The city has changed a lot. It will never again be the kind of place that helped out families like mine who immigrated to the states from the Dominican Republic. With their savings as factory workers, they were able to purchase a brownstone in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and have a life that led to success for the generation that followed. That used to be more of the New York City story than it is now. But behind all the shiny, often-overpriced newness of the city today, there are still some things that older New Yorkers such as myself love and hope people will notice when they come visit.
1. Times Square. Most New Yorkers will roll their eyes at the fact that I would even put the tourist mecca of our city as the top on the list. But if you look past the crowds (which admittedly become frustrating) and the chain stores and restaurants (which we admittedly are not fans of), there are some hidden gems that tell the story of a culture and a community that contributed to the vibrant, eclectic scene that so many traveled to New York City in search of. Everyone from theater lovers to comic-book fans will find a piece of history here, hidden under glowing billboard signs and scaffolding, if they just slow down and give this area a chance.
2. Hell’s Kitchen. Once very deserving of its name, Hell’s Kitchen is finally recognized for so much more. Specifically, for its diverse food scene representative of the immigrant community that once dominated the area. Sure, there were gangs and it was violent, but there was also good food from all over the world. And though a lot has changed, the food scene remains. There are a lot of places that are starting to creep in that appeal to the touristy crowd willing to pay high prices and wait in long lines for a meal—something you will never hear about me doing—but there are also some great places that have been around for decades, what we would call “holes in the wall” that don’t need to live up to the hype because what they have is traditional, authentic, and able to stand the test of time. For a map on how to get started, simply sign up for a food tour for guidance on the best spots.
3. Brooklyn. It’s just OK. I mean, really. It’s not what it used to be. Sure, there are plenty of trendy bars and eateries and hip places. But even artsy Williamsburg has lost a lot of the authenticity I used to love about the area, and even as a Brooklyn girl myself, I tend to avoid it these days. It is crowded, pricey, and a bit overrated. The neighborhoods that my family and I like to frequent still are in Queens, specifically for the global flavors we can find in Jackson Heights, the fun we can have in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, and the beautifully real Asian experiences we can enjoy in Flushing.
Bonus: A ride on the 7 train for a dose of the diversity so rich here. And—of course—upper Manhattan neighborhoods such as Washington Heights (for Dominican food), Harlem (also for food and a strong sense of community), and Inwood (for a walk through the city’s oldest living forest) are big pluses for me.
4. Tours. Normally, you’d have a hard time finding a New Yorker who goes on tours. We’re not big on hanging out with tourists and doing touristy things. But what I have learned over the years about my beloved city, I have learned while on a tour. There is a lot to see and do, but taking a tour, especially in whatever area is of most interest to you, will guarantee that you walk away with a lot more knowledge than most New Yorkers have even with a lifetime in the city. It could make a tour guide nervous to have a New Yorker in their group—we have so many opinions on things—but it might make for a livelier tour this way.
5. Festivals and communities. People often wonder what it’s like to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. One way to do it is to get 100 of your best friends and rent an apartment in the center of downtown. Another way, and really how most New York families live, is by finding a place on the outskirts of it all. These are where the communities are anyway. There will be no US$100-a-meal eateries here, nor will there be a long line to enter anywhere. And I love the theater, but have yet to spend hundreds of dollars on tickets for a show. In part because there are so many great shows both on and off Broadway that are much less expensive, just as there are so many restaurants to eat at that you can’t justify breaking the bank for one. Hype is not really our thing.
Viewfinder Tip: Check out your favorite museum’s website for information on free or discounted admissions and go onto NYC’s official website for festival updates.
You have to be willing to take the train out of Manhattan or maybe even to the upper corners and outskirts of the same to experience these things. We also take advantage of festivals that host free concerts, discounted foods, and even free museum admissions. We know when these are going to take place, and though we aren’t big on waiting in line for anything, we do make an exception for these things.
6. More than one park. Central Park is amazing. A beautiful oasis in the middle of this urban environment that makes you feel as if you’ve stepped out of the city and into the Adirondacks. But, it’s not the only park we have. As a matter of fact, it’s not even the largest. There are over 11,000 hectares of green space in New York City. That’s a lot of green to explore.
The most popular parks include Madison Square Park and the High Line, but there’s also Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, which is three times the size of Central Park, and Riverside Park, which runs along the Hudson River and is where most New Yorkers like to hang out for drinks and sunsets. The parks are where we escape to for a quick nature fix, and they offer a different insight into the city’s culture. You will find more locals hanging out at the other parks than you will in Central Park, and often times the other parks offer more to do as well.
7. Friendliness. Though I have mentioned a couple of times now how we aren’t the biggest fans of touristy crowds, I don’t want to give the impression that we don’t like visitors to our city. Because we do. We might not like them standing in the middle of the sidewalk taking pictures when we are trying to rush to work, and we might not be huge fans of your driving, but in general, we love people coming to our city and being excited about all it has to offer.
We don’t mind helping out with directions; it just might not seem that way because we’re always in such a hurry. And it might seem like we’re always angry, but we’re just very passionate, vocal people, who tend to have a very—ahem—colorful language when expressing our strong feelings about everything from sports to politics to pizza. We especially love it when people are courteous and respectful, and though we might never look you in the eyes or smile as we walk past each other, trust me, we’re glad you’re here.
Living in New York City is a constant tug-of-war. One day we love it, another day we hate it. We have a hard time with change (this is a fact), and it takes us a bit to warm up to people in a true, long-lasting way. But we also enjoy sharing the tricks and tips that make living here so wonderful, and we pride ourselves in people returning to their homes along with a bit of love for our city, too.
So venture out into those areas unknown. Few places in the city are as dangerous or as threatening as they were when I was a kid, and I turned out alright! Take a train, bus, or walk. It is really how the city is meant to be seen and will give you more of an opportunity to actually mingle with locals. And make sure you have a drink in hand and some extra time before asking us about our experiences as native New Yorkers living in the city. You are bound to get an earful, with a sprinkle of swear words, and a ton of laughter in the mix. You might even walk away with a new friend for life.
What is your favorite city to explore?