Teach me some Street Smarts
April 29, 2007 4:28 PM   Subscribe

StreetSmartsFilter: Lifetime suburbanite moving to the big, big city (NYC). What do I need to know to keep myself safe and sane.

General urban living tips will likely also prove very helpful.
posted by dantekgeek to Society & Culture (33 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Si vez algo di algo.
posted by billtron at 4:37 PM on April 29, 2007 [4 favorites]

Best answer: If you mind your own business (don't intrude on urbanite's limited personal space unless invited) and trust your instincts (if it's nighttime and you feel like you'd be safer on the other side of the street, don't hesitate to cross), you should do ok.
posted by phixed at 4:38 PM on April 29, 2007

What, specifically, are you afraid of?
posted by vetiver at 4:39 PM on April 29, 2007

Are you going to be living in an apartment for the first time? If so, there are some things specific to apartment living that you're going to have to get a hang of. For instance, you should have some sense of your downstairs neighbors' schedules and avoid making too much noise when they're likely to be asleep. If you live in a doorman building, be nice to the doormen. Tip delivery people, and tip them extra well if you live in a walk-up and they have to hike up the stairs.

New York is actually not especially scary. I find some of the etiquette stuff a little terrifying (tipping, in particular, scares the shit out of me, especially around the holidays), but safety and sanity shouldn't be huge concerns. Not going broke, on the other hand, may be a huge concern, because there's all manner of wonderful stuff to spend money on.
posted by craichead at 4:51 PM on April 29, 2007

Use 'excuse me' for every physical contact--but remember it is not a big deal.

Walk, don't amble.

Break eye contact when it happens.

Classify absolutely everything you are told that is not backed up by corroborating evidence as 'believed as heard, not verified.' Do not make any important or irreversible decision based on evidence entirely in this category, but otherwise, assume it's true if you 'trust' the source.

Is this too cynical?
posted by hexatron at 4:53 PM on April 29, 2007

Always look like you know where you're going.
posted by milarepa at 4:53 PM on April 29, 2007

Get renters' insurance. Seriously. There are a LOT of things that can go wrong with NYC apartments, not even including theft. Basement storage areas flood, ceilings cave in, small fires start from crappy wiring. Just get it.

Also, don't leave your purse under your seat when you go out to dinner. Put it between your feet or under the table. So many of my friends' purses were stolen during dinner this way.

Don't sit directly next to the subway doors if you feel like there's a sketchy vibe on the train. I got punched in the side of the face once in one of the older trains (that don't have the higher side railing) right before a group of teenagers hopped off, simply because I was sitting there.

Always have the number of a local car service handy in case you are in a part of town where standard yellow cabs aren't frequent.

(NY is actually much less scary to me than more idyllic small towns because there are usually more people on the street at night, and there are a lot more open bodegas, 24 hour diners and pharmacies you can hop into if you feel sketched out by someone on the street.)
posted by np312 at 4:56 PM on April 29, 2007

Walk, don't amble.
Ooh, good point. And when walking with other people, try not to hog the sidewalk. Be aware that there are probably people who would like to get past you.

Subway etiquette:

-when you get on the subway, wait until everyone has gotten off, then get on. It's rude just to barrel in.

-don't stop on the stairs in the subway. Wait until you get to the bottom of the stairs and move off to the side before you stop to pick up your cell phone or find your metro card.

-don't make conversation with strangers on the subway. People will be afraid of you.
posted by craichead at 4:57 PM on April 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Getting around NYC takes a lot more walking than you may be used to. Get good walky shoes.

Try to learn about the subway, at least a bit, in advance so you aren't fumbling with your map out. (Don't need to be paranoid about this, but it's a concrete step you can take.) Also see this recent Mefi front page post about a more geographically informative alternate version of the NYC subway map.

Related AskMefi questions:
- streetsmarts for Philly
- some things to know about moving to Washington DC from the suburbs
- how do I meet people in NYC?
- how do I meet people in new cities generally?
- great NYC movies
- what's a borough?

Link to a cool external site:
cool secret places in NYC
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:06 PM on April 29, 2007

Response by poster: @vetiver – Nothing specifically, more like I'm worried I'll unknowingly commit some horrid urban taboo and piss people off.
posted by dantekgeek at 5:06 PM on April 29, 2007

Where are you going to be living in the city?

Trust your instincts. Look like you know where you're going. Watch your belongings. Don't block sidewalks, stairwells, or subway entrances. Remember that the main difference between NYC and other places is the sheer amount of people, which means that everyone's a little busy - and that if some random ass wants to make your day a hassle, it can happen just that much more quickly.

