How is life in San Francisco different from life in New York City?
October 8, 2013 2:35 PM   Subscribe

I'm a late 20's native New Yorker - grew up in Brooklyn and lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn for most of my life. I've lived in San Diego for the past year. Lovely place, but it's not for me. Got a job offer in San Francisco and I'm excited and ready to make the move. I've always loved my visits to San Francisco and its walkability, culture, food, shopping, and diversity have always made it comparable to New York in my mind. I love New York, but I don't want to move to San Francisco expecting it will be just like living in New York. I've already noticed some big differences that I embrace (and some I dislike.) People who have lived in both cities (especially as a young person): what are some of the differences you found between life in New York and life in San Francisco? Thanks!
posted by blackcatcuriouser to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I suppose this depends in part on where you work and who your friends are, but I think SF is way less fashion-y than NYC.
posted by radioamy at 2:37 PM on October 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Hills! Fucking hills.
posted by nicwolff at 3:02 PM on October 8, 2013 [8 favorites]

Well, the weather obviously. SF is also more chill, less sarcastic. It's actually rather expensive to commute between the East Bay and the West Bay (a large toll in driving, and a prorated public transit system that increases fare with distance travelled), so in my experience there is less intermingling between SF and Oakland than Manhattan and Brooklyn, say. It's about as expensive, if not more so, and finding an apartment is actually more intense than in NYC if you'd believe it. SF is much smaller, and it really does feel that way in comparison.

Here's a previous post that might be helpful: East Coast vs. West Coast stereotypes
posted by likeatoaster at 3:05 PM on October 8, 2013

I bounced back and forth between SF and NYC in my twenties.

San Francisco: The Chinese takeout is different in a way I can't quantify, but it is. People are much more casual, you can wander into Nordstrom dressed like a complete schlub and get great service because hey, you might just be a godzillionaire, but if you go into Barney's dressed that way no one will give you the time of day. Transit isn't as good. Apartments are just as expensive, slightly less aggressively crappy in my experience, but generally less well insulated/underheated. I frequently found the general practice of referring to "the City" kind of funny, coming from NYC, but I got over it. It is easier to get to nature from SF than from NYC. Both cities are expensive, but I think it's less unpleasant to be on a tight budget in SF than in NYC, because of the climate and the natural beauty of the place. But I'm biased.
posted by ambrosia at 3:10 PM on October 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

I grew up in Northern California and lived in Manhattan when I was your age. NYC felt much more like home, though I go back to the Bay Area often to see friends and family. But now SF feels too slack for me: cashiers in stores would take forever to make change, and often get it wrong; drivers lack decisiveness and merging ability (and driving is more necessary); and there is sometimes a certain ineffable superficiality. NYC has more cultural activities but SF is not far behind.

On the other side, the weather in California is amazing and if you enjoy being active outdoors it's hard to beat. Also, people in NYC can sometimes assume without evidence that things are just better there, an attitude which is ironically provincial.
posted by exogenous at 3:11 PM on October 8, 2013

Moving from NYC to San Francisco:

> Everything seems tiny and homogenous. Neighborhoods are like 4 square blocks.
> I don't actually like the weather; it's rarely hot enough for shorts (and you better bring a jacket everyday) but it's never winter either.
> Every talks about tech, and half the people work in tech. This also lends to the feeling of homogeneity.
> You probably will need a car, or a friend with a car.
> NIMBY attitudes are strangling the city.

On the plus side:

> New York is really flat; I like the hills and vistas of San Francisco.
> It's easy to get out into some amazing nature and I've done that a lot more.
> Also has great food, and different food than NY.
posted by 2bucksplus at 3:50 PM on October 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

* San Francisco goes to bed early. Neighborhood restaurants close by 9 or 9:30, and most bars close at 2. The difficulty of finding good food late at night is the single thing that annoys me most about San Francisco. Also, delivery is less common and takes much longer. Get used to walking to your local Vietnamese place for takeout.

