New York’s message: have a rich life

Paul Graham’s article about cities focuses on Cambridge, Silicon Valley and New York. Each city, according to Graham, sends a message:

Cambridge says “you should be smarter” – it is the city of intellect, the city of ideas.

Silicon Valley says “you should be more powerful” – it is the city of startups.

New York says “you should make more money” – it is the city of wealth/finance.

I’ve had the good fortune of living in all three places and I disagree with Paul about his take on New York (I also have a quibble about Silicon Valley, but we’ll get to that).

Cambridge definitely has the intellectual vibe. You feel it everywhere you go. But Cambridge is tiny. TINY. Once I graduated, I moved out of Cambridge and it was a completely different story. Davis Square is where Tufts is. It should be diverse, but every evening as I walked home from the T1, old white men sitting on their porches would stare at me as if I were from Mars. I’d walk by thinking “Come on, people! It is 1997!!! What’s so unusual about a brown chick?!” Then there’s Boston. Can you say homogeneous?? Even if it had every smart person in the world, I hope I don’t have to live there again.

Silicon Valley is wonderful. I spent seven incredible years there. And it is definitely about startups. But it is not just about power. It is also about money – where more money puts you higher on the status totem pole. A lot of discussions in Silicon Valley2 are about who made how much by selling to which company at the right time. And even if the crass component of “how much” someone made is not front and center, it is hovering in the wings. The infinitely more elegant “he’s done”3 is a commonly heard phrase.

And now we come to New York. I’ll be honest – when I moved here from Silicon Valley, I was quite miserable4. I missed California – the attitude, the people, the work, the weather, the calm, the space… everything. But as I spent more time in NYC, the more I started to enjoy it.

Yes, New York has its share of finance “neanderthals in suits”, but you really don’t have to see any of them if you don’t want to. In NYC, I can go days or weeks without having a conversation about technology if I so choose. And I’ve gone 5 years without having a single conversation about finance. In Silicon Valley, even the accountants and lawyers work for tech companies! In NYC, I meet people who have never heard of Twitter, Skype, TechCrunch or Valleywag. These people are dancers, artists, museum curators, actors, yoga instructors, photographers, architects… and that’s just in my building!! And none of these people are focused on making more money – they are focused on making an impact on their field – on being the best dancer/artist/curator/actor/yoga instructor/photographer/architect that they can be. I don’t know where Paul lived, but I have never felt like finance people are crawling all over NYC. Not once.

Professionally, my life in NYC has been about film and technology. There are some great startups in this city and every day, I see more being formed. And NYC is the indie film capital of the country with one of the best film schools in the world.

Personally, I’ve been privileged to go to the finest museums in the world – The Met, MoMA, Whitney and Guggenheim, attend stunning opera and ballet, watch free concerts in the park, eat at some of the best restaurants in the world, visit art galleries that are discovering wonderful new talent, listen to leading classical artists from India and the rest of the world perform here, attend lectures by Nobel Laureates, and take some wonderful classes in writing and film.

New York really has almost everything you can ask for. And because of its variety, it allows you to tailor your experience of it. You could see New York as just the artistic capital of the world, or just the culinary capital of the world, or just the indie film capital of the world. Or, as Paul did, the finance capital of the world.

And to me that says that New York is an incredibly diverse, incredibly interesting city. To someone who is open to the wealth5 of diversity that New York has to offer, to someone who is willing to sample the different facets, the city’s message is loud and clear – you should have a rich life!


  1. the Tube, Boston’s subway system 

  2. This article and this one both capture the wealth focus of Silicon Valley 

  3. Implying they are set for life and need never work another day 

  4. In fact, back then, R would never have believed I could write a post like this 🙂  

  5. Pun intended 

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  • Prithvi

    I think this is absolutely on point – there is a book called The Warhol Economy by Elizabeth Currid. She posits that art and culture are the source of New York’s “competitive advantage” even though finance pays 20% of all the wages in the city. It’s a New York-specific rendition of Jane Jacobs’ ideas in The Death and Life of Great American Cities though Currid’s policy prescriptions are a bit zany – being welcoming to night clubs!

    I think the proximity to history is thrilling as well-my freshman year in college I took a poetry class with Lisa New and we read Walt Whitman’s poem while actually crossing Brooklyn ferry –

    Stand up, tall masts of Mannahatta! stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn!

    Throb, baffled and curious brain! throw out questions and answers!

    Suspend here and everywhere, eternal float of solution!

    Gaze, loving and thirsting eyes, in the house or street or public assembly!

  • Shripriya

    Prithvi – It is a beautiful poem with a whole slew of interesting odes to Manhattan. How cool that you were able to do it to match the title!

    And if Currid really recommends more night clubs, I shudder. We are seeing an influx of them around flatiron and it is not great…

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  • Great post! A friend of mine move from NYC to Seattle about the same time that I moved from DC to Seattle (we met here), and she had a lot of good things to say about life in NYC. My experience there has been limited to visits, so outside the many museums and Broadway, I know very little about NYC that doesn’t relate to cost of living and crowds.

  • Cities are like people and the few mentioned here have very distinct personalities. To each his own. It all depends on who’s looking and not what is being looked at.

    – Rakesh

  • Shripriya

    @Rakesh Malik – I often felt that NYC was a city that was better to visit than to live in. I’ve changed my opinion on that over the years. I think it is good for both.

    @Rakesh – It is true that different people will be happy in different cities. Or one can be happy in any city if you find the “side of its personality” that works for you.

  • well just wanted to put some line here..
    Work for a cause and not for an applause..
    however if we see the practical part money is nessary so its the way it is..

    (sorry wasnt trying to be limelight just putting a point )

  • well just wanted to put some line here..
    Work for a cause and not for an applause..
    however if we see the practical part money is nessary so its the way it is..

    (sorry wasnt trying to be limelight just putting a point )

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