The original version of this essay appeared in my personal Substack here.
How do you become a New Yorker?
How does anyone?
The author and journalist Tom Wolfe said, “One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.”
But if you feel unconnected to the city, regardless of how long you’ve been here (but especially if you’re a new arrival), that idea isn’t terribly helpful, even if it is true.
That’s why I’m conducting a New York onboarding program.
How do you deliberately become a New Yorker?
Every person ultimately does this in their own way, but there are things you can do to give you a good start—this act of becoming is not so different than any act of skill acquisition.
Here’s a general model I propose of how people learn most skills:
At first, you can neither perform the skill or discriminate between good and bad performance.
You learn concepts that allow you to discriminate, and explicit rules to guide your practice.
As you keep improving, you recognize more and more rules even as the first ones you learned become intuitive and natural.
At some point, your intuitive model is rich enough that imposing additional rules on top of it decreases performance, and you should stop consciously applying rules and do what is natural.
You start with explicit rules that allow you to eventually build your own intuitive understanding. It’s like any well-constructed 101-course syllabus: you might not know why everything is on it at the beginning of the term, but by semester’s end you should see how it all comes together.
So I’ve put together a syllabus of becoming. A New York 101. I’m Daniel from HR, and I’m here to onboard you to the city.
What is a New York onboarding?
First, what it isn’t: a list of events happening in the city, or a feed of popular venues. Those are valuable, but in the end most of them only tell you how to consume NYC, not become it.
My New York onboarding introduces you to the built environment of the city—its places and its infrastructure; its government; and its institutions. You will encounter fun things during your onboarding, and you will (probably) meet cool people. But those experiences will be nested within a larger integrated urban introduction.
Here are the things you’ll need to do to complete your New York onboarding:
Where you’ll go
- Go to a destination in all five boroughs of the city (park, restaurant, neighborhood walk, almost anything)
- Staten Island
- The Bronx
- Attend a show. A busker in Central Park, Broadway, or anything in between.
How you’ll get there
- Ride a bus four times.
- Ride a Citi Bike (or your own) four times.
- Ride the subway four times.
- Take a ferry at least once
What you’ll learn
- Read a book about NYC (see this list for some starting points). Or, alternatively, listen to a podcast series or consume some other media about the city. If possible, get the book/media by checking it out of the New York Public Library (which means you’d need to get a library card too).
- Read an NYC book
- Potentially: get a library card!
- Pick three NYC-centric blogs, publications, or Twitter accounts to follow.
- Report something to 311, New York’s non-emergency service line.
Who you’ll know
- Join a civic organization (a club, a music group, a sports league, a house of worship, a regular meetup, etc).
- Attend at least one meeting of your local community board. (You can do this via Zoom.)
- Email your city council representative to introduce yourself as a constituent. You can tell them you’re emailing as part of your onboarding process and link to this essay, or make your own short introduction. I suggest a few sentences about why you came to New York and how long you’ve been here.
You might not know what everything on this list is, why it’s important, or how do it. You might not even like everything on it. That’s OK. That’s why the whole process begins with an onboarding call with me (see the end of the essay for the signup). I’ll walk you through the list, and together we can decide how you’ll complete it over the course of about a month.
After you complete the onboarding, you will receive a diploma that I will personally sign and emboss.
But who am I?
I grew up on a farm in Indiana; attended Harvard College and studied political philosophy; spent a lot of my time learning that I didn’t want to be a lawyer; and I’ve lived as an adult in Cincinnati, Cambridge/Boston, and New York City.
I play the piano and saxophone, I write things on the internet, and I have a non-traditional path through the world of employment.
I moved to New York City almost three years ago because I wanted to—easier said than done, but that’s why I did it. I chose it deliberately.
And I can’t help but learn more about the city all the time. I took my first stab at understanding the city government by mapping out the city charter in Roam.
I will email you to set up a meeting online or in person, and we will make a plan for you to complete the onboarding checklist in about a month.
After you complete the plan, you will receive the aforementioned diploma, which will be very cute. I can mail it to you, or we can meet in person for a tiny graduation.
A note on cost: your calls with me do not cost anything. The only thing you’ll have to pay for are the items on the checklist—and most of that is just the cost of public transportation. You can make this as expensive as you want, or not, and I estimate that the cheapest version of the onboarding would cost about $40 (although it could be cheaper if you’ve already paid for some public transport in the form of, say, a 30-day unlimited MetroCard).
I look forward to meeting you, and the city looks forward to welcoming new citizens.