* When people ask "What do you do?" in San Francisco, they aren't necessarily asking about your job. People here tend to be as driven, but more likely to spread that drive across several projects, hobbies or passions than to throw themselves into their job.

* There are many more people here that ignore fashion, or who participate strongly in a particular subculture rather than following the mainstream trends.

* I don't know that I'd say people here are nicer, but they tend to put more positive emotional energy into routine transactions - smiling at people on the street, chatting with the cashier, that sort of thing.

* It's way, way easier to go experience nature. Hiking, biking, surfing, kayaking...all of those are maybe half an hour's drive from any point in the city, and way more people here casually do something outdoors-y than do in New York.

* It's harder to get along without a car. Car ownership is more common, and car-sharing services like Zipcar are really popular.

* The status ladder here is very different. Being well-dressed, having a fancy job title, an apartment at a good address, and knowing and being known at the newest hotspots are all worth less in San Francisco for status than in New York. Having a job that affords you large quantities of leisure time, being involved in a creative project of some kind (artist, musician, etc.), and having a conspicuously expensive hobby are worth more in San Francisco.

* Because public transit is not is good here, more socializing stays in your neighborhood. On the positive side, this means that neighborhood bars are generally better in San Francisco than in Manhattan especially, where the energy gets sucked up by places like the Meatpacking District. It also encourages more distinctive neighborhood characteristics. On the negative side, it means you'll see your friends in other neighborhoods a lot less than you might suppose, and if you don't fit in with the character of your neighborhood, you'll mind much more than you would in New York.

* I don't know that it's true that there's less pressure to conform in San Francisco than in New York, but the idea of doing your own thing - whether that's founding your own company, or artistic pursuit or whatever - is certainly talked about and admired more than in New York, and people in San Francisco are much more likely to tell you about their (generally predictable) sexual predilections, drug usage and/or larping.
posted by psycheslamp at 4:10 PM on October 8, 2013 [22 favorites]

I lived in New York for a decade, have been in SF for three years and am thinking strongly of going back to New York.

Bad things:

* Public transit is incredibly sucky in SF. You look at the maps and think you can make it work, and you kinda can, but I don't go as far as often because it is a pain. In New York, you can pop into the subway and pop out anywhere else in a reasonable amount of time. I used to commute from Bushwick to the UWS to swim 3x a week; here I wouldn't go half as far because it would take more than twice as long, especially by bus.

* Related is that the East Bay is a lot more like Staten Island than Brooklyn or Queens. It takes a long time to get there; once you get there it is pretty suburban. This means SF feels a lot less economically diverse than NYC. It's one of the biggest reasons I want to move back. Living in the Mission is great, but it is expensive, and a middle-class life, where I made less and didn't have a rent-controlled apartment from 2003, would involve moving someplace I like a lot less. In New York it meant moving a little further out but still having city amenities.

* The service here is terrible. I told my now-ex this and he didn't believe me. Then we went to New York and within a day he was like "I see what you mean." If you are more patient than I, that might not matter. If you enjoy NYC-style efficiency, it is maddening.

* I find the people a lot harder to like. (I have made friends I do like, but it is a lot harder, I find.) San Franciscans like to think they are *the most* liberal, but I haven't found that to be the case (vs New York, not other places). They are, however, a lot more doctrinal in their liberalism. Because of the aforementioned lack of economic diversity, living in the cityish areas seems to mean knowing tech folks, and I work in tech myself, and it is pretty much Wall Street in cargo pants attitude-wise. Except Wall Street bros know they are douches and here everyone gets their feelings hurt and wants to argue that it is just "a meritocracy." (I could say so much more, and obviously there are many lovely people to be found, but culturally, I strongly prefer New York.)

* No summer Fridays. No automatically being let out early the day before a holiday. Much stingier holiday calendars at work.

Good things:

* Because of laws, there are a lot more local shops and many fewer drugstores / banks. I like this.

* The landscape is fantastic. The hiking is wonderful, the in-city vistas are glorious.

