Let me tell you—there’s no one way to define a New Yorker

Let me tell you—there’s no one way to define a New Yorker

Let me tell you—there’s no one way to define a New Yorker

“Let Me Tell You” is a series of columns from our expert editors about NYC living, including the best things to do, where to eat and drink, and what to see at the theater. They publish each Wednesday so you’re hearing from us each week. Last month, Things To Do Editor Rossilynne Skena Culgan shared tips for living sustainably in NYC.

What makes someone a New Yorker? Do you have to live here your whole life? Or can "New Yorkerness" be built over time?

I've heard varying opinions on the subject. Some say a person must survive a year in the five boroughs before they can claim the title. Others insist only those born here really get it. Yet others say being a New Yorker is a state of mind. 

Recently, I've noticed some concerning nativism on social media where calling a city resident "a tourist," "a transplant" or "an out-of-stater" counts as an insult. Some act as if the requirement to describe yourself as a New Yorker consists of being born on the B train while crossing the Manhattan Bridge, arriving in this world with a hot dog in hand and uttering a perfectly accented "cawfee" as your first word. 

But I don't believe that. I love that New York is a city of transplants, a town where people choose to live because they've dreamed of calling this place—a place known for its acceptance, its cultural acumen, its diversity, its progressiveness—home. If the residents who uprooted their life from Iowa or Texas (or India or Portugal, for that matter) are chided for calling themselves denizens of New York, there's something seriously wrong with that. Does it make a Queens native any less of a New Yorker if the guy from Biloxi living in Sunnyside also calls himself a New Yorker? No, I believe, it does not. And if someone can scrape together the money to pay for rent here, that's got to count for something, right?

While musing on these questions, I decided to ask the experts—community leaders, cultural icons, politicians, and even a legal scholar—for their opinions. What follows is a round-up of their commentary, a patchwork of thought as wide-ranging and beautiful as this city itself.

So, who is a New Yorker? Let's investigate. 

New York Nico
Photograph: Lila Barth

It's all an attitude 

"This is one of the most frequently asked questions I get in interviews, and oddly enough I still don’t really know how to answer it. I don’t think it’s entirely the amount of time you have lived in New York that makes you a New Yorker. I know people who have lived here for over 10-15 years and it’s hard for me to consider them a 'New Yorker,' but I know some people who have been here for less than 5 years, and I would definitely consider them a 'New Yorker.' I think overall it’s your attitude and ability to take in and give back to the city which really makes you a New Yorker."

Nicolas Heller@NewYorkNico on Instagram

A portrait of Adrienne E. Adams
Photograph: Courtesy of Adrienne E. Adams

Anyone who calls this city home is a New Yorker  

"Our city is home to a mosaic of cultures. As a lifelong New Yorker and native of Queens, where we speak more languages than anywhere in the world, I consider anyone who calls our city home a New Yorker. Whether lifelong residents, immigrants, transplants, or recent asylum seekers, the shared joys and struggles we uniquely experience as New Yorkers unite us. Our historic women-majority and most-diverse City Council reflects this diversity to help everyone find success."

Adrienne E. Adams, Speaker of the New York City Council

New York Transit Museum's Concetta Bencivenga
Photograph: By Marc A. Hermann / Courtesy of New York Transit Museum | Concetta Bencivenga

A New Yorker knows public transit etiquette

"If you know to take your backpack off on a crowded train (and either hold it in front or put it between your legs), you move to the middle of the subway car or bus, you don’t 'box out' around the poles, you give up your seat when needed, and you keep your bags in your lap while riding mass transit; you’re a New Yorker."

Concetta Anne Bencivenga, director, New York Transit Museum

A headshot of Brent Michael Davids wearing a top hat.
Photograph: By Chris Line

'Lenapehoking is right where I am'

"A New Yorker is tied to the land whether they're a visitor or original inhabitant. The Big Apple is part of a much older and larger whole—Lenapehhoking—the land of the Lenape. Lenape are still here, despite the genocide, massive land theft, stolen resources, and a forced diaspora to Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Canada. Whether on the streets, in the parks, at work, or at home, say it with me, 'Lenapehoking is right where I am.'"

