A Midwestern Bwogger breaks down all the stuff she’s learned about big city life.

Moving from the middle of nowhere to NYC was definitely a transition. I had spent time in cities before, I’d visited New York, but the day-to-day grind of city life, I was unfamiliar with. The city was a big scary place, and when I first moved, I wasn’t sure how I would manage it. Luckily, it didn’t take long for me to feel totally at ease in NYC.

Now, before we go any further, I’ll add a disclaimer: New York is a fairly safe city. Of course, when you have almost 8.5 million people living on a couple of tiny islands, one on top of another, you’re going to get higher crime rates – there are just more people. This is something you should be aware of, of course, but don’t let the “crime-ridden city” stereotype get you. The last thing I want to do is perpetuate that, or give the impression that NYC is inhospitable and scary.

Now with that out of the way, here are some things I learned (either the easy way or the hard way) about living in New York.

Stuff You Might Need

  1. You need good walking shoes. Unless you want to consistently cash out $20 for an Uber ride, expect that you will be walking most places. Get some comfy neutral sneakers that can go with any outfit, your feet will thank you.
  2. On the topic of shoes, I also recommend a good pair of rain boots. When it rains, all the gunk on NYC streets forms into gross puddles, and believe me, you do not want to be putting your feet anywhere near that. I bought a pair of black Chelsea-style rain boots from Target in 2019, and they are still serving me well.
  3. And on the topic of rain, make sure you have rain protection for your body too: a nice raincoat is a godsend, but if you don’t want that, definitely get an umbrella.
  4. NYC is now plastic-bag-free! This is great for the earth, but it means that you need to make sure you bring a bag to grocery stores to avoid having to awkwardly carry your stuff in your hands. Pack at least one nice neutral tote, it will come in handy.
  5. Get a small pocket-size wallet, or even a phone wallet. It’s convenient to just have a couple of cards on you, instead of your entire life in a huge, chunky wallet.
  6. If you come from a Southern state and are worried about the winter: bring from home some sweaters and jackets, but save yourself the hassle of buying a big coat till you get here. You’ll have way more options in NYC stores, and by the time late October rolls around, you’ll probably have a Northern friend or two that can help you out and go shopping with you.
  7. As for clothing in general: chances are, the way people dress in NYC is going to be very different from the way people dress back home, and your style will definitely change. Maybe don’t bring every single item of clothing you own, because you will probably acquire clothing as you spend time here. 

Exploring NYC

  1. My #1 piece of advice here is to not be afraid of looking like a tourist. Especially your first semester. Go to Times Square! Go to DUMBO! Go to the Vessel! Go to all the places you’ve seen in movies that you’ve always wanted to visit! This is for a few reasons: 1. Most of those places are worth seeing once, they’re popular for a reason, 2. You get to make your mom* (*dad, siblings, friends, anyone back home) happy by sending her pictures of you next to cool landmarks, and most importantly 3. Going to the big tourist attractions is a really easy way to learn the subway system. Those places are easy to find, and if you get lost you can very easily get help.
  2. My next piece of advice though is to not just stick to the touristy stuff. Once you feel comfortable navigating the subway, there is so much you can do in the city that isn’t just the landmarks. 
  3. A good way to get out more is to choose a place to eat in a neighborhood you’ve never been to, and then take a couple of extra hours before dinner to walk around in the area, wander, and explore. 
  4. The cheapest, easiest, best way to explore the city is on the subway. Which brings me to…

Subway Tips

  1. The first tip is to just…use the subway. It’s probably not something you’re used to, but it’s worth your time to learn it, even if you mess up a few times in the beginning.
  2. Luckily, the NYC subway system is easy to navigate, especially if you have Google Maps. Just enter whatever destination you want in the app, and it will show you a step-by-step route using the subway.
  3. The 1 train stops right outside of Columbia and can take you right to many tourist destinations, without having to ever switch trains. It’s a great place to start learning the subway.
  4. As a general rule, never enter a subway car that is empty or with just one stranger. If it’s empty, it’s probably empty for a reason, and if it’s just one person, well, better safe than sorry.
  5. If you ever feel sketched out or unsafe in a subway station, find the safety zebra. That striped sign is where the conductor car stops at that station, so if you stand under the zebra, you will always end up in front of the conductor car, the safest car on the train. 
  6. Until you feel comfortable in the city, I would not recommend using the subway alone late at night (think, later than 9 pm). There are far fewer people, and if it’s obvious that you’re new in town, you are a prime target to get mugged. Most likely, you’ll be ok, and with time you’ll blend in more, but daytime is definitely the safest time to be out.
  7. In general, until you feel comfortable, stay with the crowd. If everyone is going somewhere, follow them. If everyone is avoiding something, avoid it too. The locals know what’s up, it’s in your best interest to follow their cues.

General Safety 

  1. Safety is probably the thing I was most worried about moving to the city. Luckily, as mentioned above, NYC is fairly safe, for a big city, and Columbia’s neighborhood and campus itself are also very safe. But if you’re going out, there are some things to keep in mind: mostly, use your head, and keep your eyes open.
  2. Don’t flash your money, or your valuables – that’s just giving people incentive to mug you. And keep an eye on your phone and wallet, pickpocketing happens, and once your stuff is gone, you will never see it again.
  3. Additionally, never carry all of your money on you. If you have multiple cards, bring one. If you have a lot of cash, just bring enough to cover the night.
  4. Something I struggled with a lot is eye contact. In the Midwest, eye contact is just a polite way of saying hi. In NYC, eye contact can be an invitation to talk, or even seen as an aggressive challenge. I try not to make eye contact with anyone unless I am trying to get their attention for some reason, and in general, I keep my head down and keep to myself. 
  5. Avoid dark places at night: alleyways, parks, dark streets. Better take a longer well-lit route than a shady shortcut.
  6. If you feel unsafe, trust your gut, and get yourself out of the situation. Whether that’s changing trains, dipping into a store to get off a street, or taking an Uber home. Don’t risk your safety because you want to save a few bucks, and again, better safe than sorry.
  7. In general, stay away from people offering you things, or from people telling long sob stories. It is most likely a scam.
  8. Walk with purpose. If you’re lost, find a place to sit or dip into a store to look at your phone.
  9. Download the Citizen app. It’s basically just a live map of incidents that have been reported in the past week, and where they occurred. It shows stuff like crime, but also car collisions, gas leaks, and other non-criminal emergencies. You will see a lot more on there than you probably expect, but keep in mind that NYC is a huge city, so the density is not actually that bad when you take into account population.
  10. Finally, I’ll reiterate: be aware of your surroundings, and you’ll be ok. All of this stuff is not to scare or intimidate, but rather stuff to be aware of. Don’t be afraid of NYC, but make smart choices.

Moving from a small town to a NYC is intimidating. It’s a totally new way of life, with a different pace, and a different culture, and it’ll take a little bit of getting used to. Sometimes it can get overwhelming, and sometimes you’ll feel homesick, so take it slow, and if it gets to be too much, carve out a little spot for yourself where you feel comfortable and safe – be that a specific bench in Riverside, or a corner of a library. But even though it’s different, it is undoubtedly the greatest city in the world, and once you’ve gotten used to it, you’ll love it. 

house and fields via Wikimedia Commons