New York City
Most would say “…visiting is more than enough, but living wouldn’t be the vibe,” or something to that effect. It takes a certain type of person to extract the city’s beauty. New York City is authentic, for better or for worse. Dirty, rough around the edges, and seemingly stuck in a time capsule at times.
The true beauty doesn’t exist in the large skyscrapers which make the Manhattan skyline we all have seen on postcards shot from Weehawken across the river, nor countless tourist traps. It exists within the personality of the city—an unfiltered personality, fueled by cultural diversity seen nowhere else.
Look Around; Enjoy It
Juxtaposition feeds identity.
It’s hard to explain, but there’s something moving about seeing such a high level of human luxury coexist with life on the margins. Whether it’s moving in a good or bad way, that’s dependent on the person.
Embedded within the city’s fabric are such threads of global influence and inspiration, creating quite literally a melting pot of both creativity and inspiration.
Extrapolation of this unique beauty, which comes in multiple layers, isn’t something that has to be forced, nor should it feel so. It’s a journey for those wanting to explore what makes the city special in its own right. The good, bad, and ugly.
Hip-Hop Like Nowhere Else
It’s a culture and lifestyle which spans globally with ease, penetrating even the most remote nooks and crannies of the world. Hip-hop has managed to stick around and dominate any other genre of music, despite naysayers doubting its potential in its infancy.
New York City is hip-hop’s mother. Although it can be argued that true roots of hip-hop originated in Trenchtown, Jamaica, then migrated into the United States through immigrants, the widely-accepted view is that Bronx is the birthplace.
The city’s documentation of hip-hop, peaking in the 90’s courtesy of Chi Modu, plays a large part in the culture’s authenticity and strength. It’s a very important and far-reaching part of black culture in New York City, and on a larger scale, within United States. Art that withstood the test of time, and possesses messages as relevant today as they were 30 years ago. Uncensored.
Many hip-hop fans were too young to remember anything from hip-hop in NYC during the 90’s. One conduit that can provide ample amounts of information and knowledge is photography; a lens into a time gone by. Both invaluable and influential. Collectively, an artifact of time.
Imagery provoked thought and caused people to question the “how” and “why” of society at that time; arguably the most powerful commentary, albeit silent, of culture in that era. The pictures were able to show happening live and direct; words sometimes came up short, only able to convey descriptions of those happenings. It was something you had to see. The cliché “a picture is worth a thousand words” cliché was very much true, all too often.
I met up with Chi while in the city. The OG.
What I captured was real.
His work showed how life operated in the gutter, on the margins of the city, within this burgeoning phenomenon that was called “hip-hop”; genuine snapshots of life in a realm unbeknownst to most. There was no PR agents to call back then for photo shoots; it was 100% through friends, family, or affiliates. A different breed of exploration and diving into hip-hop.
Vibes run throughout the city everywhere you go; from the bodegas on street corners, to people carrying boomboxes in the park or blasting systems in parked vendor trucks, it’s palpable like nowhere else on earth. Deep-seated within the city’s personality over three decades, it pulsates constantly through the streets.
This was a nice change; in Seoul, there’s a love for hip-hop but it feels masked. Being a country that’s extremely homogeneous, it often feels like takes and opinions on hip-hop are second-hand or copypasted.
Actually walking down the streets and walking by the locations mentioned in some of the most popular hip-hop songs of all-time is a cool experience. You don’t feel any sort of rush or goosebumps when doing so, but to entertain the thought of someone two decades removed standing in the same tracks at one point is cool.
Tips For Travelers
I feel like the guides posted online about tourism in NYC are just cookie cutter type pieces that don’t really offer any value. Here are some to-the-point tips that would’ve helped me.
- The easiest way to get into the city from JFK (the airport most people fly into if they’re tourists coming from outside of the United States) is the AirTrain. If you’ve got money to spare, just call an Uber. No one likes lugging luggage around on the subway and public buses. Depends on case.
- The easiest way to get out of the city is Uber. The cost is very fair as well, way more fair than going into the city; it’s about $60 from Jersey (Weehawken), and $30 from in-city (around 42nd) to get to JFK; it calculated to be less than actually purchasing express bus tickets. Of course, the cheapest way will always be public transportation, but again; go by case.
- If you like sushi and are looking for a quick to-go type spot, head over to Wasabi on 6th Avenue; they offer 50% off daily, active 30 minutes before closing. Remember to go to the one on 6th; the one on 7th only does this during bank holidays.
