How to Build a Life in the City (NYC Hacks)

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As the song goes, if you can make it here you can make it anywhere. New York is, as of now, the great love of my life. I moved here a little under nine years ago and it hasn’t gotten old. That said, it can be a difficult, stressful place to live, especially in the current market. When I moved here as a starry-eyed nineteen-year-old from Connecticut, I knew so little about how to live here. Since then, I’ve learned a LOT—there are so many small ways to make your life in the City of Cities easier and more fulfilling. Especially if you’re moving on your own and / or without a ton of money. Here are my top tips, life hacks, and apps / websites to help you navigate life in New York City without going crazy…

Learn how to protect yourself from crooked landlords, and be smart when signing a lease. A basic knowledge of New York property law can save you a surprising amount of money.

For whatever reason, the world of New York real estate and apartment management seems to be more filled with shady, immoral people than any other industry. Seriously, in my time here, I’ve met virtually no landlord, management company, or realtor who has seemed like a genuinely upright, decent person, with the exception of my current landlord (a family, not a corporation). My most recent landlord (whose name I’ll include, because he is engaged in a whole lotta illegal activity and should be avoided—Abe Garbo, GB properties) was referred to as a slumlord in many reviews I found on him right after I signed a lease. He was also reportedly homophobic towards tenants. But aside from that, and the incredibly shoddy quality of an apartment that only looked shiny and new, hiding cheap construction—he had blatantly illegal clauses in the lease, and notoriously keeps security deposits for no reason. But because I knew what he was and was not allowed to do (and admittedly, because I’m vindictive and realllly good at arguing), I was able to get my money back and avoid being held to unethical standards per the lease. Having forced you to listen to my whole evil landlord story, a dime a dozen in this city—here are some things to know—-if part of your security deposit is taken, you are entitled to an itemized list of reasons for deductions. Ask for it. Landlords are not allowed to deduct for normal wear and tear—this includes things like nail holes in the walls, light scratches on the ground, or scuffs on the walls, needing a fresh coat of paint. All of these things, and cleaning within reason, are the landlord’s responsibility in between tenants. When I asked for an itemized list, I was told the money being taken ($900) was for painting and cleaning. I threatened to take them to court, and as they knew they weren’t within the bounds of the law and I would win, they sent me my full deposit back. My case was helped by the fact that before leaving, I took an incredibly detailed video of the empty apartment, showing it was in excellent condition. I highly recommend doing this, and whenever you move into a new place, you should document any pre-existing damage you see. Another New York State law that many are not aware of—if your landlord doesn’t return your security deposit within two weeks of move out, you are legally entitled to the entire thing regardless of damage. Aside from the security deposit, know your rights with regard to standard of living—your landlord is required to provide heat and hot water in the colder months, and exterior doors with functioning locks. Another good thing to know—landlords cannot charge more than a $50 late fee on rent. Abe Garbo (my previous landlord) initially had written in the lease he’d charge $200 a day. If something like this is in a lease, make it clear you’re aware it is illegal and want it changed before signing. A lot of staying safe, sane, and keeping your money when dealing with crooked landlords comes down to being alert and doing your research. And generally speaking, you can call 311 for help with any of this. They can help you do things like report a landlord for not providing hot water, or guide you in starting a case in small claims court if a security deposit is withheld without cause.

Take advantage of free wifi and free (or nearly free) food and drinks.

There’s plenty to be found. Hotel lobbies often have free wifi—some of my favorites are the Ludlow Hotel, Ace Hotel, and Marlton Hotel. I usually sit at the bar and get a soda for like two dollars, or a coffee. Super cheap, and it gives you a place to work for hours. They’re not at all strict about how long you stay. Public libraries are also a good option for free wifi. As for free food, there are several bars that give you free snacks with a drink, such as the Levee in Williamsburg (Twizzlers and cheese balls!) and Rudy’s in Hell’s Kitchen (hot dogs, guarded by a terrifying anthropomorphic pig statue). There are also plenty of events to check out that offer samples (just search ‘free food’ on Eventbrite). And if you’re willing to spend $5, there are a world of truly delicious options available to you, the best of which I’ve collected into two posts.

Learn your way around a laundromat—and seriously consider drop-off service. It’s a small luxury that makes life a LOT easier.

