Admit It, Deep Down You Think New York Is Really Just Better than San Francisco in Every Way.

July 15, 2011  |  By
Filed under: Essay

Manhattan juxtaposed with San Francisco at a 1:1 scale

I am standing on top of the Empire State Building in New York, where King Kong once stood, and it’s tempting to try and calculate how many tiny, insignificant San Franciscos would fit into Manhattan. It’s tempting because I had the idea to just levitate all my friends and the whole peninsula across the country and just sort of set it down somewhere by the Statue of Liberty or Staten Island so they could all lead happier, more fulfilled lives.

But then as I was planning my levitation trick I decided to do some research, and to my surprise I discovered San Francisco is actually BIGGER than Manhattan!

In fact, compared to Manhattan, San Francisco is surprisingly big-looking. Physically, the city by the bay is about twice the size of Manhattan at 46.87 square miles vs. Manhattan’s feeble 22.96 square miles. Of course Manhattan has twice the population squeezed into only half the space with 1,629,054 people compared to San Francisco’s 805,235.

So anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, how New York is so much better than San Francisco. I mean, that’s what I kept hearing when I was drinking beer at the Uptown on 17th Street or at Specs in
North Beach. Or when I was having my morning coffee at Café Trieste. All I’d hear was New York this, New York that. It’s where all the REAL artists go. If you listen to what a lot of people say you might
just believe all you need to do to get rich and famous is just pack your bags and move out here.

From Wikipedia

After all, that’s what Wayne Thiebaud did in 1961. After having no luck showing in San Francisco while he was teaching at UC Davis, he decided to drive across the country with his friend Mel Ramos. They had all their canvases rolled up in the back seat and just took them from dealer to dealer until Alan Stone gave him a solo show. Simple. Thiebaud shot to fame as a Pop artist, and now his paintings are worth millions. So if he could do it, why not you? Then there’s Kehinde Wiley and Aaron Young — both of whom went to the San Francisco Art Institute just a few years ago, got graduate degrees at Yale, and then moved to New York and got rich and famous. So why not you?

Yes, why not me? It all sounded so compelling when I was living a block from the Transamerica Pyramid building in Chinatown. The success stories were told over and over like a mantra, but the reality is that artists moving to New York are like wannabe actors moving to Hollywood — there are only so many roles and far too many actors. And out of the actors who actually have a shot, there are very, very few really gifted ones. It’s the same with art. In Hollywood there are thousands of “actors” working as waiters, and in New York there are thousands of “artists” working as art handlers or dishwashers. Seriously.

On the other hand, if San Francisco is so bad, why did Alfred Hitchcock film his masterpiece Vertigo there? Or why did Allen Ginsberg decide to read “Howl” there first? Or more importantly, if I believed in God I would wonder, why did God create some of the best weather in the world just for the Bay Area? For all the New Yorkers suffering from heat waves accompanied by unbearable humidity, or snowstorms that can dump two feet of snow on the city overnight, watching outdoor movies in Dolores Park sounds pretty good.

So why all the New York envy? Isn’t it good not having to run up and down subway stairs all the time? Being pushed and prodded by moms with strollers and old men with strange rashes all over them? Or being yelled at by little kids who learn how to insult strangers from their parents. Last summer a little girl screamed at me from across the street to “get the hell off the sidewalk” when I was riding a bike.

From the 1933 film _King Kong_ by RKO Pictures

So as romantic as all of that sounds, none of it is to be envied. And the crowds, as mesmerizing as they can be when you come to Manhattan for a short visit, can grind even the most sane person down into a shadow of his or her former self. If you don’t watch out the crowds will sap all of your energy and make you very cranky. I’m sure you’ve met these abrasive New Yorker types before, so take my word for it — you don’t want to become one.

But maybe you can blame that on Brooklyn. Manhattan is flooded with people from Brooklyn 24 hours a day, so the Manhattan population figure I quoted is deceptively low. If you add it all together — Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island are collectively called New York City — the five boroughs have a combined population of 8,175,133. And that’s not counting all the tourists! So before you start talking about how you want to move to New York so bad because San Francisco sucks, remember what happened to King Kong.

20 Comments

  1. kal Says:

    love this Chris!!
    “The success stories were told over and over like a mantra but the reality is that artists moving to New York are like wannabe actors moving to Hollywood – their are only so many roles and far too many actors.”

  2. Tyrone Williams Says:

    love this piece!

  3. Jason Says:

    Love the map image!

