A guide to fancy living in NYC by the cost-conscious academic

Every year, a few thousand academics come to NYC to join one of the many universities of the City. Having been around for a little over five years, let me share a few tips for the newcomers in the lifestyle I’d best describe as ‘Bohemian Nerd,’ or someone who is conscious about optimizing comfort, while staying true to the diversity and open-mindedness of what the City has to offer.

Housing. Few newcomers consider Uptown as a location of choice in Manhattan, yet, north of Central park (110th-125th), on the stops of the Red, Blue or Green lines have become some of the best locations in Manhattan for active young singles or couples. On the west, between Amsterdam and Malcolm X, Morningside Park offers impressive views of Harlem (on Morningside Drive), and offers combinations of playgrounds for kids (on 123rd or 116th) and green open spaces below (on 110th). Frederick Douglass, between 110th and 125th, with its many cafes and restaurants (for example, Harlem Tavern) is a great place to have brunch or dinner after a long day of work, and easily accessible via the A/B/C lines. One can pick from one of the many high-end condos or more typical apartments in townhouses on the cross streets (my preferred choice since NYC can be noisy on the main avenues). The East side is a little cheaper, but home to both Wholefoods (125th) and a Costco, as well as many stores on 125th. North Central Park has a large public pool open all summer and a skating rink in the winter and is a great place to relax or meditate. Note that these areas are diverse and extremely safe, in fact as safe as any other area in Manhattan (which, in my experience, is even safer than an already fairly safe city such as Paris). We’ve crossed the area at late night (1am) and, as to Morningside Park, see people walking their dog at late hours – we’ve never had any problem. The further west area Riverside-Amsterdam from 105th to 125th, has nice park areas by the Hudson and a beautiful walk, but is slightly underwhelming as to both character and things to do and has become slightly on the expensive side. If you live there, you’ll have to go down to the upper west, around 96th.

What about other special areas such as Park Slope (Brooklyn), Upper East, Soho/Tribeca? Park Slope is very nice (with the park near by) but far if you need to commute to Manhattan, perhaps a good compromise for larger families. Upper East is very expensive, count about double relative to Uptown. Soho/Tribeca is, hands down, the most delightful area of NYC with its low-rises and nice shops but it can be noisy and, for the better parts, can be even more expensive than Upper East. It’s just easier to travel there rather than live there every day, especially considering that it does not have the benefits of Central Park nearby. The main advantage of these three options is that public schools are top-level, especially for families of 2+ children (more on this later on). The upper west is always a safe bet, with a greater focus on the busy executive and a lesser focus on character. Lastly, many academics live in the North suburbs (Scarsdale/Westchester), but count between 1 hour and 1 hour and a half of commute. This is the residential experience, except at a higher price point than most other cities and I do not advise it since commute can interfere with being at the office every day and adds to fatigue. It may be, nevertheless, an option to move there with 2+ children in school age (but only at that moment!) since private schools in Manhattan can be expensive, more on this later on.

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Food/Grocery shopping. Food shopping is a complex task in NYC because there is no central Walmart where one could pick up everything and be done with it. Every place has its own specialty and is not-so-good for the rest. Trader Joe (around the city) presents one of the greatest generalist compromises with high quality at good price. But let me improve the experience with specialized better ideas. Zabars is the best place in NYC for inexpensive and decent cheese (try their Manchego, Fourme d’Ambert and Comte), fresh pasta and a delicious Scottish salmon. Street vendors – all over the place – are the best place to get fruit and vegies at low prices (about half Wholefoods), although quality can be variable. Avoid the pricey local supermarkets of the fancy neighborhoods which give you low quality at high prices, but I recommend Best Yet market for a large supermarket with great selection of vegetables at very low prices. If this is convenient, Costco (East side) and BJ (Bronx) have very nice groceries. Many new-yorkers go to Fairway. It presents very well but is incredibly pricey – however, I found no better alternative when it comes to seafood and the olive oil is quite nice as well there as well.

