SF vs. NY: Which is Better, Really?

Lightning Storm - Golden Gate Bridge

America’s two greatest cities. On the left coast, we have that shining bastion of the west, San Francisco: open your Golden Gate, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair, etc. To the East, there’s New York: concrete jungle where dreams are made, the city that never sleeps and other Liza Minnelli lyrics.

These are the only two urban centers many of us would ever deign to live in (not counting commuter friendly parts of the East Bay, adjacent NYC boroughs, occasional ventures to New Orleans and Austin and of course several major destinations in Europe) and with good reason.

As demonstrated by above songs lyrics, several major motion pictures, key pieces of American literature and even a couple of sitcoms, these really are the places to be. Below, see a comparison between the two major American cities that dominate their coasts. I don’t like to think of the relationship between the two as a rivalry: it’s more like affectionately competitive siblings. They’re both clearly from the same family that includes other noteworthy cities (London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Rio) but each of them has gone out of their way to assert very independent identities. By the way, if you were to ask either city about the competition they would both state without hesitation that there is no competition, as both clearly feel entitled to the title of best U.S. urban center.

But you know, when you’re the best you don’t need to say that.

History

San Francisco and New York both share strong Native American roots that were eventually usurped by early colonialism. For Californians, it’s Spanish, for New Yorkers it was originally Dutch (“old New York was once New Amsterdam.” Remember?). While both cities have worked to preserve their early colonial landmarks (San Francisco has our Mission and assorted early adobe settlements dotting the Bay Area, New York has a smattering of Dutch and eventually English colonial settlements and landmarks associated with the later era founding fathers), there’s also still the occasional hint of families and names associated with the earliest era of western settlement in both cities. A few “Knickerbocker” descendants still exist in the New York social register while, every now and then, you find a ranchero family connection in San Francisco or (more frequently) someone who can trace their lineage back to the Gold Rush. The rich histories of both cities are a source of pride with a special emphasis on survival in both narratives. San Francisco has gone through boom and busts, major cultural upheavals and the occasional (knock on wood) devastating earthquake, while New York has come out on the other side of major crime-waves, urban decay and terrorist attacks. New Yorkers are more overtly assertive about their survival abilities (which is their right) while San Franciscans are more resigned to quietly keep living here until foreign invaders retreat and seismic upgrades secure things for the next generation.

Diversity

Arguably the biggest similarity between the two cities (and the source of their mysterious superior urban powers) is the diversity of their populations. You know why no one gets excited to move to that city in the middle of that state that’s filled with just white people? Because there’s nothing exciting about a mass of sameness (not that we have anything against white people — Caucasians have allegedly contributed a lot to society). The port nature of coastal cities has always attracted a wide range of ethnic groups, races and refugees fleeing less interesting places. Anyone that’s too extreme for their places of origin generally seeks out either city, and we’re glad you do.

Food

The ethnic diversity makes for great eating with the following exceptions. Anyone ordering Mexican food in New York (especially San Franciscans and other Californians) will be severely disappointed. It’s nothing personal, but I’ve had better takes on Mexican cuisine in Ireland. Likewise, I’m sure New Yorkers will flinch at anything we refer to as Cuban food or, God forbid, a California bagel. You get bagels, we get burritos, we’re cool.

Neighborhoods

Our enclaves on both coasts are cherished natural resources. It’s with pride we announce that we live in certain neighborhoods and woe is the person who claims we reside in the Castro when we know we’re really Mission dwellers or someone claiming that technically, you’re just on the other side of the Chelsea border. Look, we know where we live so please, don’t argue with us. Usually, it’s cab drivers that want to debate the finer points of residential geography, which is an irritating habit in someone you have to tip.

Gays

We have the Castro (and everywhere else), they have the West Village (and everywhere else). Credit where credit is due: Stonewall begat Harvey Milk (although we had our own gay uprisings in the early ’60s in San Francisco prior to the famous 1969 riot in New York), but we’re two cities both highly informed by our queer populations. Again though, credit where credit is due: San Francisco is the only city I’ve ever been in where people regularly ask you what your preferred pronoun is. Score one for San Francisco sensitivity.

Gentrification

Yeah, they’re realities in both cities. You know what I noticed on my most recent trip to New York? The crappy new ticky-tacky condos in Williamsburg look almost identical to the ticky-tacky condos in the Mission. Is there one crappy architect for all these projects? Now, score one for New York: not once did I almost get pulverized by a tech shuttle in Brooklyn.