Brent Michael Davids, co-director, The Lenape Center 

A portrait of Brandon Collins
Photograph: By JT Anderson

'When you start having arguments with rats'

"When can someone call themselves a New Yorker? I think it’s when you start having arguments with rats in the subway station. When you can yell out, 'Don’t you think about coming near me!' aloud at a station and no one bothers you? That’s when you have become a real New Yorker. What makes a New Yorker a New Yorker? Being gritty, raw and self-aware enough to know that you are constantly teetering on the edge of insanity."

Brandon Collins, comedian and host of Drunk Black History

astor place hair
Photograph: Jonathan Aprea | Astor Place Hairstylists

A hatred of Philadelphia

“We’ve been around at the same location since 1947 and have seen it all. My nickname is actually ‘Jonny New York.’ So I can tell you with some authority that there are many necessary conditions that make a New Yorker a New Yorker—but only one sufficient condition. And that is a natural-born hatred of Philadelphia.”

— Jonathan Trichter, owner of Astor Place Hairstylists, the oldest barbershop in New York

A portrait of Brandt Goldstein.
Photograph: Courtesy of Brandt Goldstein

The intent to remain there indefinitely

"In federal court, there's a very specific definition of citizenship, and it has two parts. It's your physical presence and your intent to remain there indefinitely. Your physical presence is your apartment or house in a particular place—where you and your stuff are. And then the second aspect of it is your intent to remain there indefinitely, which means for the foreseeable future. So things such as voter registration, payment of property taxes, location of your bank account, qualifying to pay in-state tuition, and automobile registration, which is obviously irrelevant because if you own a car, you are not a New Yorker.

If you came to New York because you thought it would be fun for a year, but you plan to go home to Texas? No way. You are not a New Yorker in the eyes of the law, just like you're not a New Yorker in the eyes of New Yorkers."

Brandt Goldstein, visiting professor at New York Law School and author of "Storming the Court"

A woman stands in the doorway of a poster store.
Photograph: Courtesy of Jacqueline Wang

Someone who appreciates the many versions of NYC

“When you come to accept that there exists *so* many versions of New York, each full of different stories, sights, experiences—and while you may never get to meet them all, you’ll certainly die trying. Orrrr when you get Subwaydle on the first try … that is truly an impressive feat and absolutely bumps you up several levels on the ‘true New Yorker’ scale.”

— Jacqueline Wang, COO of Welcome to Chinatown

A portrait of Jeremiah Moss
Photograph: Courtesy of Jeremiah Moss

Finding pleasure in the unrequited love 

"I once heard that Milan Kundera said, 'A European is someone who longs for Europe.' I repurpose that to say, 'A New Yorker is someone who longs for New York.' To be a New Yorker is to yearn for a city always out of reach. If you're wearing one of those shirts that says 'NY ❤️ Me,' you are not a New Yorker, because New Yorkers know this city will never love you back. A New Yorker finds pleasure in the pain of this unrequited love."

Jeremiah Moss (aka Griffin), VanishingNY on Instagram, author of "Feral City" and "Vanishing New York"

A portrait of Nicco Diaz.
Photograph: Courtesy of Nicco Diaz

'A New Yorker isn't born, but forged'

"A New Yorker isn't born, but forged, forged in the flames of chaos. The city is hectic, spectacular, a rush, crushing and miraculous: being a New Yorker means finding beauty in the madness.

P.S. If you haven’t had a chopped cheese yet, you’re buggin’.

P.P.S. If you've never visited the Bronx beyond Little Italy on Arthur Ave. or for a Yankee game, you should think about that." 