* The food is sooooo good. The produce is fresher and tastier and kale is in everything and it is wonderful.

I honestly wish the transit were better and I liked people more, because there is so much to like about SF, but I have been pretty disappointed, all told.
posted by dame at 7:55 PM on October 8, 2013 [9 favorites]

I'm from LA, lived in New York for eight years, and have been living in San Francisco for six months. I love living here, but it's certainly no New York. In fact, I would say that SF is where young New Yorkers go to retire.

Here's my take on the two cities:

The biggest difference that you'll find between New York and SF is that New York is an international city, and SF is not. Sorry, San Francisco. That plays out in things like the cultural institutions, for instance--certainly San Francisco has venues and museums that are best of region, but not necessarily world class. There's also a perspective that is lacking--SF looks very into itself and is obsessed with itself.

Size matters--SF is tiny compared to New York.

People walk soooo slowly. Sooooo slowly.

Chinese food here can be surprisingly crappy, probably because the Chinese communities here are much older than the ones in New York or in LA, so they have had much longer to become Americanized.

Public transportation is miserable. I was just back in New York last week and I was crying with joy over how good the public transportation is.

New Yorkers have a reputation for being rude, but I see that as being direct. There's also a California nice. You can also call that being laid-back and friendly, but in general people are simply not as direct. As a native Californian I'm completely used to it, but it can be jarring for New Yorkers.

A lot more homeless people in San Francisco.

Access to nature is much easier. I live in an area of San Francisco that is a mile from the beach, a mile from Lake Merced, and about two miles from Golden Gate Park.

Weird provincialism in your neighborhoods. While New Yorkers do get judged on where they live, there are actually only about five socially acceptable neighborhoods to live in in SF, even if you're not making a software engineer's salary. I've had people sneer when I mentioned where I live here in San Francisco. It's kind of ridiculous when the city is only 7 x 7 miles. By contrast, if I mentioned that I lived in some unfashionable neighborhood in New York, people are a lot more likely to be sympathetic about being pushed out due to rising rents.

New Yorkers line up for sample sales. San Franciscans line up for brunch. Brunch is a competitive sport in SF.

People in SF are all daring in the same way: they go to Burning Man, they do drugs, they are into kink, etc.

San Francisco is a one industry town. Get used to overhearing converations where it's always about finding VC funding, startups, coding, etc.

Finding an apartment is insane in San Francisco. It was a lot easier in New York.

Finally, it's literally a lot quieter out here. Probably because things close so damn early.
posted by so much modern time at 8:18 PM on October 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

Something else I left out: While there are many jobs in the Financial District and SOMA, a lot of interesting opportunities are down on the Peninsula. This means you have the choice of driving to work (mayyyyybe Caltrain or company shuttle but still, an hour trip); moving to the suburbs to be near work; or limiting your search to places in town. In New York, it's pretty much Manhattan, with some work in DUMBO if you do creative.
posted by dame at 9:07 PM on October 8, 2013

I'm 24, grew up in Jersey, lived in SF from 2011-2013, and have been in NYC for the last 6 months, so the differences are fresh in my mind. I also worked at startups and had many techie friends. So my sample might be a bit biased towards those things.