- Space Market near NYU at the tip of Washington Square Park has some of the best to-go sushi in the city; situated in the back of the store in a hot bar, the far right side is a cold bar that houses shitty kimbap (don’t get this here) and massive sushi rolls; they charge $10/lb so you can rack up a ton of sushi and it’s an unreal value. It’s better quality than Wasabi. The only downside is that the store has no soy sauce packets, so you need to pre-splash your pieces before checking out. They don’t have sushi on Sundays; it’s replaced with fruits.
- Joe’s Pizza in FiDi (Financial District) has a more evenly-baked crust on their pies. Went to each spot half a dozen times, never failed my hypothesis. This might be due to the Broadway location being a lot more popular, and the quality simply going down over time as a result. See for yourself; FiDi’s is perfectly even every single time, while the Broadway one is always a bit overcooked and burnt. The original spot lies in the middle.
- If you want the best view of the city possible, sans a helicopter ride or drone view, head to Port Authority and go to Gate 212; line up in the Boulevard East line (far left one) and get off at either El Dorado or Fulton, once the bus emerges from the tunnel; it’s 2 or 3 stops after the gas station. This offers a full view of the main chunk of Manhattan’s skyline from the best side. If you go to the classic Jersey Park location, you’ll get a view of One World Trade Center, but nothing else. The whole wall is filled with jagged edges and trees; try to find a spot where the wall is flat and there are no trees.
- Another note about the bus is that the gates change at 10:00 PM daily; the last bus comes anywhere between 9:30 PM and 9:50 PM for Gate 212; after that, you have to go to the third floor, and wait at Gate 325. After 1:00AM, you have to go to Gate 85.
- If you’re wanting to go see the Statue of Liberty, take Pier 15’s Hornblower Cruise, not Pier 40’s. Pier 15 is the one for international travelers, and is way less populated. More space for good pics around either deck.
- Bring bottled water around when you can; gouging bottled water prices is very common. Vendors usually are fairly-priced at $1.50-$2.50 a bottle. If you pop into a Whole Foods, you can get a fat liter for the same price, though.
- Be aware of where restrooms are. Morton Williams throughout the city have bathrooms as well as Whole Foods locations. A lot of establishments are very picky on if they let people use their restrooms, in fear of them becoming a loitering spot. Much like Seoul, bathrooms are difficult to come by unless you have local plugs that are willing to let you use private ones, or you are near the aforementioned places (or parks, but those restrooms are filthy).
- Go to Top of the Rock instead of the Empire State Building. You can view more buildings, it’s higher, and the space where you can view the skyscrapers around you on a 360-degree basis is larger. There are three full decks, and numerous bathrooms within this establishment that are clean.
- About a 2-minute walk from The Rock is a spot called Magnolia Bakery; they have the best banana pudding in NYC. Be aware that when you go in, there’s no line (due to how small it is, and NY fire hazard rules) so just go up to one of the workers and tell them what you want. Many people line up by mistake, thinking they’re in line, until workers ask them to get away from crowding near the door. I just walked in, ordered within 10 seconds, and checked out.
- The Polo shop in SoHo is nice; if you are looking for a quick go-to for men’s stuff, go here. If you want a more upscale experience, you’ll have to head to Madison Avenue and go to the flagship stores; they’re across the street from each other, and cater to each sex. The men’s shop has goods in the back which are not present in the store, so if you’re looking for anything, just ask. Their stock is enormous. The flagship women’s store also has the nicest disposable restroom towels I’ve ever seen; I took a few extra because the napkins in most Italian NYC spots suck ass. They redeem themselves with the great quality of food.
- Speaking of Italian spots, the menus are almost always in Italian. I always found that to be kind of weird, seeing as I’ve almost never seen actual Italians in these restaurants; they’re more high quality tourist fan service than anything, with legit Italian staff in them. Regardless, if you plan on eating at one of these spots, peep the menus online before going so you’re more prepared. A lot of them are dimly-lit the menus are hard to understand on the spot.
- Briciola is a sort of hole-in-the-wall type Italian spot located in Hell’s Kitchen, a few minutes from the western border of the tourist trap’s boundaries of Times Square. They have the best tuna tartare in the city, bar none; it’s $23 and only listed on the daily specials menu. It’s a little overpriced, but it’s NYC; what isn’t? Worth every single penny.