If you don’t have laundry in your building—and many New York apartment buildings, especially older ones, do not—it will be essential to wash your clothes at a laundromat. I find it to be a huge pain and usually do drop-off. If you are going to wash your own clothes, many laundromats have coin operated machines, so you’ll need to have change on hand. Also be aware of bleach residue in the detergent part of the machine (whatever it’s called), to avoid bleach spots on your clothes. But drop-off usually isn’t too much more expensive than washing your own clothes, and they’ll come back nicely folded. For me, a large load of laundry costs $15-20. For comparison, in my last building, a load of laundry cost around $6, and around the same at most laundromats in my experience.

Get Omni and Apple Pay if you don’t already use it.

I never really have my wallet out, and using your phone for everything makes life quicker and easier—and everything is quicker in New York. Apple Pay is pretty obvious at this point, but Omni is less used. It’s a website, not an app, and it allows you to connect your debit / credit card or bank account to your smartphone wallet. Then you simply hold your phone up to a screen on the subway turnstile and walk through. Much easier than looking through your wallet for a Metro-card, finding it needs to be refilled. Omni never needs to be refilled and doesn’t expire. You also get the benefit of unlimited ride cards—if you ride more than twelve times in a week, the rest are free, which is the same cost as a weekly Metro-card.

Stay safe, especially if you’re a woman out alone at night. There are a lot of easy ways to protect yourself to an extent.

Crime has gone up significantly in recent months, and I get emails from NYU safety all the time with news of assaults and robberies in wealthy, “safe” neighborhoods. You obviously can’t totally protect yourself, but some tips—don’t wear a ponytail or a backpack that can be pulled on. Carry mace. Get the Noonlight app, which allows you to silently call and send your location to the police with the push of a button (and has a bunch of other cool features). The Flare bracelet is also a good option—even more discreet, and really cute. I never wear headphones when walking home late. I’ve never truly felt unsafe using the subway at night, but wherever you are, stay alert.

Authentic food is the best food.

While you can find amazing ethnic cuisine of all kinds across the city, there are definitely certain neighborhoods where a lot of the best restaurants are concentrated. Little Italy is an obvious one, and my favorite restaurant there (their gnocchi is arguably my favorite dish in the City) is Il Cortile. The lesser known Arthur Ave in the Bronx is also full of authentic Italian food, with many restaurants that have been in the same family for generations. Chinatown has amazing Chinese food, of course (my favorite spot is Nom Wah Tea Parlor, and also check out Chinatown Ice Cream Factory)… but IMO Flushing is better, and over time has become home to more truly authentic spots owned by first and second generation Chinese immigrants. Favorites include Maxi’s Noodle and Szechuan Mountain House. The New World Mall is also amazing, truly an experience—it’s what it sounds like. An Asian shopping center with a food court with far better options than mall classics like Sbarro and Panda Express. Little India in Jackson Heights, Queens is a must visit (at least if you love Indian food, as I do). Angel Indian Restaurant in particular is really good. Being relatively unfamiliar with the neighborhood, I’ll admit I’ve only been to a couple restaurants in the area. But I’m impressed thus far. Koreatown, in midtown around 32nd street, is a lesser known but equally delicious culinary treasure trove (Korean Barbecue is really, realllly good). If you’re looking for Russian food, and a bit of a surreal day trip, head to Brighton Beach. There are so many markets and little family owned places. Tatiana’s on the boardwalk is good for Russian food, although their American food is less good IMO. Cafe Max has a solid mix of both, and their khachapouri is amazing.

Use the bathroom when you get the opportunity, and know where to find a restroom in the event of an emergency.

There are startlingly few public restrooms in New York. Restaurants usually have ones, but especially since COVID they usually are pretty firm on only letting customers use them. Starbucks and a lot of other cafes are usually a good bet, and need be you can just buy a coffee for like $3. But most businesses are not easily swayed to let you use the bathroom even if you beg, so take the opportunity if you see one and have to go or even if you don’t (as my parents used to say on road trips—just try). If you have a small child with you they’re more likely to let you use the employee restroom since they’d usually rather break the rule than clean up a puddle of pee. One more useful tip for women, if you’re like me and willing to use slightly morally questionable tactics in your bathroom search—pretend you’re pregnant and say you’re going to pee your pants. Extra points for sticking out your tummy and saying the baby is stomping on your bladder.

Know your New York etiquette.