  4. Dorothy Santos Says:

    This is just incredible! Thank YOU, Mr. Chris Cobb!!!

  5. Matthew Tedford Says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9X_JJeVJLFc

  6. James Gilmore Says:

    The truth is that, for visual artists interested in chasing their dreams of fame, SF remains a provincial backwater.

    OTH, if you are content with the real pursuit of developing your craft and vision, and not worrying about the current hotness and the commodification of style, stay where you are. You’re doing fine.

    Grant Wood claimed that he learned everything he ever needed to learn about art from milking a cow.

  7. random Says:

    You definitely shouldn’t ride your bike on the sidewalk, in SF or NYC. It’s dangerous!

  8. Reid Says:

    San Francisco rules! especially Giuseppes in the Sunset and Irelands 32 on Geary….and you can milk cows in Petaluma. milk Goats in Santa Rosa. drink wine in Napa. pick Garlic in gilroy. eat crab in Bodega bay. and paint ANYWHERE in Northern California (or build your contemporary art piece) and bring it into The City in the back of your Nor Cal pickup truck or drive by Wayne Thiebaud’s house in the Delta or Ning Hou’s gallery in Locke. maybe spend some time talking with Jerry who’s 93 years old and been painting nor cal and the Bay Area since the 1930′s or rent your own space in Locke for 300 a month drive there on weekends from The City and come up with something genius then drive to New York and hit it big.

  9. Tina Benez Says:

    As soon as I make it here I’m moving to Frisco!;D And yes, I call it that too;> <3

  10. h Says:

    New York dont produce Geniuses no more. SF helped produce the greatest Artist of this century… Davonie. Therefore, NY Artists needs to beat Davonie’s Genius to the best… hhhhhEYNOW

  11. h Says:

    *be the best.

  12. Brklyn Says:

    Neither city is that great for the fine art type artists, though both are good for the professional types who do art-affiliated work. The reason they aren’t great for the former is due to the high cost of living. If the fine artist is working 60 hours a week to survive at low wage jobs, they aren’t going to have time to work on their art.

    That said, despite the talk of how expensive SF is, New York is actually worse. Those comparisons often include residential areas of the boroughs that are nowhere near where the action in. You can do a quick price comparison on Craigs List and find quite a few decent apartments for under $1000/month in SF, yet very few in Manhattan, Williamsburg, or Park Slope. You also get more space, maybe have a tiny yard where you can actually grow a small garden, SF’s weather isn’t great as a whole, but it beats NY and actually most big cities around the world. You can move to other regions of the Bay Area and find hotter summers, colder winters, more sun, etc. New York’s weather is the same throughout. Also, SF doesn’t give the impression that tourists and wealthy people own the city, where as you get that feeling throughout Manhattan and tend an increasingly extent Williamsburg. You’ll find most tourists in SF at the Pier, Alcatraz, some museums, in the shopping areas downtown, on the trolleys, the rest of the city is yours. There are plenty of wealthy in SF, but also middle class and poor. Even though California as a whole is behind New York, SF is recovering much quicker than NYC. SF’s unemployment is now 6.9%, while NYC’s is 9.3%. The low wage jobs in SF pay more than low wage jobs in NYC. Far more tech jobs (great if you’re a geek, not so much if you’re a banker, where NYC wins). Nature is more easily accessible from SF. The good universities/colleges in the Bay Area are far more affordable than the good unis/colleges in NYC. NYC does some things a bit better, but I think SF is one of the most livable cities in the US for the long term, NYC is a few places down on that list.

  13. SFtoNYCtoSFagain? Says:

    Your mao mock-up doesn’t make sense. By that logic you should include all the boroughs of New York as well. How much of that map of San Francisco is actually “city” space- tall buildings and night spots- and not just sprawling burbs with a swanky restaurants or cafes sprinkled in (more like what Brooklyn and outer boroughs would be of New York). I am from California, have always had family in San Francisco proper and raised in the Bay area. I have lived in NYC for 5 years.

    I came across this page from a google search- weighing options for moving “home.” I don’t know if it’s a ego thing (or a male thing) that people get sensitive about their cities being called “small.” But the truth is, in comparison to NYC, yes, SF is very small, teeny, tiny, hardly a city at all. There is simply no comparison size wise so it’s kind of a silly comparison to make. If you want to compare NYC that way you can only compare to other cities abroad. Other comparisons, though, I’m sure, have validity. When I was just home over the holidays (staying and driving) in SF I just couldn’t get over how small it is. I kept on thinking, this is it? I don’t mean this in a negative way, to me it was a very small town charm. I had thought for a moment of moving to San Luis Obispo for school, but SF felt like what San Luis Obispo felt to me before I lived in NYC. It actually upset me, because I had wanted to move home but don’t know if I can adjust now.

