My Take on New York City vs. San Francisco

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Now that I’ve started my new job as a UX researcher whose headquarters is based in San Francisco, I expect to be here quite a bit – at least four times a year for the quarterly meeting, and presently for my first week of orientation. While I feel like a fish out of water in this town, I can’t help but continually compare New York and San Francisco – here are my two cents.

Starry Night in MoMA, NYC, and graffiti in the Mission, SF

Let me just caveat that everyone values different things in their place of residence and of course I’ve only spent a week prior in October in SF and this is my third day this trip, but after perusing multiple Quora threads (NYC vs. SF), I can confirm my first impressions of the city with user-generated opinion.

First things first: the cities compete on two entirely different scales. Taking an international perspective, New York City simply features a lot more highly on the global map than San Francisco. New York City has a greater international presence, counting itself among the ranks of Paris, London, and Tokyo, while San Francisco is a more reasonable candidate if you were comparing cities from a domestic perspective. And that level of cosmopolitan, international brand cachet is something I value highly. Times have changed quite a bit since I left Singapore nearly six years ago, but as an adolescent, I didn’t know SF existed and neither probably did my peers. As a foreign-born immigrant, I want my friends and family back in my, y’know, little village hometown to know that I’ve made it in the big city!

Now that we’ve gotten the most glaring difference out of the way, let’s move on to the next major differentiator: culture vs. nature. SF wins over NYC any day for its proximity to beautiful national parks, wine country, and abundance of outdoor and water activities available. While SF is surrounded by the gift of nature’s bounty, NYC is much more vibrant with cultural activities formed by human ideas: museums, theater, fashion, media, and so on. SF isn’t bereft of culture, but it is not nearly of the same caliber as NYC. If I were an alien anthropologist looking for markers of civilization as demarcated by cultural institutions, NYC would take the cake. This culture vs. nature divide also plays out into food – SF, being close to the sources of produce, has unbeatable freshness. I would even venture to say that the median SF eatery has better food than the median NYC eatery. I do love the food in SF.

Some people say that NYC’s cultural centers make it a rich man’s playground. Only the wealthy can truly enjoy hundred dollar Broadway tickets; only the well-connected get to meet media personalities – while technically, parks are free (although what did you just say about parks being white?). Just in the brief conversations I’ve had with people in and from SF, there’s definitely a vastly different attitude towards money and status. For instance, my co-workers tend to express an unabashed striving for being rich and powerful. The nods to wealth are subtle but present. A boss would casually mention owning a condo (on multiple occasions), and on one of our birthdays, a boss mentioned making more money as the top-of-mind benefit conferred with age. For the rest of us underlings without six figure salaries and property, bring on the masstige Tory Burch flats and Longchamp bags!

A combo I would never be caught dead in (but I also have weird style, so, to each their own)

As a foreign-born immigrant who has chosen to live in New York, I am swept up in and a perpetrator of this rat race of status symbols. Gimme the Ivy League dates, gimme the hot doctor boyfriends! Let me into Yelp Elite events, give me private viewings of MoMA – I want it all! In SF, however, there’s an air of humility around your status. Just speaking in broad strokes, the tech industry, which is omnipresent in SF, tends to have flatter company structures and more casual dress. Your boss wears flip flops and hoodies and so do you.

I only have scant information on attitudes so far, but this is my main assessment of the two cities. I’m not saying one is better than the other. Perhaps you prefer the less anonymizing SF where you can really get involved in grassroots culture, perhaps ostentatious status symbols spur you on instead of turn you off. Perhaps you’re a single man bedazzled by the bevy of women in fashion and media, or you’re a single woman who is tired of carrying two pairs of shoes on you at all times. To each their own!


The Author

Singaporean in NYC, analyzing relationships with a boozy brownie in hand.

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