Transit

Admittedly, New York wins for better transit system hands down (runs 24 hours, goes greater distances, actually works), but San Francisco Muni wins for better transit system…with a guarantee of living theater on each journey! Yes, you get the homeless that make panhandling announcements on the L train and kids on the 6 selling candy for band uniforms, but where else but San Francisco can you see a drag queen shaving her legs (or doing a “re-tuck”) on the bus at 9am? Whether it’s a loony discussion of socialist policies in Weimar Berlin on the 22 Fillmore or actual performance art on the 49 Mission, our transit can’t be beat for entertainment value.

Escapes

In New York, it’s the Hamptons, the Catskills, etc. In San Francisco, it’s Napa, Guerneville, etc. New York NEEDS escapes from the summer humidity, but, if the weather goes above 80 in San Francisco, we’re more than happy to stay put and enjoy a (November) summer day from the comfort of the city. The Hamptons gave us Grey Gardens, but Napa gives us wine so they’ve both done a lot for humanity in their own ways.

Cultural references

We’re not going to run through the complete list of films, music, television shows, books and other forms of media that have celebrated each city. Let me just say: Sex and the City could have only happened in Manhattan (because San Franciscans discover their peccadilloes way before Carrie Bradshaw’s age) the same way Full House could have only happened in San Francisco (a three-way gay relationship raising kids in Alamo Square). New York has the Algonquin Roundtable, we have the Beats at City Lights. And for the record, I’ll gladly put Judy Garland singing “San Francisco” at Carnegie Hall up against the original recording of her daughter Liza singing “New York, New York” any day (see what I mean about both cities being informed by their gays?).

Natives

Natives in both cities are becoming rarer and rarer commodities. Rare and fierce. A native New Yorker is just as proud of their city of birth as a native San Franciscan and both see the special distinction as a badge of honor that allows them to tell any newcomers “oh, you should have seen this place ten years ago…things have really gone downhill since that Starbucks moved in.”

You know what might be the real commonality between both cities? We can both give you a thousand reasons why el Lay (although I hear the people that live there call it “Los Angeles”) will never be a contender for this title. I could see myself rooting for the Mets or the Yankees (unless they’re playing the Giants), but I’d sooner drink L.A. tap water than ever say a kind word about the Dodgers.

Related

  • Sandra Whisler

    Oh please. I have lived in the Bay Area since 1988, way longer than the 10 yrs I spent in NYC (74-83). I much prefer living in the Bay Area. But it’s silly to compare the Bay Area with NYC. In many ways, NYC is in a whole different league–way more people, way more kinds of people, way more competitiveness, way more oppression. Daily life in NYC is HARD, HARD, HARD unless you have tons of money. Daily life in the Bay Area just isn’t hard in the same way. You can’t compare being stuck in traffic for 1 3/4 hours with being stuck under the river in a crowded subway car fo 1 3/4 hours. And NYC is one of the centers of the universe in a way that the Bay Area just isn’t. Having the nerve to declare ourselves to be NYC’s equal is just an example of how parochial and small our view is.

    • http://www.facebook.com/thermbeffect rmbeffect

      again, only americans would compare NY vs SF. not the same league. NY is the only american city thats globally comparable; to london, shanghai, tokyo, paris and now hong kong, mumbai etc.

      stop this BS american rednecks. learn languages. get ready cause this the 21st century.
      as a matter of fact im sellin NYC real estate to chinese. and yes, as a european i have all the right to do so, in the country we created.

      its global competition. and NYC life is awesome. survival of the fittest.
      but its still america, so its still easy and laid back cause of..americans. come to europe, you will get ripped apart.
      and the best thing about new york is its not really america. its beyond it.

      • bruce

        There’s a useful four letter word, and you’re full of it

  • tannervea

    Did you just say that NYC and SF are similarly diverse? *slow blink*

  • Pontifikate

    No comparison. (Lived many years in both places) As it’s been said before, NYC is a world city with its 8 million population; SF really is quite small and parochial, pumps itself up and promotes its Bay Area folks in the arts, some who would find it hard to find an audience otherwise.

    As far as diversity goes, no comparison. SF is much whiter. And the “diverse” population is often diverse in name only– many second and third generation Latinos and Asians who are very, very assimilated. In NYC you can find more recently-arrived immigrants (otherwise known as FOBs for “fresh off the boat”) who actually have different customs and dress. It’s easy to be “tolerant” when the “diverse” people are just like you. Even (many) Jews in NY dress in a way that would stand out and might draw (negative) attention in SF.

    As far as self regard, SF really is more boastful “greatest place to live” than NY. Remember “New York, NY is a song and a Hollywood movie, not a song New Yorkers wrote. New Yorkers have little need to boast about their city; they assume they’re in the center of the universe and they’re probably right ;-)

    • http://www.facebook.com/thermbeffect rmbeffect

      new yorkers are not americans. new york is not america. its beyond it and it is the center of the universe. always been and prolly will be. SF and LA will disappear w a coming earthquake soon. prolly.