    Before (sort-of) becoming a New Yorker (if I am allowed to call myself that) when I visited Europe and NYC as a youth I never felt “drained” by the crowds, they energize me. I think it is a huge matter of being aware of your surroundings. No offense, you sound like a buffoon on the sidewalk- riding your bike on a sidewalk? In NYC? I knew better in the burbs of CA as a little kid and if I felt like you were being dangerous I probably would have called you out, too, as a little girl.

    So maybe I ended up here because I was born an “abrasive New York type.” If by that you mean people who aren’t flaky and fake and walking around in their own little dream world and not considering the impact their behavior has on their fellow human beings (like not walking like an asshole). Ok, so low blows aside, I truly do find people here a lot more real than in CA. Shopping for the holidays in SF I seriously wanted to punch every Stepford like robot sales associate with glazed over eyes in the face not to be mean but just to see if they were real or maybe in an attempt to knock them out of their zombie like state. I honestly found the creepy way in which everyone smiled with dead eyes- yes, I’m preceptive enough to know the difference between a smile that might even be 5% sincere and a “I’m dead inside” smile- incredibly draining.

    As far as citing how their are thousands of actors working as servers in Hollywood there are just as many if not more in NYC, for some reason people don’t seem to be aware of how much filming is done in NYC. I’ve thoroughly worked the whole restaurant scene up and down Manhattan and of the hundreds I’ve come across I’m having a hard time coming up with even a handful in my memory that weren’t actors/ models, there might have been a writer or fashion designer here or there. As far as dishwashers, they are foreign, usually from a country in South America.

    Artists as servers? Maybe in Brooklyn? But probably a low paying cafe job, if even at all… The actors have the restaurant industry dominated, so much so that now all restaurants require a photos with a resume. Makes sense, they are good looking and good with people, have an ego and high confidence, and will do anything for money or to get ahead (read: hyper competitive sell out all the way), unlike the mangy self-pitying artists in Brooklyn with too much pride to get off their ass and do anything.

    In considering my move two things you site as negatives are the two things that I am mourning the most- running up the subway stairs- I love that I walk everywhere here, I love public transit and not having to have a car like I decided I really would in SF- and not just in theory- when I’m running up the subway stairs I’m thinking “I f-cking love this, right now.” Maybe it’s like exercise (because it kind of is), at first you hate it, but once you’re accustomed to it you love it.

    Secondly, the weather. I don’t have a car, and I don’t own a home, so the snow gives me no extra responsibilities. (And it really hardly snows here anyways- I wish it did more). I love getting the full four seasons, you appreciate their beauty so much more. We get it less so in the city but commuters who live in CT or Westchester get to experience it even more. Even before I moved here I remember being in my car in CA and it being another perfect sunny day and just wanting to scream. When the weather is always nice I think that people can get stuck in this strange vortex where they forget about the passage of time and the forward momentum of life (and they don’t appreciate the weather, or life, as much). I’ve heard a lot of NYers describe LA this way, and I totally get it, because I felt that way even in Nor Cal, too. This may sound pretty basic, but dressing for the weather makes a huge difference. Of course you are going to hate the cold if you’re risking frostbite with polyester socks and slipping all over the ice with flat shoes.

    So I there are obviously many positives to SF, too, or I wouldn’t be considering moving back (other than that my family is there). There is the fact that it is really hard for me to see myself raising a family in the city, a Brooklyn mom?, no thanks. I should probably be taking advantage of exploring the East Coast more but haven’t got a chance to. There is always the natural beauty of CA, although I obviously knew the wrong kind of people when I did live in CA because all everyone did was talk of trips to the beach or road trips or camping, actually executing them never really happened. People were a lot of talk, not of action. And the people that I knew that actually did do this stuff had their little private family hubs or friends from elementary school they went camping/ hiking with and it’s not something that they shared with others. I guess the idea of making real friends as an adult in SF is daunting to me. When I went to Europe, being from CA, I automatically had a cool factor that made everyone want to be friends with me (maybe with ideas of visiting me and lounging in my pool one day or something like that). I did meet good people but was too naive to realize a lot of them weren’t. I feel this way about going back to SF. I have already had an overwhelming response to the cool factor of having lived in NYC on my trips to SF (so I try not to mention it) but other than that I really worry about making lasting friendships with people there. I feel like I really need advice. Hopefully my rambling can give a window into what one person’s life in NYC is like who has an intimate knowledge of CA, too.