- Definitely smaller, more homogenous startup-centric culture, less international. Even the people that reject startup culture seem to be defined by their rejection of startup culture, if that makes sense. It's inescapable.
- Public transit isn't as bad as people make it out to be, imo, but it's definitely no NYC subway.
- Nature! There's always a park nearby, and tons of stuff 30m from the city. I have friends that were into kitesurfing, skiing (Tahoe!), hiking, climbing.
- I feel like "being a 20-something that has their shit (mostly) together" goes much further in NYC than in SF.
- YES! Oakland is much more like Staten Island than Brooklyn/Queens. OK, shameful admission: in my two years of living in SF, I went to Berkeley/Oakland a total of less than 5 times.
- Etiquette. SF is all about being pleasant, NYC is all about being efficient.
- There are very few $5 falafels or $5 sandwiches in San Francisco. I've looked. If you're eating out, you're probably spending closer to $10.
- That said, I preferred the SF tech work culture. SF attracts a lot of software engineering talent and it shows. People do seem to take work more seriously.
- People go to bed early! In general, most restaurants close by 10pm-12am and most bars by 1-2am.
- There's definitely a pressure to be progressive and open-minded, though I don't think it actually *makes* people more progressive or open-minded.
posted by yaymukund at 6:52 AM on October 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Are you coming to SF work in tech? I'd be laughing at how inaccurate these answers are ("EVERYBODY works in tech") if they didn't reflect so poorly on the people in the tech field--amongst whom it is surprisingly fashionable to hate on the city they're sapping of vitality and will shortly abandon for the burbs. Your social scene if you're a nonprofit worker (another huge industry in SF, not that the tech workers have any clue about it) would be potentially very different. I'm an SF native and probably can't say more without pissing people off, but feel free to MeMail.
posted by kelseyq at 7:15 AM on October 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I don't get this idea that homogeneity is big in in SF, especially in regards to tech culture. That's like saying Wall Street is the only thing in NYC because of its large presence compared to other industries. There are other things going on, as kelseyq mentioned.

Food is very different, much fresher and the variety of produce is better in SF (Oakland's Friday farmer's market is one of the best though).

Gym culture is not as big in the Bay Area simply because of weather and the wide range of outdoor activities that are easily accessible.

The attitude in SF is more laid back, and it shows in the way people dress also. Fewer people, if any, wear boat shoes. God, I hate those. The preppy look is not as big here.

Public transit is not horrible, but obviously not as great as NYC's system.

Also, there are going to be a lot more Asians throughout the city (SF's Asian population is around 30%).

You're going to get very different answers from native Bay Area residents than those who have only lived here for 2-3 years. Living in San Francisco also means living in the Bay Area -- exploring places outside the city is going to give you a different perspective.

Chinese food here can be surprisingly crappy, probably because the Chinese communities here are much older than the ones in New York or in LA, so they have had much longer to become Americanized.

Not necessarily true, it depends on where you go and whom you go with. Also depends on the region that most immigrants come from and what kind of Chinese food you're used to. I'm currently in Philly, where the Chinese community is "new" but the food is awful.
posted by extramundane at 9:23 AM on October 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I lived in NYC 2001-2007 (ages 22-28) and SF since then. Overall, I agree with all of the above, with some caveats.
* Transit is suckier in SF than NYC. (No caveats, just agree.)
* SF is less fashion-y. In NYC I used to love to check out people's outfits on the subway. Here, you'll be checking out a lot of jeans and hoodies. I've seen people wear super-casual stuff to very nice restaurants, and once saw a guy with duct tape on the seam of his blazer at a relatively fancy party. That said, the loose fashion rules also lead to some amazing creativity. Sometimes, as I bike-commute, I pass someone and think "Is today Halloween? No, it's just another day in SF."
* Homelessness: I do not think there are more homeless people in SF but I do think there are more low-functioning homeless people. Maybe it has to do with harsher weather in NYC--you need to have your faculties to survive a NYC winter on the streets. The climate here is a little more forgiving, so I think you sometimes find people who are more cracked-out.
* Dating: As a single woman, I found SF to be a much better dating scene than NYC. I think the male/female ratio is higher here. Also, I tend to be attracted to techy guys with practical skills, so it was a better dating pool for me. (Obviously, depending on what you're looking for, this may or may not suit you.)
* Culture: In my experience, NYC was much more literate than SF--people were more likely to be aware of the latest high-brow novels, new plays, the Whitney Biennial, etc. This seemed to be a more common topic of conversation. Here, there's still a keen interest in art, but the stuff with the most buzz seems to be techy, edgy, and DIY-feeling (e.g. Burning Man, not the Whitney Biennial).
In general, I think it's safe to assume there are more engineers here, and fewer aspiring novelists. Maker culture is really big. At cafes, you will overhear people pitching their start-up idea or huddling over a laptop with a friend and working on an algorithm. This could just reflect the people I know here, but it seems like SF people are more likely to have majored in STEM fields and NYC people in humanities.
* Food: Food is awesome in both places, but different. If you like to cook, I think SF is the place to be. There's amazing produce basically year-round. For restaurants, there are lots of great options across the price spectrum. Also, restaurants are not snooty or exclusive. It can be very hard to get a reservation at some places, but once you have one, if you show up on time, you will almost definitely be seated pretty close to on-time. There isn't a culture of being bumped because you're not "somebody." I don't know if that still happens in NYC, but it used to be a big thing.
* Exclusivity: In general, SF is really democratic. It's not "Do you know who I am?" Instead it's "Check it out--I wrote this really cool script to go online and make me a reservation at State Bird Provisions!"
* My advice (knowing very little about you besides the fact that you liked NYC better than SD) is: take the job!
posted by pompelmo at 11:03 AM on October 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These are all so helpful! Keep 'em coming!
posted by blackcatcuriouser at 12:40 PM on October 9, 2013

