No. 107 - From our Archives - Curlew New York - NeYoCi - What is a New York City Neighborhood?

November 9th, 2019

In a city made up of eight million people, it can be a bit trying to define “home,” or to put a finger on what home in New York City should feel like. If you’re from the city, then you have your hometown, your borough, your neighborhood within your borough, and your neighborhood within your neighborhood that you hail from. If you grew up in Tribeca, then that’s where you’re from, Tribeca. Of course, if you tell this to people who live in Kalamazoo, Michigan, then likely, just Lower Manhattan would suffice.

But there’s something that’s lost when New Yorkers visit home (or where they grew up), in Ohio or Arkansas, and their friends ask them, “Where do you live there, in New York.”  Somehow, when you respond, "I live in the Upper East Side, it’s in Manhattan” or, “I live in Park Slope, it’s in Brooklyn,” the names of these neighborhoods alone, can’t quite paint the entire picture. Though this inability to describe the neighborhood in which you live to people who never have visited you there may be problematic, it’s not a problem that’s unique to New York, nor is it as big of a problem as not knowing how to describe the neighborhood in which you live, to yourself.

Of course. Tribeca is the Triangle Below Canal Street. It’s characterized by former industrial buildings that have been converted into lofts. Its western border is the Hudson River, its northern border is Canal Street, its eastern border is Broadway, and its southern border (approximately) is Vessey Street. Is your head spinning yet?

That’s one of the things about neighborhoods in New York City. When we try to break them down to exact borders and pin specific percentages and figures on them, we can’t help but fall short. There are differing opinions as to where the Upper East Side ends and Harlem begins. No one’s quite sure where SoHo (“South of Houston Street”) ends and NoLita (“North of Little Italy”) begins. And in a city of eight million people, it’s no wonder that there are so many varying opinions.

Yet, this issue of the physical parameters is only a part of what makes defining a New York City neighborhood so difficult. There’s an energy to the entire city that each of the neighborhoods carry, but to varying degrees. If you’re looking for an apartment in Astoria, Queens then the listing will likely include, “fifteen minutes to Manhattan,” but if you’re looking for an apartment on the Lower East Side, then the listing will never, ever, read, “twenty minutes to Astoria, Queens.” So Manhattan is the hub. The cog in the center of the wheel that allows the entire city to move.  But even this is changing. More and more people are working in their neighborhoods, and not commuting into Manhattan. Or, are living in Manhattan and commuting into one of the outer boroughs.

Perhaps the other part of what makes defining one’s home in New York City so difficult is that the neighborhoods are so close to one another, or sometimes, even the same place. Consider the various neighborhoods that rest beneath the umbrella that is the Upper East Side: Carnegie Hill, Lenox Hill, and Yorkville. If you’re living in one of these neighborhoods, how do you distinguish it from the other? And if you’re living in Park Slope, how do explain to people that you’re not living in Prospect Heights, or the difference between the two?

Maybe the most important question is why these distinctions matter. Why have neighborhoods within neighborhoods, or why have neighborhoods at all in New York City? And even this question invites a difficult answer. For there’s neighborhoods that date back hundreds of years with sprawling and intriguing history, (Bedford-Stuyvesant and Greenwich Village come to mind), but there’s also new neighborhoods that real estate professionals have provided the nomenclature for. NoMad (“North of Madison Square Park”) and SoHa (“South of Harlem” ––– not without its controversy) come to mind.

Ultimately, when looking for a home in New York City, the old adage ––– “What are the three most important factors when looking for a home? Location, location, and location” still applies. That’s the easy part. And for the better or for the worst, perhaps the hardest part is figuring out what “location” the apartment that feels like home is actually situated within. 

All of our best,

Curlew Quarterly

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