Lots of obvious stuff, that tourists and new arrivals don’t always find obvious. When walking, don’t walk too slow, and if you’re going to, definitely don’t take up the whole sidewalk. Always wait for people to get off the subway before getting on. If you have an unlimited Metro-card and are getting off the subway, and someone can’t pay their fare, offer them a swipe. It costs you nothing and is a nice thing to do. The reason to only do this if you’re getting off—after you swipe your unlimited weekly / monthly card, it will not allow you to use it again for eighteen minutes. A lot of unspoken NYC rules are subway stuff. If the train is crowded, it’s okay to kind of elbow your way through or push to fit in the car. But take your backpack off if you have one, and put it at your feet. If you drive, really try to avoid blocking the box. If you do, prepare to be met with a deafening blast of car horns until the light turns. People here honk to express frustration, even when they know it does no good. Try your best to not be one of those people. Most of it is fairly self-explanatory, but city life does have its own set of rules that are irrelevant in a suburban setting, or even in another city.

When you get off the subway it can be tough to orient yourself as far as exact location. Learn how to figure out where you are fast. It’s not actually that tough in Manhattan…

If I’m in the grid, meaning in the majority of the borough that has numbered streets and avenues, it’s quite easy so long as you can see the street and avenue you’re on / closest to, and one adjacent. It’s not very difficult to see what street is one block away, especially with streets as opposed to avenues, because they’re so close together in addition to running parallel. Once you have this number, picture the city as a big rectangle. It makes sense that numbers go higher the higher north you go. If the street number you find one block away from you is higher than the street you’re on, facing the higher street, taking a left will bring you closer to the West Side (the Hudson at the West Bank). Taking a right brings you towards the East Side and the East River / FDR drive. Above 59th Street, navigation is often centered around ( 🥁……) Central Park. Facing Uptown on the East Side, taking a left will bring you closer to the Park. On the West Side, you’ll want to go right. Working in towards the Park from the Hudson, the order of the avenues (relatively few of them, as the island isn’t that wide, so if you’re moving here it’s a good idea, and easy, to memorize the order) is as follows: Riverside Drive, West End Avenue, Broadway, Amsterdam Avenue, Columbus Avenue, then Central Park West. On the West Side it’s a teeny bit more complicated than on the UES just because Broadway does cut to the East below 78th street, crossing the various avenues as you move down, until it meets the Park at Columbus Circle. So you may want to disregard Broadway, aside from knowing that facing downtown, it moves you left / East towards the Park. On the East Side, from the East River in, the Avenue order is FDR Drive, York Avenue, 1st to 3rd Avenues, Lexington Avenue, Park Avenue, Madison Avenue, and finally Fifth Avenue, bordering the Park. Just a quick primer on navigating the island.

The Empire State Building is a waste of money.

Top of the Rock is slightly less touristy, and has a much better view, including the Empire State Building, front and center. In general, Rockefeller Center is really great, and I prefer it to Herald Square (the area around the ESB). Rockefeller Center also has great shopping, and its famed ice rink is always crowded but worth a visit (and it’s a roller skating rink in the summer).

Shop at Trader Joe’s, and do so on weekdays before five if at all possible.

Admittedly, I’m biased towards the Hoes, as it’s colloquially called (by me and my roommate) because I used to work there. But objectively, they have the best prices in the City, and have been touched less by inflation due to how they source their food. Their stuff is also just really good, and unique. It’s seriously so fun to shop there. What makes it less fun is waiting in a line so long it snakes around the store. While the large number of cashiers (my Hoes had 23 registers) makes it go faster, there are still bad times to come and good times to come. There’s usually very little line before 5:00PM on weekdays. Weekday evenings are usually OKAY, with the exception of Monday night. It’s one of their busiest times, presumably because people are buying food for the week ahead. Do not come on Sundays. It’s a fucking mess, and the store is less well stocked. Final note, I recommend buying anything and everything from TJ’s with the exception of fruit (it’s cheaper and just as good from one of the thousands of outdoor stands in the City), but know that they don’t sell most pharmacy items or household supplies. There’s a great beauty section, some home goods, and a ton of different vitamins; so figuring out what they do and don’t carry can be tough, and there’s no hard and fast rule. But generally, anything that cannot be made hipster-y and branded in some way, they do not sell. Some things they do carry: beauty products from makeup wipes to retinol cream to surprisingly great $4 shampoo and conditioner, candles (different scents seasonally), dish detergent, hand soap, all-purpose cleaner, air freshener spray, dish towels. Some things they do not carry: tin foil, garbage bags, medicines, tampons / pads, first-aid supplies, any harsh chemicals like bleach.