  • Itsa Mee

    I’ve lived in SF for 8 yrs and visited NYC several X. They are Incomparable. NYC is magic.SF is sprinkled with sparkle dust. One is 8 X better than the other. I think SF is rad, unique and European but it ain’t NYC.

  • kejth

    Get over yourselves! There is no city on the West Coast (or in the US) that can even remotely compare to NYC – and certainly not SF, which isn’t even the greatest city in its own state! NYC’s nearest rival (if it had one) would have to be (yes) LA, but even then, NYC is still leagues ahead.

    SF is more like a quaint little town with 800K people, whereas NY is…well, the center of the universe, with over 8 MILLION people.

    Oh, and the end comment about how LA “will never be a contender for this title” truly speaks volumes about SF’s superiority complex. LA may not be anywhere near NY’s level, but it’s undoubtedly the iconic city of California (and the West Coast, really). For some reason, those from the Bay Area just can’t seem to face this reality.

    • mac jay

      Sf is way better. Nyc smells like doo doo and theres nothing but aholes their. If you never been to both go to sf bay area is where it is at. Its where social network is from, and pixar google. nyc was a great city but to the people who live there are a bunch of new jersey gwedos aholes. If it came down to it new york would need california’s help before they need theres. Oh yeah kejth your an idoit sf is the greatest city in california and the country. I rather go to chicago then new york.

      • http://www.facebook.com/thermbeffect rmbeffect

        look i got LA buddies w this mindset. ud rather go to Chicago than to NY because those who are not living in new york are afraid to face the facts. they wouldnt make the cut in new york, its “too much” for them. esp wobbly shallow cali ppl chasing the sun. whining about cold in january here. if i was a young 25-30yr old (which i am) i would really bust my ass to get some experience and live here. than maybe move out, but you miss out on new york braw, you miss out on..life.

        real life is new york. you make it here, you make it anywhere. and the best is, once u work in new york, the whole US bows down. (ok maybe just in finance)

    • William Lhomm

      Are you high? This is California. This is the most beautiful place in the world.
      SF is the nicest, most beautiful city in the world.

      Wow you have more people? Thats fuckin great. Enjoy your dumpy city as you tredge through snow and walk past the projects and thugs on a daily basis. Enjoy the dirty garbage ridden streets and shitty people, im gonna go walk down the block to my beautiful beach,

      • kejth

        None of the things you mentioned has anything to do with how great a city is. Aside from being 10 times bigger than SF, NYC is majestic, culturally & ethnically diverse, economically significant, and globally influential in ways that SF is not.

        The premise of this article – that SF is one of America’s two greatest cities – is completely false. The reality is that SF is just a smallish town with a huge superiority complex. Perhaps if San Franciscans weren’t so busy gushing about how great SF is, they’d realize that their second-tier city is only about as important as Boston, Seattle, or Portland.

        Oh, and here’s a note to all you Northern Californians: stop referring to SF as “The CIty”. It makes you sound really silly, as it’s not recognized by anyone outside of Northern California. “The City” will always be NYC and NYC only.

        • William Lhomm

          Heres a note to you: Shut the fuck up.

          Im from NYC that place is a crowded shitty dump. Where are you from? Kansas? Have you been here? Nobody in there right mind would live in ny if they could live in SF.

          Lol smallih town? ok shithead the bay area has 8 million ppl.

          Yea its bigger more people more economics who the fuck cares its still sucks.

          • http://www.facebook.com/thermbeffect rmbeffect

            stop rambling boi, if a beach is how you measure CITY LIFE go to hawaii. civilized ppl live in NYC, and go to SF to get your women, your beaches and whatever they want. everything else is country in this shit. and im european, and even whole US is country to us europeans. suburbian waste of lives.

            but we respect New York. like we should respect a lil bitch american tryna act up till he gets slapped up

          • William Lhomm

            I feel sorry for your mother

          • William Lhomm

            even though i fucked her last night

  • jdizzl

    wait, sf compared to london paris… hah… no. not even close. nyc destroys sf in so many ways as an urban city. I’ve lived in both, I love both, sf is just sooo tiny and chilled in comparison. SF should be compared to Boston on the east coast …not NYC. Nothing SF can do though, any city outside NYC in the U.S. is just a massive downgrade in urban form and things to do. Need to go places like Hong Kong, Tokyo, or Paris for something more comparable.

    • http://www.facebook.com/thermbeffect rmbeffect

      well said. spoke my mind in a “nicer’ manner

  • swizz chard

    I need a proper summer filled with sitting outdoors and never needing a jacket – NYC for me!