Let’s not underestimate online grocery shopping, which is a must-use in NYC. At the high-end, Freshdirect offers a zero-cost delivery subscription (for orders starting at $30+) and has great food, especially Milk, meat and seafood. Prices are not competitive for fruits and vegetables. They also have a nice selection of other things, such as their Brioche or chocolate croissant. They also have competitive prices for bottled water (such as Perrier). For anything that is durable, such as cans, rice or even other household stuff, I found no better than walmart.com with free shipping from $50+ and half the price of a regular supermarket.

For wine lovers, what not to do is to pick up wine store. These are well presented but are expensive and usually mix up low-price but near-undrinkable bottles with fine wine at heavy markups. Alcohol in general should be bought online in New York. I strongly recommend Wine Advocate’s weekly wine buys for unbeatable 90+ bottles starting as low as $15. The only downside is that stores vary and this takes a little time to set up. I personally like the site lastbottle.com, which sells a new bottle each day, at top prices and quite often rates in the mid 90s. What I like the most about the site is that it proposes bottles (no subscription needed though) so this saves the search costs. If you want to try out and you don’t have a friend who uses it yet, my code is here (they will also credit you with $10 in wine credits).

Moving around. Subway in NYC is a mixed experience. The North-South line arrangement and the ability to move between express and locals makes the subway cover a lot of distance in reasonable time. You can easily traverse half the city in less than 30 minutes, and sometimes only 20 minutes on some lines, so the City allows faster commuting than most other locations. In addition, there are many, many subways, and wait time is minimum. However, there are some big problems. The subway is very crowded during rush hour and it’s not unusual to be squished against a side; not great unless one is into out-of-body meditation. In addition, it is common for subways to run strange. Suddenly a local subway would turn express and let you go 40 streets north of your stop, or some problem of the line will force you to rerout via another line. If one has a time commitment (like picking up children or a meeting), the subway is completely unreliable and many times I had catch a cab.

But are there any alternative? Cabs are very easy to get but expensive and so is Uber (Lyft has now become much more expensive than Uber in NYC), if about 30% less than regular cabs. Bus is atrocious. Heavy traffic and stops at (almost) any traffic light make a bus ride at double the time of subway – of course, for that reason, buses are not too crowded. So it things look quite bad at this point.

Fortunately, a few new services have completely changed the situation recently. The service Via now offers free car-pooling for $69 a week (less for monthly pass), as many times as desired or a flat $6 pay-as-you-go cost. Besides, it’s pre-tax money so the comparable cost to a cab is misleading. Cars are generally large SUVs (Toyota Highlander) where it’s easy to get work done during the trip and very, very comfortable. Because of heavy traffic, it is longer than subway during rush hour (count 1.5x) but it’s great option if you can do some work – like read a paper or work on a laptop in the car. Also, one thing I love about Via is that you cannot miss your ride; cars are almost always in the same brand (unlike other services) and they tell you at what corner to pick it up. If you sign up, ask a friend if he has an account and you can put his code and give him and receive some credit (currently $10). Uber also launched a pool service, but it’s inferior to Via – good prices only work at particular rush hours and rides are not as comfy as Via.

The Arts. Academics and students must use the service tdf.org, which is a service that can only be used by people in education. This works a little like ticket booth, the last minute service to get discount tickets to theater but with three big differences: about half cheaper (around $40 for a prime show, a lot less for off-Broadway), one books one or two weeks in advance and, the most important, seats are typically spectacular as long as the booking is not for too many people (2 or 3 is ideal). tdf does not have a huge inventory of shows, but it is quite nice and is renewed. We’ve seen some very nice theater (like top productions of Sartre or Shakespeare) as well as new musicals such as Rocky or Spiderman. Especially, it’s easy to miss out on the non-musical theater scene which is quite good in NYC, and tdf is the place to go to keep current on what’s there.