  14. SFtoNYCtoSFagain? Says:

    Brklyn has a really good point about the cost of schools. You cannot beat the quality and cost of schools in CA. Probably why the college students here are all pretentious brats. Who would spend that much on their little precious just so they can live in an adult playground and major in something like film, guaranteeing that they’ll still depend on mommy and daddy for years to come while they “work so hard” at a restaurant job trying to land roles guarding the secret with their life that their parents supplement their income, because that wouldn’t be very bohemian. The so-called “hipsters” and artsy youngsters out here sure do give you a different idea about what the youth of the entire 60′s was really about- 99.9% weren’t revolutionaries, they were spoiled suburban kids!

    Another thing they bring up is seeing yourself here longterm. It is hard to imagine a life here without the money to get away and take vacations. That is the only way to really make it livable for most people who do stay here longterm. And it’s not that you can’t take vacations if you didn’t want to. There is always short trips and car rentals that are actually affordable if you save up. But the way you live you forget that. You think you should be flying off somewhere or not at all. In CA vacations feel more accessible- the road trips etc. I don’t know that they actually are anymore accessible than the options here, but it feels that way.

  15. jholt Says:

    yep, nyc trumps sf. that’s a complete no-brainer.

  16. jholt Says:

    NY residents are happy and content. Should someone imply their city isn’t the greatest, they yawn and say who cares what you think. By contrast SF resident get all bent out of shape and confrontational when anyone points out the obvious, that NY > SF. Ahh, I elect to live in the city that’s at ease in its own skin. NY.

  17. jbud Says:

    Interesting article…

    Just to point out the obvious:

    As for the map:
    New York is not only Manhattan; you’ve got Queens, BK, the Island…

    In your map you superimposed Manhattan over ALL of San Francisco (including South San Francisco, Pacifica)… Really? You are counting Pacifica and South San Francisco??? Okaaaay….

    To be intellectually honest you would have to point out that the only part of SF that could even compete (building/city wise) with Manhattan is downtown SF; and even still downtown SF could only pass for an inferior portion of Manhattan if it were somehow ‘levitated’ there.

    Let’s not forget that SF is much more dirty than Manhattan… Yes Manhattan has rats and they collect refuse in bags on the sidewalk…

    But SF is FILTHY compared to NYC. I live in SF currently, btw. There is not only dog crap, but human crap all over the place in downtown/soma. NYC is super clean in comparison.

    Let’s also not forget that SF’s public transportation is garbage compared to NYC’s; this one is obvious, so I won’t need to go into details.

    Next, NYC is a TRUE international city; every time I go to NYC, I see all sorts of folks from ALL around the world (and not just tourists on a vacation). There are lots of diverse cultures represented. SF is like 50ish% white 40ish% Asian American all over the city. This is fine, but not really true diversity.

    I find that San Francisco is a very provincial city… It is more of a very big town rather than a world class city.

    SF makes a great tourist destination, but beyond that it is lacking. As for a plus, SF is part of a tech boom; let’s hope it’s not another bubble, or this city will disintegrate when it pops.

    SF is also a very racist city in my honest opinion, just on a side note. Blacks are treated with much hostility.

    Also as far as culture, San Franciscans are very mean spirited and passive aggressive on average. They will do mean things, but will never confront you to your face; truthfully, I prefer NYC’s overt aggression. They will be mean to you, but they are mature enough to confront you face-to-face…

    On the last note; one thing I find interesting about the people in SF is that they are waaay too obsessed with proving that they are a real “world class city.” As someone coming from 3 of the real world class cities in the US (LA, DC, NYC), I have to point out that a real world class city doesn’t need to prove that it is one; very much in the same way that a tall person doesn’t need to compile a list of factoids “proving” that they are tall…

    SF people become especially annoying when they try to put other cities down in an effort to feel superior… They seem to be obsessed with LA and NYC, when neither of these cities could give half a damn about SF… And really, who gives a damn about LA? LA is in its own bubble and never thinks about SF… This obsession makes SF people look pathetic, much like the unpopular girl who hates and is always talking badly about a popular girl, and the popular girl doesn’t even know the unpopular girl’s name… lol

    Anyway… This article demonstrates my last point. SF: you just make yourself look petty when you try to put other places down to elevate your status…

    Also, if you are curious about the typical culture that SF people represent (not all, but most as per my experience) check out Stephen Fowler from wife swap… the archetype of a true neo-San Franciscan.