But don't be afraid. NYC is relatively cuddly, as far as big cities go, and besides, fear makes you a target. Just be confident and considerate, and you'll do just fine!
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:12 PM on April 29, 2007

Yes, as mentioned above: in NYC people will be brusque; try not to get upset by this, it's not personal.

Bodegas are little grocery stores, which occur every block or so. You can get (excellent!) fresh produce every day on your way home from work.

The standard of dress in many professional situations in Manhattan is noticeably higher than in similar professional situations elsewhere in the US. (IMO)

Don't bring a car, if you can avoid it.

A few more old questions:
-what to do about weirdoes on public transit
- how to act in one of the dangerous areas of Washington DC
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:25 PM on April 29, 2007

Best answer: The only taboo is moving slowly or blocking pedestrian traffic. Don't stand on the corner or in the narrow part of the sidewalk where the newspaper boxes are. If you are walking with one or more other people, learn to collapse into a single-file line for those few steps when you pass people coming the other way on a sidewalk.

You will need to decide what to do about homeless beggars: will you carry change at all times or never give them anything at all? It's much easier to make this decision once than to agonize over every individual situation you'll encounter.

Be aware of your valuables, be aware of your surroundings. Know where you're going and have some idea of how you're getting there before you leave your apartment. Always carry a Metrocard. The cheap umbrella you buy during a sudden rainstorm should be considered disposable; if you get a year out of it before you leave it somewhere or it flips inside out, you're very lucky indeed.

Say please, and thank you, and something appropriate when somebody sneezes. Tip 20 percent. If you pass a food cart that smells good, ask what it is and buy one. Mostly just remember that everybody's just people, no matter what they look like, they just want to get home and eat dinner like you do.
posted by bink at 5:34 PM on April 29, 2007 [4 favorites]

Get accomsted to occupying public space. I think the first thing that struck me when I moved to NYC was how little space of my own I had, and how frequently I found myself moving around for no real reason other than to preserve my sanity. In one sense, it's not a bad thing because it forces you to get creative with your free time; I would go to different neighborhoods just to go there and...well, be there. Then again, as I've shared on here before, my first six months in NYC were also spent at the Jane Street Hotel (tranny hooker central) in a room wide enough for me to touch both walls at the same time. So I had some real incentives to get out and explore. However, honestly, my first apartment wasn't an awful lot bigger than this.

It's all about adjusting to space issues if you ask me. Having very little personal space, and constantly having strangers in what little space you have, was a major adjustment. By the time I got used to it, I was getting ready to leave.
posted by The Straightener at 5:38 PM on April 29, 2007

Stand right, walk left... er... wait... wrong city. (Probably still good advice.)
posted by anaelith at 5:41 PM on April 29, 2007

Don't bring a car, if you can avoid it.

Heartily seconded. Unless you have a very specific reason for needing a car (or a considerable amount of disposable income), don't keep one. It'll be a pain in the ass, and hey, enjoy a time in your life where you can be a pedestrian and get around just fine.

With that in mind, be super-aware of how to navigate the buses and subways. Things are guaranteed to go wrong at least occasionally, so always give yourself extra time, and know how to look for alternate routes. When I was new to the city, I occasionally wound up running late because I wasn't as careful as I could be.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:41 PM on April 29, 2007

Others have said it, but it bears repeating: If you're not moving as fast or faster than the pedestrian traffic around you, get the fuck out of everybody's way.
posted by saladin at 5:44 PM on April 29, 2007

Best answer: If people want to give you housewarming gifts, get one of them to give you a subscription to Time Out NY, which lists things that are going on in the city each week. Includes lots of free things, if you're looking for fun on a budget - that's one of the best things about NYC.

Yet more relevant AskMes:
- about NYC subway navigation
- about panhandling on subways in NYC
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:44 PM on April 29, 2007

In the suburbs, you can get away with a little obliviousness about where you are in relation to other people; leaving your shopping cart in the middle of the grocery aisle sometimes doesn't inconvenience anyone. In a place that's crawling with other people, there will always be someone behind you who needs to get by. You need to be aware of your physical presence in the world and how it affects other people.

By this I mean: Don't stop dead in your tracks at the top of an escalator and make everyone scramble to move around you. Don't swing your backpack up onto your back while you're in a subway car--you're likely to hit someone in the face. Use your time in line to get your money together so you're not wasting everyone's time while you fumble for your pennies. If you have hardwood floors, your neighbors can hear you walking; take your shoes off when you get home.

