to any abrupt stops, and if you’re distracted, moving particularly slowly, or just need to stop to snap a photo or check directions, pull over to a spot that’s out of the way. Same thing applies to escalators.
For yellow cabs: If the numbers on the roof of the cab are lit up, it’s free. If it’s off, there’s someone in it. Also, you don’t need to shout “Taxi!” like they do in the movies. Just stand on the curb and stick out your hand. And make sure if you’re hailing a cab, you don’t accidentally "upstream" someone.
What's "upstreaming"? We're so glad you asked: If someone was already standing on a street corner—or a little farther down the block, within view—with their hand out, waiting for a cab, they get first dibs. People get very upset when this happens, so make sure you check your surroundings before flagging down the first cab you see.
When it comes to Uber, Juno, Lyft, Via, and the like, the most important thing to do is to make sure you have the right car, especially if you’re coming out of a crowded theater or concert venue: there will be a hundred people requesting rides at the same time, and the cars will most likely be black Toyota Camrys or Honda Pilots with a license plate that starts with the letter T. Triple check the plate number and say your name as soon as you get in the car—and don’t make them wait more than a minute or two.
Subway Do's and Don'ts
Because owning a car in the city is expensive, parking is impossible, and traffic is hellish, most people in NYC get around using the subway. It’s inexpensive ($2.75 per swipe, including any transfers) and, when it’s working properly, fast and convenient. If you’re here for a week or more, consider getting an unlimited seven-day card for $32, which you can buy at a kiosk in any MTA station.
Here are a few dos and don’ts for navigating the subway system:
Do let people off the train before you get on.
Don't play loud music or speak at a volume louder than the level you’d use in an open-plan office—especially during the morning rush, commuters tend to stay pretty quiet. Loud talking and playing music without headphones will get you death stares from your fellow passengers.
Don't engage in any PDA or eat any food item that requires either a napkin or a fork.
Do try to take up as little space as possible—especially if the train is crowded. Take off bulky backpacks and hold them in one hand, or rest them on the floor between your legs. If you’re sitting down, don’t “manspread," and if you're standing, don’t lean your entire body against the standalone pole—lots of people are trying to hold onto it.
Do give up your seat to the elderly or anyone who is obviously injured or pregnant.
Don't make eye contact with other people in your train car. It’s considered rude and kind of intrusive. The only exception to this is if there’s something crazy going down elsewhere in the car. Then you’re allowed to share one (just one!) congenial eye roll with someone in your line of sight.
Don't assume that an empty train car in an otherwise full train means you got lucky. There is always a (usually very bad-smelling) reason that it’s empty.
Do make way for “Showtime!” If a group of teenagers with a boombox gets on the train and starts to clear the center of the train, just go with it. They’re about to do some crazy acrobatics. Don’t worry—you won’t get kicked in the head. (If you do watch the show, tip them: it's considered rude to not give a small amount.)
How to Dress
If you’re wearing zip-off hiking pants to lunch in the West Village, you won’t be treated badly, per se, but you will be treated like a tourist. The terrain is not that difficult to navigate. And that old thing about New Yorkers wearing all black, all the time? Holds pretty true. If you’re going to a theater, concert hall, or upscale restaurant, check their website or call in advance to see if there’s a dress code. At most places, you’ll see a mix that ranges from jeans and tee-shirts to dresses and heels. When in doubt, go a little dressier than you’d think.
How to Greet Someone
People will think you’re crazy if you say hello to them while passing in the street—even if you’re the only two people on the street. Telling someone you love their shoes will usually get a smile, and most people are happy to help with directions. But a breezy “Good morning!” is considered... eccentric. If you do need to ask for directions, the best way to stop someone is to wave them down with a simple, straightforward “Excuse me, could you help me with directions?” People are generally conditioned to ignore everyone, so don’t be discouraged if a few people walk by with their headphones firmly in place—someone will eventually stop to help out.
Standing in a Long Line Is Overrated
Look, there are plenty of locals who do this. But the Japanese ice cream/cup of raw cookie dough you saw on Instagram is not worth the three-hour wait. There’s so much good food in this city! Spend that precious time sitting down somewhere else.
Ditch the Fork and Knife
New York pizza slices are meant to be eaten with one hand, folded lengthwise. Standing at the counter at Joe’s and trying to cut your piece of pepperoni into bite-sized chunks is not the look. (Our current mayor once did this at a place in Staten Island, which resulted in a deeply shameful incident for the city that came to be known as “Pizzagate.”)
Remember: There Are Five Boroughs
It’s not just Manhattan! The other four boroughs are very much a part of the city. And with the exception of Staten Island, which can be reached from Manhattan only by ferry—also a very scenic and very affordable way to see the harbour and pass the Statue of Liberty—you can take the subway between all of them.
So, About Times Square...
It's a billboard-littered hellscape that has very little to do with the rest of the city. Nobody hangs out outside the M&M store unless they work nearby or are passing through it as quickly as possible on their way to a Broadway show. Get out of there.
Like seemingly everything else in the city, museums can get crowded, too. When you’re seeing a big, blockbuster-y exhibition, try not to stand directly in front of the artwork—step back a little bit so a few people can take it in at the same time. And if you’re using a painting as a backdrop for an Instagram (no shame in it), try to do it without disrupting a bunch of people who are trying to see it through their eyes.
Celebs tend to fly pretty under the radar in New York, unless they’re attending a movie premiere, fashion show, or some other event that’s equally mobbed with cameras. If you see a famous person in a restaurant, walking their dog, checking out an art gallery or grocery shopping with their kids, the New Yorker-y thing to do would be to leave them in peace and to pretend they’re not even there. This is not LA.
Feature Image: Unsplash