NYC for 7 years, SF for the last 4.

* SF favors the outgoing. As in, it's a lot easier to start a conversation with a random stranger here. NYC is better for introverts who want to be left alone.

* New Yorkers have better "urban etiquette". Kind of an intangible thing, but if you've lived in both places, you'll know what I mean. New Yorkers seem to have more of an ingrained knowledge of how cities work and how to act in them. Little things, like letting people off the train before getting on.

* Living in SF, you're closer to nature, and as a result, people spend more time doing outdoorsy things. Yes, NYC has the Catskills and other attractions, but nobody ever seems to go there. Maybe it was just my group of friends. SF, on the other hand, is surrounded by awesome outdoor stuff that's less than a half hour's drive. Go a bit further, and you can see some truly awesome stuff.

* Transit is better in NYC. This is, in my opinion, the biggest downside to living in SF. During the day, transit is mostly fine. At night ... you'll take a lot of cabs. Which sucks, because cabs are kept artificially scarce by the cab cartel. You'll hear people complain about how expensive SF is getting, and you'll wonder why they don't just move to Oakland, in the same way hip New Yorkers decamped to Brooklyn. Then you'll remember, "That's right. Transit."

* People in SF are more physically fit, and care more about staying in shape. This is probably an east coast / west coast thing. In NYC, a dude can be a fat schlub, but if he has a nice watch and a $500k / year job on Wall Street, he has social status. In SF, he's just a fat schlub. SF is the most physically fit city in the country, and it shows.

* In SF, tech is king. In NYC, it's finance. I know, overly-broad generalization. But it seems to affect the culture, even for people not in those industries. Nerd culture is a huge social influence in SF, whereas in NYC culture seems more focused on mainstream trends. Both cities have a burgeoning "hipster" population, which seems to be almost identical in both places.

* The food is different. You'll find greater variety in NYC, but far better ingredients in SF, especially produce.

* Dating is different. NYC is better for online dating; denser population means higher traffic for your profile. SF, on the other hand, is better for meeting people in person; people don't seem to have the same "shield" up that they have in NYC, and are more open to conversing with a random stranger. Dating in SF proper slightly favors men, since so many of the men are gay. This is somewhat reversed out on the peninsula, where the tech industry attracts lots of single men, but there isn't much to attract a single woman who doesn't work in tech. They call it "Man Jose" for a reason. I found dating in SF to be less stressful; I felt like everyone in NYC was always trying to "trade up", and I don't really get that as much out here.

* ZipCar / carshare is really helpful in SF. Mostly to take advantage of the ample opportunities for day tripping outdoors, but also for running errands and crap. (see : the relative dearth of cabs) A car is not necessary, unless you have to commute. Most of my friends either don't hand cars, or share one with their partner.