Don’t trust Apple / Google maps when trying to figure out how long it will take to get somewhere.

This is huge. One of my number one pieces of advice to people moving to the City—the MTA fucking blows. It’s universally acknowledged to be one of the worst city transit systems in the country, not least by the millions of New Yorkers who constantly complain about it. There are frequently delays, and without warning there will be track maintenance or something along those lines and a certain train line may not be running at all. In this case, they offer free shuttle buses—but these are very slow, less frequent than they should be, and cannot carry anywhere near as many people as a train. Sometimes it’s nearly impossible to catch one. There’s also just the issue of having to wait a while for a train, frequently up to 15-20 minutes on weekends or late at night. So if you put a location into Apple Maps and route it, whether you’re taking public transit or driving (traffic), know that the ETA may be wholly inaccurate. In general, I budget an extra half hour. Usually that’s enough.

Best view of the New York skyline, IMO, is from McCarren Park in Williamsburg.

It’s right next to the Hoes of Williamsburg (Trader Joes), so I used to sit there almost every day and feel genuinely moved by the fact that I live here. Sunset over the river, over the skyline, is straight up exquisite. You see the World Trade Center, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building. So great. If you want to make a day of it, spend some time at the nearby, world famous Rough Trade record store, and do a group Smorgasburg run for a true smorgasbord in the Burg. Smorgasburg is a permanent street fair with an ever changing list of vendors, many of them selling cheap small plates. Buy a bunch of $5-7 appetizers, and have a mish-mash picnic by the water.

Times Square is horrible and should be avoided, in my opinion, unless you have guests. Ditto for most of the really touristy places in the City.

It’s so stressful, and full of annoying families from Ohio who don’t know how to act. Really loud, really slow. Most of the restaurants and stores there are chains that you can very easily find elsewhere in the City, and elsewhere in the country. There are also horrifying, usually mildly dingy off-brand costumed characters who will wordlessly follow you in the hopes you’ll take a picture and then pay them for it. It makes me sad for the people in the costumes, but it’s also undeniably creepy. Fake Mickey Mouse aside, Times Square as well as other prime tourist attractions like the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building should be largely avoided day to day. You’ll inevitably have to go, and spend money on them, when guests from out of town come to visit, which they inevitably will because you now live in the best city on Earth.

Never pay full price for Broadway tickets (and know that orchestra seats are overrated).

When you do go to Times Square, you may want to see a Broadway play. Even if you’re not into theater, you really should see one at some point. But the tickets can be crazy expensive. For this reason, one great way to get to a show without going broke is to hit up TDF’s TKTS ticket booth on the day of the show. Look for the red steps in Duffy Square. They won’t be hard to find, because there will be a line. Also, while orchestra seats (close to the stage) are an even more incredible experience, they’re not that incredible, and they’re much more expensive than other areas of a theater.

Postmates and TaskRabbit can get you just about any good or service you require quickly and easily.

In places that aren’t New York, these apps have their limitations. Most places outside major cities don’t even have Postmates. For those who don’t know, TaskRabbit is an app that allows you to find someone to perform almost any task for you (presumably within the bounds of legality and morality—outside of that, you’ll have to use Craigslist). Postmates, while primarily known as a delivery app in the vein of Seamless or Uber Eats, really allows you to have someone pick up pretty much anything in the City and bring it to your door. Nothing like furniture, but most small goods are fair game. You can have them grocery shop for you, stop at Sephora, or bring you Pedialyte from Duane Reede when you’re hideously hungover. They do it all. Just make sure to tip well.

Ferry rides are the best, as far as free or very cheap transportation and just something fun to do.

Some are free, while others cost the same as a subway ride—$3 one way. There are so many ports and stops, my most frequented being Dumbo to Governors Island. In this case, the ride is as if not more important than the destination. Perfect summer day activity, and extra fun while high / drunk. Just don’t lean too far over the railing.

You’ll learn quickly. Living in New York necessitates doing almost everything quickly, but my number one tip would be, hands down, to stop and appreciate it all on the daily. It’s a beautiful city full of beautiful people, not only in physicality but ideology. Los Angeles, as much as I love it, has always struck me as a city of more broken dreams than fulfillment. New York has all the dreaming, and some of the tragedy—but in my opinion, a whole lot more dreamers who have finally made it where they’ve always wanted to be. 💫