Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

July 12, 2005

Life in the (Upper) Wild West (Side)

Filed under: — Different River @ 6:14 pm

If you are not from New York City and have any contact with the place, you’ve probably noticed that it is a bit, um, “different” from other place. It’s not just that Manhatten Island is the most densely populated 20 square miles (or so) in the United States; New York City operates by different rules than everyplace else. (Alternate-side-of-the-street parking, anyone?)

Everything in life involves tradeoffs, but to the outsider it seems that New Yorkers tolerate inconveniences no one else would accept (lousy transportation, high crime, ugly architecture, high prices for everything from breakfast cereal to housing) in exchange for benefits no one else wants (as one lifelong New Yorker once said to me, “Where else can you get felafel delivered at two in the morning?”) — all the while, often, denying that any tradeoff is taking place. Indeed, New York seems to operate as if the people believe the normal laws of economics do not apply to them. Every economist knows that rent control results in substandard housing quality, and non-market means of allocation (bribes, illegal subleases, nepotism, etc.). New York politicians view rent control as essential — and someone might, with a bit of selfish rationality, believe that it is better for a few people to have cheap rents for substandard apartments and the rest no housing at all, than higher rents for everybody with ample, decent housing. Yet, New York has not only a shortage of apartments in decrepit buildings, but they rent for more than decent apartments everywhere else (in the U.S. anyway). They are clearly getting the worst of both, but they seem to want more of it.

Even if you’re not Jewish, you probably know that the New York area has an unusually high Jewish population. What you may not know is, thousands of single Jews not only (but mostly) from all over the New York metropolitan area but from all over the United States congregate on the upper west side of Manhatten, ostensibly in search of marriage. They don’t just go there for the weekend; they move there — because you never know how long it will take to find a marriage partner, and you obviously have a better chance of meeting the right person if you meet as many eligible people as possible … right?

The result is a bizzare and (hopefully) unique social environment — thousands of single Jews, ranging in age from 18 (Columbia freshmen) to mid-40s (some of whom have been there since they were Columbia freshmen) and beyond, all with one thing on their minds: meeting more people. They want to get married, and if they haven’t gotten married yet, they must not have met the right person, so they need to meet more people. And they are in the one place on the planet with more eligible people per square city block than anywhere else, so there must be a right person out there, and if they find a flaw in someone who otherwise seems perfect … Don’t settle! Keep looking! After all, you’re in the one place on the planet with more eligible people per square city block than anywhere else, so there must be someone who’s perfect … right?

Generally speaking, New Yorkers who encounter this culture find it to be perfectly normal. People from the rest of the country find it bizarre and horrifying. Some tolerate it anyway because they want to get married; others would rather spend a lifetime alone. New Yorkers, of course, can’t understand what the problem is. Outsiders who are married (like me) are relieved not to have to deal with it (in my case, ever); New Yorkers who get married — especially those who met their spouse there — miss the fun they had.

Into this breech steps a new blog, trying to make all of this comprehensible. See Not a New Yorker. And in particular, this post. And if you don’t see why that’s so brilliant, look at this one.

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