NYC has, of course, great museums. Remember that many museums are free in NYC so you can donate but it’s up to you. The Museum of Natural History is a great place for families and the special exhibits are always great, although these are paid extra. The MET and Moma need no introduction of course. For those interested in museums, I strongly advise to use Chase bank, which offers, for free, a pass for its private clients at many of the museums that are not free, such as the Guggenheim for example.  For museums that are technically free, the pass gives preferential access without line and discounted prices for the activities as a corporate member. Also for families, day trips to the Liberty science center and New York Hall of Science are worth it, but I’d advise to first take a Via to Brooklyn to cut on the cost – in  both cases, commuting via public transport in a nightmare.
Interestingly, buying art occurs in the most unexpected of places: on the street by a museum among the tourists (especially met), a few painters sell beautiful art pieces. The same pieces retail for a much higher price on the internet or from their studio (usually Brooklyn) but there is more choice then. So, it’s probably the best option to first discover a painter’s art in the street, and then visit their studio for more choice even if it comes at a steeper price – usually x3-x5. Of course, the pieces in the studio are usually more distinctive motifs.

Restaurants. Little known is that the truck street food is one of the best in the country. The typical truck has amazing lamb with rice and vegies, italian sausage and, for the vegetarians, falafel that I’ve rarely seen matched, all of this for around $5. Trucks can be found at most street corners.

People say that restaurants are great in NYC, but I’ve rarely found this to be true. Most restaurant food, even when it is in fancy room, is very simple and does not strike you as more prepared than what you could easily do at home, plus the extra price. A few caveats to that. I’ve always been pleasantly surprised with oysters in NYC, and groupon offers reasonable deals (at full price, it’s horrible though). Some staples of NYC are always great, so you can get a nice Reuben even at a touristy place and not go wrong; the restaurant burgers are not too expensive and quite nice in almost all restaurants.  For the everyday, the chain Chipotle is now widely distributed in NYC and presents one of the best picks in the City (in fact, taste-wise it beats most of the fancy restaurants).

A slightly bohemian American with music to try out is the Harlem Tavern on 116th, especially for Saturday/Sunday brunch.  For the more exotic, Jin Ramen on 125th offers the authentic Ramen experience, delicious! Another great pick that never disappoints is La Tartine in Soho – an affordable French that beats in quality any other fancy restaurant – and you can bring your own wine, but beware that this is a well-known secret and wait lines can be very, very long during peak times if you don’t come early.

Shopping. Shopping is special in NYC but one needs to know where to go. Surprisingly, it’s not at the grand names on Madison that the best shopping is but at the discount stores such as Marshall, TJ Maxx or Century 21. Because of their location, these stores receive the brand name inventory of each season and resell it at extremely heavy discounts, from half to a quarter of the price. Note that these can be top makers, it’s no unusual to find a YSL, Gucci or a D&G shirt or tuxedo there. They also offer tons of other things such as toys or perfume, also at discounted prices.

There are a few outlets malls further outside of the city. An example is Tanger Outlet at Riverhead in Long Island. It’s very extensive and good to visit, and can be combined with a day at the Hampton’s or at the water park Splish Splash nearby. Prices there are better than on the web or in stores in the city, but, in the end, it’s more about the experience. Note that one goes there via train, and then there are taxis or buses at the station that will drive you anywhere in the area.

Families. NYC is great for families but one needs a few insights about what to do. For the little one, the Swedish Cottage on Central park has nice Marionette shows that change along the year. For all ages, I recommend the Blue Man group show which is also on tdf most weeks. I’ve been very disappointed about most off-broadway productions for families.