- Peter Luger’s is good, but it’s not mind-blowing. It’s widely circlejerked as the “end all be all” of steakhouses. Not really. A lot of first-time tourists visiting the city think that it’s bar none the #1 spot to get a steak; their porterhouse is a strong contender, but it really tastes the exact same elsewhere. If you’re wanting a more modern and posh atmosphere with the exact same price, go to the Wolfgang Puck’s steakhouse a stone’s throw away from the Port Authority. It’s gated by higher menu prices sans the meat, compared to other establishments, and thus the overall atmosphere is a lot more uppity and quiet; Luger’s is loud as hell and situated a long ways away from the main city, throwing off any sort of in-city daily schedules you may have set up. I tried both spots, and Luger’s ended up being $3 less for the exact same dish and sides; the staff at Luger’s is also older and more brash and less caring due to how popular the place is and how many people rotate in and out of it. Smith and Wollensky for prime rib, 4 Charles for aged prime rib, Keen’s for anything lamb or filet, Wolfgang for any type of fish or filet, and Luger’s for porterhouse; not sure about other spots.
- Nobu is a must go-to if you like that vibe; it’s circlejerky and uppity, but the menu is very fairly priced; the one on 57th Street called Nobu Fifty Seven; about $100/head to feel comfortable and full up. The other one (Nobu Downtown) has a weird Japanese-Peruvian fusion that just doesn’t work; it’s located in FiDi, go figure.
- The best place to feed squirrels is either the most north-eastern corner of Washington Square Park or the most south-eastern corner of Central Park. Take some walnuts or acorns; squirrels will literally catch them with two hands open and love it
- Especially around Central Park and Times Square, there’s a lot of service for tourists; this is both good and bad. It’s good because it allows for convenience, but it’s bad because the quality is usually terrible, and tourists can’t discern this. Be aware of what you’re purchasing, and don’t overpay for things that seem like obvious traps (like cycling in a bike around the park in a horse for $3/minute).
- Never buy pretzels from street vendors; they’re incredibly stale and almost always more dry than the street you’re walking on. I bought one of these just to see if they’re the same all over, and they are. The one I bought was near DUMBO, and the shit was harder than my shoe; I let it sit for two days, brought the pretzel to the park to feed to squirrels, and not even the squirrels went for it. The birds even pecked at it then decided against.
- If you’re going to be in-city for more than 7 days, buy the unlimited Metro Card they offer; you can purchase this through any travel agency locally, or in-person at one of the vendors scattered about the city. I used probably 4-5x the value of the card over within a week; well-worth it. For buses labelled “SBS” you have to use the card at the machine at the bus stop outside; the buses do not accept fares inside. They’ll tell you this as you board, but won’t make you pay fares usually; anyone that lives in NYC will tell you that people get confused and unintentionally dodge these fares all the time.
- Don’t buy poke bowls anywhere; they’re overpriced and they use warm rice which is a weird troll move. Hit up Whole Foods and just buy a pack of salmon, tuna, or whatever style topping you like and an instant rice with some garnishes; you’ll save 30-40% of the cost you’d usually pay. I went to a few poke bowl places to scout out what the quality was like and they’re all just template-based cookie cutter vibe places with no real effort. I don’t know a single person on earth that likes poke bowls with warm rice and cold fish.
- Explore the other parts of NYC that aren’t on lists; it’s a large city with lots of places you can check out. Don’t be afraid to explore; just remain safe, and know where you’re at in relation to where you need to be at. Certain areas are more dangerous at night than others, obviously; Google Maps (or just some type of GPS-based map app) is priceless when navigating.
- You don’t have to treat others the way you want to be treated. It’s New York. People are already set on treating you a specific way, be it a stranger or a server at a restaurant. Simply treat others with respect, and keep to yourself. Know when you can let your guard down, and be self-aware about how you speak to people. This is different than most places.
- Move quick and know when to go when the crosswalk lights turn; jaywalking is second nature in NYC. Don’t clog the pathways. If there are no cars, just go. Don’t block people while looking down at your phone’s GPS; simply go into a little nook outside of the main current of traffic and then rejoin when ready. Make life easier for everyone involved, including yourself.
- Enjoy your time, and don’t always rely on schedules or plans. Be free. You’ll appreciate the unknown.
It takes a different kind of soul to see the beauty in all of that dirty concrete.
Those towering skyscrapers that light up like light bulbs at night against the pitch black sky. The strange characters you pass by on the street, be street performers, beggars, or anything in between.
The metro stations that look like they were originally built as catacombs, the buses that look like they’re straight out of the 70’s, the swipe-not-scan system Metro Card still employs.
That smell, which most say is piss, of the sewage seeping out from the manhole covers, steaming next to crosswalks that lead into construction-laden sidewalks; construction to make the skyline higher each and every year.
People bickering at each other over non-issues.
Sirens acting as the city’s soundtrack.
No filter; shameless.
That’s New York City.