    Just my observations as a guy originally from the West coast who lived on the East coast then moved to SF.

    NYC >>>> SF

  18. donald Says:

    The comparison is meaningless. You’ve compared an apple to an orange. A more meaningful comparison of size and population would be between New York and the counties of San Francisco, San Mateo, Marin and Alameda as a group. A few years after the turn of the century a new San Francisco jurisdiction that comprised those areas was proposed and defeated. It would have approximated what New York did when the boroughs were unified into a single City and is a more apt comparison to New York even today.

  19. Paul Says:

    Really! I have lived in both Cities (any many others) and have to say I know no one in SF who prefers NYC! Maybe you should stop handing out in North Beach.

    They are, of course, nothing alike in any way!
    SF takes pride in the global village. NYC is still a town of ethnic tribes.
    SF is left of left. NYC is becoming more and more right.
    SF does a few things very, very well – tech, film, festivals, food, fancy and the like.
    NYC does everything, a gets it right sometimes.
    NYC is very diverse (and very racist). SF is less diverse (and much more human).

    The Bay and the City are the home of American Pros, the free speech movement, the love generation (however overplayed), the gay right movement, La Raza, the murals project, the American food revolution, the tech and bio tech world! And it (with it’s tiny population) will continue to amaze!

    If a city (NYC) that calls itself the center of the world (and really that’s London) can’t get it right, it would be tragic. So, NYC gets a lot of it right. But this to be expected with 22 million people at your doorstep!
    When a tiny pacific outpost get’s so much right, and with such style, it is quite a story. And indeed, San Francisco is a city of many tales. Maybe it’s the libertine air, maybe it’s the stunning architecture, maybe it’s the freedom to be, without question. But the City has propelled itself into the global spotlight because it has done so much (Art, music, media, fine arts, dance, literature, food, technology, finance, film and so on and so on and so on) with such a short history and with so few people. It is not Paris, London, Tokyo, Berlin and of course, New York. But that is so often folded into the likes of these mega cities says a lot about what’s happening here.

    I like NYC and may live there again, but I have found home. Yes, it’s the libertine air I think.

  20. jdizzle Says:

    I’ll start off by saying I love both cities…but lets get serious, with facts, not feelings.

    SF is a joke of a city in size compared to NYC, it’s like 4x smaller than even Chicago in terms of the actual “city like” parts. Manhattan is packed on almost block with stuff, not single family homes with garages like most of SF… Then there is the other boroughs also.
    Why would you count the metro of SF, they aren’t living in a city. Brooklyn is more built up and dense than SF and 3x larger. Just Brooklyn…
    Sure people might prefer SF, but no… just no.
    Only about the NE 1/4 of SF actually feels like a “city” from North/Beach Marina to the north, west to edge of golden gate park and some of the richmond then south to the castro and mission. I just mapped it out with GIS and it is only about 9-10 square miles. The rest feels more like the suburbs…yes.. SUBURBS of NYC way out, past Jersey City/Hoboken or similar to areas of Staten Island.
    Don’t believe me, just look at the density map.
    http://www.uncanny.net/~wetzel/sfdensitymapwithbart.jpg
    Manhattan is about 70k people per square mile density over 22 square miles. That is *just* manhattan. Brooklyn is 36k density over another 71 square miles. Queens is 22k density over yet another 110 square miles. Still two boroughs to go…still JC/Hoboken…NYC just the city limits and surrounding edge build up making about 400 square miles has more people than all of northern california combined SF, Sac, San Jose, Oakland all the way up to Eureka.
    If you didn’t know, SF is 17k over 46 sq miles.
    Public transit? …SF is terrible compared to other cities like DC, NYC, Chicago or anywhere in Europe.
    SF has 7 subway stops on a commuter rail and a little joke of a light rail…in the entire city! one line going through the city that closed down around 12am-1am! NYC has 468 stops and runs 24 hours! Manhattan alone has 147 subway stations.
    SF certainly feels tiny compared to NYC. I like some things about SF better, but thinking SF offers anywhere close to what NYC does or on a similar level is nuts.

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