Nicco Diaz, special assistant to the executive director at Nuyorican Poets Cafe 

Sarah Haberman stands on stage in a black dress in front of a microphone.
Photograph: Courtesy of Sarah Haberman

Living your private life in a public way

"When you're totally at ease living your private life in a public way, whether it’s openly crying on the subway or experiencing a tense moment with your significant other. We've all seen and been that person, and yet the ability to be so vulnerable in front of perfect strangers is oddly comforting.

When you look at the city’s night skyline, see the thousands of glimmering lights and feel excited that each one could be a chance at reinvention, a new life or a new opportunity—and think ‘only in NYC.’ 

When your closet contains mostly black or dark clothing, and you can no longer walk down the street without getting outraged by people who walk too slowly."

Sarah Haberman, executive director of the acclaimed storytelling nonprofit, The Moth

A portrait of Lissa Lenis standing next to a sign reading
Photograph: By Will Devito

Being the original trendsetter 

“New York is a nationality. As bold as that statement sounds, that’s the true reality for New Yorkers. Being a New Yorker is knowing that you’re top tier in the food chain, without saying it. Knowing that there’s no place like home, even when you hate it. Whenever people ask me ‘Where you from?’ I always say, ‘Queens, NY’ with pride. There’s something about being from the four boroughs (sorry, Staten Island) that speaks volumes.

New York is the original trendsetter for the other states. Speaking for myself, as a millennial and native to this city, I’ve seen the city go through a lot. I think the only people that could call themselves New Yorkers, are people who have the true NY experience. Seeing MTA fare go from $1.25 to $2.75, or seeing the bodegas sell kombucha. Even tragedies that brought us together, like 9/11 or the day after Trump was elected President. You saw the city come together and stand tall. Even through a pandemic, we were NY strong. Deadass, New York is a nationality. And you can’t tell you otherwise.”

Lissa Lenis, comedian, Bodega Kids Comedy

A portrait of Evelyn Kanter in a TV studio.
Photograph: Courtesy of Evelyn Kanter

You’re not a real New Yorker if ...

You’re not a real New Yorker if you:

  • Put anything other than mustard and sauerkraut on a hot dog.
  • Haven’t taken the subway to Coney Island at least once.
  • Haven’t attended an NYC sports team event at Yankee Stadium, Mets Stadium, MSG or Barclays Center at least once (extra points for attending a Ticker Tape parade for a World Series or SuperBowl winner).
  • Order everything online instead of picking it out in the store and schlepping it home.
  • Rely on Uber/Lyft instead of the dozens of locally-owned car services, some in business for 20 years or more.
  • If you have room to store a 12-pack or 24-pack of toilet paper or paper towels.
  • Don’t know the difference between a Co-op and a Condo, or a Doorman and a Concierge.
  • Don’t know that NYC was the first capital of the USA, before Philadelphia and before Washington, D.C., and that George Washington was inaugurated here.
  • Don’t know that On the Town is the greatest movie ever made about NYC, including that “the Bronx is up and the Battery is down and people ride in a hole in the ground."

When somebody can claim to be a New Yorker is easy: When they’ve done all of the above."

Evelyn Kanter, travel and consumer rights journalist and former radio/TV news reporter

A portrait of Ali Solomon.
Photograph: Courtesy of Ali Solomon

Always knowing where to find the scaffolding in a rainstorm

"New York is like that annoying friend we all have: always making you late to things, changing plans, has questionable hygiene. You complain about him to anyone who'll listen. But the minute non-New Yorkers criticize him, you're like, 'Well, you just don't know him like I do.' 

Other signs that you're finally a New Yorker: You update your driver's license with your new city address, then immediately stop using your license for driving. You automatically get into the backseat of a car. You know which direction to walk, even without checking if the street numbers are going up or down. 'Understanding the city's rich history' means 'knowing what that building was before it became an Urgent Care.' When your friend, who you haven't seen in six years, finally visits the city, and invites you to join her at the M&M store in Times Square, you tell her you'll catch her next time she's in town. When it rains, you never seem to have an umbrella, but luckily you know which streets are covered in scaffolding."