During the week-end, kids love Coney Island and there are other things to do for grow-ups as well. The beach itself is just okay, and the water tends to be a little cold for extended swimming – besides, it is a bit crowded. However, Coney Island is accessible by subway with almost no connection – so it’s very practical. The boardwalk is nice and spacey, and there is music and a nice atmosphere to it. There are also a few parks with rides that cater to all ages, especially little ones that have a ton of fun every time (and pricing is very reasonable). Lesser known, if one moves away from the beach, there are some cafes with a nice caribean feel to them and perfect for cocktails in the evening. For the high-end experience, Sandy Hook in New Jersey is a set of very beautiful beaches in a national park. To get there, one needs to get the ferry (at many locations) and it takes about an hour to get to a complete out-of-city experience where most is pristine. The ferry ride is quite impressive as well and never gets old. Expect however things to be extremely windy which can be unpleasant if the day is cold.

Snow and ice are great in the winter. Central park has various skating rinks (Lasker in the North for example is a skating rink in the winter and  a outdoor swimming pool in the summer). There are also many places in the parks where families to ‘hit the slopes,’ and you can use a regular cardboard to slide or get a better looking one at any sports store. Last but not least, for kids, skiing is fairly easy from NYC. Even if you don’t have a car, take the Harlem 125th train Metro North station, and head for Patterson – about 1h40 minutes and very easy. From there, a free shuttle will go to Thunder Ridge (5 more minutes), a small ski resort that’s perfect for kids to learn skiing with a long green slope that comes from the top to the bottom of the main hill.  Otherwise, Mountain Creek in New Jersey  is the closest (and a little more interesting for adults) but requires driving, about 1h20 minutes door to door.

As to other activities, the Y has many locations all over the city and can offer classes for all ages in things that go from hip-hop to swimming or soccer. These classes are excellent and reasonably priced. It’s usually possible to arrange it during a week-end and back-to-back in order to have a sequence of things to do. Note that one does need to be a member to sign up for an activity at the Y.

Another challenge for families is schools. On the positive, NYC has implemented a free public pre-K program so that’s something to take advantage of. This program is open to public schools as well as many private programs. Going to K and beyond, schools achievements can be unequal but people tend to overweight the importance of a school district because, I can only assume, there is a quantitative measure publicly available on the site of the Department of Education. I’ll offer some thoughts about this.

Some public schools have an excellent reputation through their specialized dual-language programs, see for example PS. 84 Lilian Weber for a French or Spanish dual program. These programs are designed to combine native speakers and non-native speakers and teach in both languages. They are separate from the school and benefit from collecting the most adventurous families. For tiger moms and dads, NYC has developed a gifted and talented program which includes a test exam (yes, a test for a 5-year old!), so this requires some active training by parents – not my cup of tea. Further, gifted and talented programs give a lot of homework, as we have heard from other parents whose kids joined these programs. Perhaps there is a great upside to this in the future though. Another option is private schools, and it is not widely-known that there are some excellent but not excessively pricey private schools run by religious institutions. The diocese has very good schools with excellent traditional education (e.g., Corpus Christi on 121st); other denominations have great schools as well, as I’ve heard very satisfied parents. Note that these schools are very respectful of diversity and do not impose the school’s belief on children or parents. Lastly, there are some amazing private schools that give you some of the best teachers and activities, for small families of one or two, this usually cannot go wrong. For example, the School at Columbia is Columbia’s university magnet school with experience-based education and was recently handed a distinction for science education, in person by president Obama.

A few more remarks. A great thing about the City is the number and variety of playgrounds, and it’s a pleasure to vary across the many options which can often be at walking distance. During the summer, most playgrounds have water fountains that kids absolutely. I have a few favorites. The Tar Family playground is one of the best with a beautiful pyramid, water fountains and lots of activities, including a sand area. It’s also next to large open spaces in Central park to enjoy a relaxing day. The Hecksher playground is the largest in NYC, and has lots of space and nearly everything – unfortunately, kids love to play in the rocky area and this is not for the faint of heart parent. Third, the Billy Johnson playground is small but it has the best slide of central park and is right next to the Central Park Zoo, a repeat must-see activity.

That’s all I have. If you want to share more tips, feel free to comment below!

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