  • tewkewl

    Okay, Here’s my take.

    There are similarities in the sense the both Cities have an urban mass. No other cities in the US can compare with the concentration of people, restaurants, etc. NYC is the most concentrated city in the US when looking at population density. SF is number 2.

    NYC has a much larger number of restaurants, but SF has a greater number of restaurants per capita.
    In actuality, SF is rather small and manageable at 7×7 miles. This has significant implications in any comparison. What it boils down to is that in any comparison, the SF Bay Area must be included, not just SF. NYC is not just Manhattan. The East Village in Manhattan is really telegraph avenue in Berkeley, not anywhere in SF. Does that make sense?
    But really, I think it comes down to the stage of your life.

    When in NYC, I never came across anyone who was from SF and moved to NYC. However, in SF, half my friends had moved from NYC.

    So what I noticed is that my friends in SF from NYC were all in their 30s and 40s. The reason for coming to SF was because they liked City life, but couldn’t stand City life. make sense? SF gave them the opportunity to live in a big city, but still enjoy a degree of openness associated with living outside the city.
    NYC is all about frenetic pace. That feeling that you are missing out if you don’t put yourself out there. The feeling that you have something to attain. I felt this a lot less in SF.

    In fact, what I realized is that NYC is for people that are trying to “find” themselves or trying to become the person they want to be.

    SF is for those who have already found themselves and for the most part have come to terms with who they are.

    Basically, it’s where New Yorkers go when they grow up.

    There is no question about it, there is no place better to be 20 something if you’re out to “go get em” and climb up that ladder.

    But in your 30s? 40s?

    Look, I’ll tell you from my experience with people in this older bracket. We’d rather spend our days sipping a nice Meritage from one of the local wineries while watching the sun set over a vineyard than be waiting in line to get into the latest meatpacking hotspot.

    Since New Yorkers will often attack SF with the line about NYC being a world city while SF is not… it’s not really a fair comparison. The reality of the matter is that it’s more like comparing Paris to Provence. Rome to Tuscany.

    NYC is Paris and Rome. SF is Provence and Tuscany. I don’t know why no one has mentioned this before. Perhaps it’s because, for all their clamoring about the sophistication of NYC or SF, the responders really haven’t been out of the country and are actually products of provinciality themselves!

    In the end they are both “world cities” but in different ways.
    Also, do you like nature or don’t you?

    Simply put, the grandeur of the NYC skyscraper’s are absolutely no match for the majesty of God’s nature in places like Muir Woods, Stinson Beach, or even sailing the Bay. If you’re from New York and haven’t seen Muir Woods, Half Moon Bay, Point Reyes, you really have no right to argue about the hegemony of SF vs NYC, as you’re not getting the whole picture.

    You’re not going to find the same density of all night hang outs where people are hot and bothered in SF. NYC is the place for that. Anyone trying to compare SF’s nightlife to NYC’s is somewhat deluded. I mean, sure, I’d place it squarely at #2, but the sheer magnitude of the difference is profound.

    But if you want to drive 40 minutes to enjoy what is often regarded as the best food and wine pairing in the country at St. Francis Winery in Sonoma for a mere 50 bucks (where they actually pour you some of the best wine you’ll ever try), and then spend the rest of the afternoon in a tipsy bliss sitting on the winery lawn looking out over the hills while holding your SO’s hand and drinking some world class moscato, then SF is the place for you.

    Simply put, SF offers a better diversity of things to do outside the city. NYC offers a better diversity of things to do INSIDE the city.

    Unfortunately, I no longer live in either place. I still head to NYC a few times a year. But, boy, I’m tired of it now.

    But when I go back for my annual visit back to SF, I find myself longing for more.
    I guess after my experience with both, I am an SFer. but I hope my response provides a different perspective.

  • Jeff Esteban

    I am from Colombia and I visited both cities and NYC felt as if I was in the center of the world, I felt like I was in the middle of the planet and everything else was rotating around me, not the other way around.

    SF on the other hand felt cute, picturesque, friendly locals and pretty natural settings, but it felt in no way like I was on this massive megalopolis where the world congregated, SF felt provincial.

    SF is to be compared to Toronto, Seattle, Vancouver, San Diego, Miami.

    NYC is to be compared to Shanghai, Tokyo, Mexico city, London, Paris, Hong Kong.

    If you want to see The American west coast you move to SF, if you want to see the world you move to NYC!

Author

Tony Bravo

Tony Bravo is a San Francisco freelancer covering fashion, menswear, lifestyle and entertainment stories. He is a regular contributor to The Bold Italic and the San Francisco Chronicle's Style section.

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