Ali Solomon, author of "I Love(ish) New York" 

A portrait of Vincent Cassous
Photograph: Courtesy of Vincent Cassous

It’s a state of mind—and knowing how to mind your own business 

“I feel as though people love to answer this question in reference to a time frame. Is it five years? 10? Do you have to be born here? Being a New Yorker is more of a state of mind—don’t stop in the middle of the busy sidewalk or look out for other people, but mind your own business. And if you’re a Knicks fan, pre-2022, you’re automatically a New Yorker.”

Vincent Cassous, music programmer at the Tribeca Film Festival 

A portrait of Ali Rosa-Salas sitting on steps
Photograph: By Nuvany David

You know the importance of a butter roll 

"You can call yourself a New Yorker when you stayed in the city during a major global crisis. A New Yorker is someone who does not question the cultural significance and nutritional value of a butter roll."

Ali Rosa-Salas, vice president of visual and performing arts at Abrons Arts Center

A portrait of K. Krombie.
Photograph: By Joshua Wright

‘Being born here isn’t a prerequisite’

"New York has been a city of immigrants for four centuries, so being born here isn’t a prerequisite for fitting in. My childhood obsession with the film Midnight Cowboy, which, as it happens, was directed by a man from the country where I was raised, set the tone for what would be my experience of New York with regard to the city’s fortitude and abruptness. In accordance with the film, expressing immediate dissatisfaction with people and vehicles getting in your way may be a sign that you’ve entered the 'New Yorker' realm."

K. Krombie, tour guide at Purefinder and author of Death in New York: History and Culture of Burials, Undertakers and Executions

Ben Crawford as The Phantom, wearing a tux and a white face mask over his eye
Photograph: By Matthew Murphy | Ben Crawford as The Phantom

A big dose of resilience 

“What does it mean to be a New Yorker? I think the word that constantly comes to mind is ‘resilience.’ Covid has rewritten society in so many ways and we’ve all been redefined after the lockdowns, the surges and the moments apart from fellow New Yorkers. We’ve all undergone so many changes, but are thankfully still here—still trying to make something out of ourselves with the help of the Big Apple, good or bad.”

Ben Crawford who has played The Phantom in Broadway's The Phantom of the Opera since 2018 (p.s. Go see the show before April 16!) 

Shelley V. Worrell stands in front of a sign reading Little Caribbean.
Photograph: Courtesy of Shelley V. Worrell

Unbothered by foolishness 

"I’d say you are a peak New Yorker if you survived the pandemic, embrace local communities, learn the language without appropriating the culture and you are unbothered by rats and foolishness aka shenanigans. Also when you are hyped to bounce out of town for the weekend, but even more hype when you are back in your hood like when I’m crossing the Verrazzano! Heyyyyy Staten Island! That aside, when you’re deep in the boroughs Fuhgeddabout debating the natives!"

Shelley Worrell, the founder and chief curator behind caribBEING

The university's chancellor stands with a group of students, all surrounding a mascot.
Photograph: Courtesy of CUNY

Educational expertise 

“You can call yourself a New Yorker when you can name a friend or family member who went to CUNY—or even better, you’re an alum and met your spouse at one of our 25 colleges. CUNY is as New York as the Empire State Building itself. Plus, when traveling to CUNY, New Yorkers instinctively know which subway car to board for the closest exit to campus.”

Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, chancellor, The City University of New York (CUNY)

Claudia Gould stands next to a Mini Cooper.
Photograph: Courtesy of Claudia Gould

You know the alternate-side parking shuffle 

You can call yourself a New Yorker after you’ve come to New York brimming with ambition, found a coterie of like-minded friends, and see yourself, and them, start to succeed in your chosen fields.

What makes a New Yorker a New Yorker?