These are things I'm sure you'd figure out on your own, but if you can start thinking about them consciously now, it'll make it easier to incorporate them unconsciously into your daily behavior.
posted by jesourie at 5:59 PM on April 29, 2007

if you never have before, learn how to use public transit, it will make your life much better.

you will almost certainly be approached by some with a somewhat plausible sob story. its most likely a scam, and you will likely see them years later using the same story.

don't be afraid to ask directions when you need to. you can always tell who is lost, so if you are worried about letting the wrong element know you are, they already know.

always keep a $20 on you for a cab ride.

the city is a great place. you can make it as lonely or as social as you want. if you find yourself overwhelmed, tkae some fridays off for yourself to veg. if you are finding yourself too lonely, join some sort of forced socialiation (book club, political campaign, etc..)
posted by bottlebrushtree at 6:05 PM on April 29, 2007

yeah, basically you have to assume that if you're standing still or moving slowly, you are in someone's way.

don't be afraid to ask for directions. everybody's totally used to it. if they think you're a tourist, so what? there are 8 million people in new york city. they'll never see you again. there's a chance that asking for directions might make you a slightly higher target for a pickpocket, but a lot of locals get pickpocketed too. just know where all your stuff is.

invest in a good bag. even if you're male. you won't be driving, so you'll want to bring some entertainment for the train or bus, an umbrella, probably a bottle of water, your lunch, etc. if you're nervous, get a messenger bag that zips and has a flap that goes over the zipper. get something with a small external pocket for your metrocard.

oh, and don't ever buy a metrocard off of someone. it's probably empty or stolen.

and finally, don't be afraid of being new to the city. a lot of people are new to the city at any given moment. you'll make mistakes, you'll annoy people, and you'll learn. and in a year, you'll be teaching newbies the ropes.

enjoy and have fun!
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:15 PM on April 29, 2007

If someone tells you a sad story, they're conning you.
posted by spitbull at 6:50 PM on April 29, 2007

Don't be afraid. There's not as much to be afraid of as you have heard. If you absolutely must be afraid, do not look afraid. If you're alone in an unseemly place at night, stand tall, walk fast and don't look like a victim.
Get yourself a Hagstrom Five Borough Atlas. Spring for the one with laminated pages and get the big one if your messenger bag is big enough to hold it. Keep it in your messenger bag at all times. Speaking of maps, a compass might not hurt. Nothing huge, maybe a little one that clips onto the strap of your messenger bag.
posted by willpie at 7:02 PM on April 29, 2007

Remember that you can piss off or annoy a new person every day and still never run out.
posted by smackfu at 7:23 PM on April 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

echo all of the above. one thing that took me awhile to get used to: be ready to order the moment you're at the front of the line. once you know your surroundings, headphones can help give you a feeling of personal space. people generally invite people over to their apt less at first then in the suburbs. it's not an insult, just smaller apartments & more places to see. take stock of all your personal possessions before you move. too much stuff in a tiny nyc-area apt can make you crazy. learn to love the little things (the coffee carts, nyc style slices). see a play if you can.
posted by ejaned8 at 7:59 PM on April 29, 2007

Subways, escalators in particular: If you want to stand, do so on the right side of the escalator. The left side is reserved for people that feel they would like to walk up the escalator. If you are stuck on the left side and want to be standing, climb the escalator stairs until you have space to move to the right side.

On crowded subways, if you are near the exit door, get out of the way and step out of the train to let people off. Generally you can step out of the train and slightly to the right or left to let people off and still be able to get back on right where you were despite the clamoring masses waiting to get in.

On a similar note, if you are trying to get out of a crowded train, nothing scares New Yorkers quite so much as someone being polite and saying "Pardon Me, Getting out!" people will generally try to abide by your request, and if they don't step on their feet on the way out.

Tip 20% is a good tip. Learn the subway map and get a monthly metrocard. Its really the best value you'll find throughout the city.

Don't be scared of the outer boroughs like Brooklyn and Queens. They have a lot to offer. Especially in terms of good food and cheap drink.

However, beware of the subway on weekends and holidays especially below Canal st - It doesn't always go where you think it should.

Buy a good umbrella and check the weather reports daily. Don't be a typical sucker and buy a $10 umbrella from a street vendor when you are stuck in a downpour. It will break almost immediately. Additionally and more importantly, when possible, don't carry an umbrella. Get yourself a good waterproof jacket with a hood. You will be a rain ninja while everyone else will be tripping over their oversize golf umbrellas.

