Thoughts on New York life as seen through the lens of Britain

Megan McArdle’s “American Household Gadget Exceptionalism,” which is about the rapid dissemination of labor saving devices, but even in the U.S. that dissemination is not even. It seems to have missed much of New York, where a lot of apartments lack stuff that I’ve always taken for granted, like dish washers. In this respect New York is apparently like Britain:

The British housing stock was older and less easily adapted to the new electric wonderworld. Obviously, this is not a permanent obstacle–I live in a 1905 rowhouse with a very nice dishwasher. But such retrofitting is expensive–especially if your house never had electricity in the first place.

Much of Britain lagged behind the U.S. in adopting household gadgets. This data matches my own experience with the UK, which I wrote about in 2010. Since living in New York, however, I’ve noticed that New York also lags the rest of the U.S. Until moving here I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone without a dishwasher. Now most New Yorkers I know don’t have dishwashers.

On New York in general, Penelope Trunk is right: a lot of people fundamentally don’t belong here. Beyond the not-so-good apartments, I observe:

* The subway system is incredible if you happen to live near a major node, like the Barclays Center, the downtown hubs, or Union Square. But many of the major nodes are surprisingly under-built: to continue with the Union Square example, buildings on avenues from 4th to 1st are rarely more than four or five stories tall, when they should be forty.

* The heat in the summer and cold in the winter has a much greater effect on daily life because so many people walk. In addition, much of the housing stock lacks air conditioners and modern furnaces; many apartments are too hot or cold.

* Despite or perhaps because of the high rents, there is more interesting, more cheap, and more available food than anywhere else I’ve ever seen in the U.S.

* New Yorkers are stereotyped as rude, but that hasn’t been my experience at all, with the exception of various flavors of municipal workers, bureaucrats, and quasi-bureaucrats. People working in, at, and around airports are almost always awful but the New York seem worse than average.

* There is “something to do” every night if you’re the sort of person who has a broad definition of “something.”

* Most people acclimate to wherever they live.

* In Seattle many tourists and immigrants are Asian; in New York there are obviously many Asian tourists and immigrants, but they seem outnumbered by Europeans, perhaps due to the relative proximity of Seattle to Asia and New York to Europe.

* New York seems to collect people who hit the trifecta of smart / beautiful / successful. Most places specialize in at most two of those.

* Almost no one really “knows the city;” they know their own neighborhoods and maybe a few others very well, have sporadic knowledge of a couple others, and that’s it.

One other point, not by me but by Paul Graham:

People who like New York will pay a fortune for a small, dark, noisy apartment in order to live in a town where the cool people are really cool. A nerd looks at that deal and sees only: pay a fortune for a small, dark, noisy apartment.

That’s in an essay about how to be Silicon Valley, but paying a fortune for a small, dark, noisy apartment is still true and perhaps even more true than it was in 2006. NIMBYs are still shockingly powerful. People still love living in New York and we see evidence of this in the form of high rents. One interesting thing, however, is that Silicon Valley has become at least as expensive as New York, if not more so. Living there now costs a small fortune.

Let me return to the dishwasher problem for a moment: I hate washing dishes relative to the time it takes, so this may simply be a pet peeve. But it’s one of these notable things that probably isn’t obvious until one lives here. (I’m also not spending a lot of time with hedge fund titans who are presumably renting more expensive places. Still, the lack of what I consider normal appliances in Manhattan is startling, as is the number of noisy radiators that don’t quite work correctly.)

The reason for the lack of dishwashers (and power outlets, and non-claustrophobic kitchens, and so on) also comes from another shared Britain-New York feature: it’s hard to build stuff. It’s very, very hard to build new stuff in Britain, which means that buildings designed around modern life are pretty scarce—just as they are in NYC. And scarcity implies higher prices. New York, however, has a key advantage: it’s very easy to leave it and move to another state. In places that are gaining population (like Texas), building is pretty easy, so lots of people have dishwashers and AC that works and so on.

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