  • You’ve been through 9/11, Sandy, and Covid, and you still think this is the best place in the world to live.
  • You dread getting up for alternate-side-of-the-street parking but relish the 90 minutes of solitude. (see photo!)
  • You still mourn Barney’s.
  • The serendipity of running into your friends on the street.
  • You walk down Bleecker Street and can’t remember the stores that were there before.
  • You walk around the Village and wonder, where was the original Jefferson Market?
  • Your commute home is the 5th Ave bus.
  • You can walk out of your house in silk pajamas and nobody notices or cares.

Claudia Gould, director of the Jewish Museum

 

Sarah Henry stands in front of sign reading NY At Its Core
Photograph: By Owen Hoffmann/PMC

 

Pride, swagger, rueful realism

"I've always liked the idea that you're a New Yorker when you walk around talking about what used to be here: Colson Whitehead wrote about 'what was there before [being] more real and solid than what is here now.' This of course speaks to the city's defining experience of continuous change, but also to our ownership of the many New Yorks that have had personal meaning to us. And it demonstrates the ability of the city to turn us all into New Yorkers.

As for what makes a New Yorker a New Yorker, I’ve felt that there’s a New York attitude that blends pride and swagger with a kind of rueful realism about the challenges of life in the city. But in truth, there will never be a single definition, because they’re as many definitions as there are New Yorkers."

Sarah Henry, Ph.D., Robert A. and Elizabeth Rohn Jeffe chief curator and interim director, Museum of the City of New York (the only museum dedicated to telling the story of NYC) 

A performer wearing a chicken costume.
Photograph: By Maria Baranova

New Yorkers adore the love-hate relationship

"Someone can call themselves a New Yorker when they complain constantly about the hellishness of the city (the grotesque rents, the crumbling infrastructure, the nightmarish vacancy of so much real estate held as investment property by people who don’t even live here) and yet will viciously defend New York as the best city in the entire world and really the only city to even matter at all." 

Alexandra Tatarsky, clown (Tatarsky is performing at Abrons Arts Center this weekend) 

A portrait of Michael Miscione
Photograph: Courtesy of Michael Miscione

Don't call the subway lines by their colors

"Look, anyone who lives within the five boroughs is entitled to call themselves a New Yorker. But Nassau and Westchester Counties do not count.

But, in my opinion, what really matters is not being a ’New Yorker,’ it is being a ’native New Yorker.’ There is a badge of honor that means something in my book. It means that you grew up here, and those childhood and adolescent years are so important to shaping the person you’ve become. For example, I grew up during the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s. When I meet a native New Yorker my age we have an instant connection, a bond, from having lived through the same formative experiences like crappy subway service; graffiti, drugs, and crime everywhere; the Son of Sam; the Central Park Dust Bowl; disco; the blackout. It was a scary—but incredibly exciting—time to live in the city as a youngster.

There are certain rules for being a New Yorker, and if you violate them you should be taken to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and given a one-way ticket to anyplace-but-here. You do not call subway lines by their colors; there is no green line—it is the 4, 5, or 6. You do not wait to cross the street if there is no oncoming traffic. And you do not drink bottled water if tap water is available. Got it? Good.”

Michael Miscione, the former Manhattan borough historian

Finally, the wise words of an NYC icon

“I call myself a real New Yorker in that my single great requirement for well-being is street life. There is no place in the country larger, stronger, deeper than the street life of New York. I’m indisputably a New Yorker in that it is my native home; I was born and raised in New York. I’ve lived in many other places and have always been drawn back to the city. I experience some fundamental sense of well-being here that I don’t anywhere else.

Millions of people have been getting here and they experience what I just described. They feel the same thing. And they discover that temperamentally, this is where they are suited. This is where they should live. There are thousands of people who long for New York, for its glamour and centrality, all the things that make it the city it is, and they get here and they hate it. New York is a great testing ground for who people are temperamentally, what they know about themselves and what they need. Anyone who feels the way I feel living in New York is a New Yorker."

Vivian Gornick, famed critic, writer and memoirist

Back to blog