* SF is physically smaller, which makes walking more practical as a form of transit.

* Street crime is worse in SF. But this may not be a fair comparison, because modern-day NYC is ridiculously safe.

* SF has an out-of-control homeless problem. They're almost entirely harmless, but ... it really does effect the quality of life here. Put it this way : before moving to SF, I gave to a variety of charities. Since moving here, I give exclusively to homeless charities.

* It's a lot more normal in SF to have an alternative lifestyle and be open about it. Not just talking about the gay scene, but just alternative lifestyles in general. Drugs, polyamory, burning man, kink, whatever. Nobody gives a crap in SF. I didn't see this sort of thing discriminated against in NYC, more that people were less likely to talk about it. This goes along with the NYC tendency to not give away more information than necessary to strangers.

* There are basically no children in SF. It's striking. You'll leave the city for one reason or another, and first thing you'll realize is, "holy crap, children everywhere!" This is a godsend for the childfree, not so great for anyone who wants to start a family.

* The housing/apartment situation sucks, no two ways about it. However, I feel SF has the advantage here for a few reasons : no bedbug epidemic, no brokers' fees, and most renters have rent control. I'm speaking as a renter here. I have no idea what it's like to actually try and buy property.

* Restaurants close earlier in SF. Sucks.

* Bars in SF close at 2AM. Boo. However, you should ask yourself how often you would actually take advantage of NYC bars' late closing time. There are still plenty of all-night parties in SF, they just stop serving booze at 2. May not be a problem for you, depending on your predilections.

* People complain about gentrification in SF just like they do in NYC, only they're louder in SF because the gentrification is more recent. Again, New Yorkers seem to have a better grasp of what it means to live in a city.

* The music scene in SF is heavily based around electronica / DJs.

* The weather is different, and SF has micro-climates, meaning that different parts of the city have vastly different weather patterns. In general, though, weather in SF is really mild and avoids extremes of any kind. Not much in the way of seasons. Personally, I love the weather here, but I do miss NYC summer nights. I don't, however, miss NYC summer days, with the stinking bags of garbage piled up next to the sidewalk. It's also worth mentioning that the rest of the Bay Area / Northern California has seasons and actually-hot summers, if you're willing to take a little drive.

* New Yorkers are more up on the latest fashion, celebrity gossip, music, etc. San Franciscans are more up on the latest technologies.

* Douchebag / meathead / preppy / jock culture is less represented in SF. It's still there, but it's fairly contained.

* The ethnic mix is different. SF has lots of white people, Asians, Mexicans, and some Indians. Not a whole lot of African Americans, which is weird and sad. NYC on the whole is more diverse.

* There are more avenues for attaining social status in SF. In NYC, I felt like everyone was obsessed with money and celebrity culture, even the people who you'd think would be cooler than that. Money still matters in SF, but only inasmuch as it gains you access to certain kinds of experience, and affords you the opportunity to be generous with your friends and throw cool parties and stuff. It doesn't give you that same aura that it does in NYC. I feel like if you can "stick out" for some interesting reason, that matters more in SF than money. Although money always helps...

Anyway, I hope this was a mostly-evenhanded account of the differences between the two cities. They're really very different places, and which one you prefer entirely depends on your personality. The one thing the two places have in common are lots of smart, creative people, so you'll find worthwhile people to be around in both cities. Myself, I prefer SF, but I still love NYC dearly and visit my friends there every year. I don't have any kind of "Goodbye to All That" story about NYC, and in fact it's where I'd be living now if SF didn't exist :)

Oh! And I should mention : all of my observations on SF relate to SF proper. I have no idea what it's like to live/work in the surrounding suburbs, nor would I want to. Also, this doesn't cover Oakland, which is actually a place I like a lot, although I've never lived there. Likewise, my NYC observations relate to the five boroughs only. (or, let's face it, MH, QS, and BK. I can't really speak to BX or SI)
posted by evil otto at 7:10 AM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

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