Biking is another great way to get around the city. Get a cheap used bike and get it tuned up - Check out Frank's Bikes on the LES (no affiliation I promise). Don't be a douche, wear a helmet and stay off the sidewalks (illegal) Pretend you are a car. You pretty much are going the same speed as most of them. On that note, get a loud bike bell. Nothing says get out of my way quite like Ring Ring! Respect idiot pedestrians, but not too much.

Have fun and see you around!
posted by zackola at 8:08 PM on April 29, 2007

Don't shelter yourself too much. I constantly run into people in New York who have created artificial boundaries for themselves. People who won't go south of 14th street. People who won't go north of 14th street. People who won't go to, or who never leave, Brooklyn. Who would never go to Queens. Who wouldn't dream of going to the Bronx or Staten Island. People who live in a certain neighborhood, but won't go across a certain street there because they have arbitrarily labelled that area as "sketchy." This mystifies me.

Be brave. Challenge the assumptions that you make about places and the people who live there. Trust your instincts, and don't be stupid, but don't be a big fraidycat either. New York is a giant, gorgeous city.

(And much of the best food is found in neighborhoods that some might label sketchy.)
posted by jennyjenny at 8:22 PM on April 29, 2007

I've never lived in NYC but I've visited, and these two things seemed to apply:
1. Listen. New Yorkers are great at giving directions or explanations. Once. Don't expect them to repeat themselves.
2. If you're going into a deli or café, counter service, know what you're going to ask for in advance, if you possibly can.

Yes, there's less room for mooching and noodling around. I walk faster when I'm in New York and prepare myself to interact more quickly with people. And then things go better.
posted by zadcat at 9:48 PM on April 29, 2007

So much comes down to being aware of your surroundings. It's not easy to learn to be aware of the right things, but your mind adjusts. No one's born street-savvy, and no one learns it from a book (or even websites with green backgrounds). So keep looking around you and listening to the people and learning the rhythms of the city, and be patient (and not too hard on yourself for your probably inevitable mistakes), and look forward to the day, in a few months or more, when you're in an unexpected situation, and you do the right thing without thinking about it, and you realize, hey, I'm a New Yorker now.
posted by mattpfeff at 10:00 PM on April 29, 2007

Watch your posessions. By this I mean make sure that if you're reading a book while sitting on the subway that your bag is closed and within your line of sight. Don't put your iPod/ mp3 player in an obvious place, like a front shirt pocket. Put it in a front pants pocket or zipped bag. Same for your wallet and cellphone. If you're going to give a homeless person change, have loose change ready, don't dig through your wallet for change. Not that every single person in New York is a kleptomaniac, but you're less likely to be a victim if you're aware of yourself and your surroundings. Don't be afraid to ask for directions and be aware that women will be more likely to stop and take the time to make sure you get it than men in business suits will.
posted by blueskiesinside at 10:14 AM on April 30, 2007

Watch your posessions.

Honestly, everyone I know who has lost something to crime has lost it to a mugger. I walk thrrough the subways carrying my wallet all the time. I read with my bag open and my iPod on. Whatever. I would put my bag on my lap or between my feet (the only acceptable places anyway), and just not worry.

Also, some people use "sketchy" to mean "poor or brown people live there." Those people are not to be listened to. There are very few parts of this city where I worry about my safety.
posted by dame at 1:38 PM on April 30, 2007

Response by poster: Speaking of crime/muggings, is it worth carrying mace or pepperspray (in case I am mugged), or will that just cause me more trouble than benefit?
posted by dantekgeek at 2:26 PM on April 30, 2007

Buy a good umbrella and check the weather reports daily. Don't be a typical sucker and buy a $10 umbrella from a street vendor when you are stuck in a downpour. It will break almost immediately.

That street vendor umbrella should not cost you $10. The ones I buy near my office (downtown) cost me something like $2.50, the ones near home maybe $3. Personally, I am going to lose my umbrella either by leaving it in a cab or having it stolen in a bar/restaurant/store, so I live on cheap umbrellas that I don't worry about getting stolen. The wind in NYC can take down even a nice umbrella anyway. But the hooded jacket tip is right on. It's too bad they mostly look kind of unprofessional.

If you'll be living/working/spending a lot of time in Manhattan, buy the little popout map of Manhattan. They sell it at barnes and noble and the pearl river mart in soho, among many many other places. I've lived here for two years and it is still invaluable to me. It has a subway map in addition to the street map of manhattan. Of course, if you'll be mostly in one of the outer boroughs it is not very useful.
posted by ch1x0r at 5:33 PM on April 30, 2007

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