Expat living in Manhattan...how to do it and how to love it, from the point of view of intrepid British journalist and mother of three Sarah Dallas. Everything you need to smooth the way right from your very first day in this amazing city.
It may seem counterintuitive, but New York is a delightful place to raise a family. Children thrive in this dynamic, friendly, sophisticated city with a rich history and wealth of culture. If you are offered the chance to relocate here, and have the financial cushion to make the move a comfortable one, do not hesitate. Your kids will have an experience that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Where to Live?
Neighbourhoods are important in New York. As peoples’ living spaces are quite often (though not always) less than roomy, with little if any outside space, one’s immediate environs assume utmost importance. An unspoken seven-block rule stipulates that everything you need (school, doctor, dry-cleaners, café, grocery, pharmacy, restaurants) should be within seven streets of where you live. Certainly your home should be convenient for the school you have chosen.
UNIS and the British International School attract parents from as far as Brooklyn and Long Island. But most live in the condos, rental apartments and townhouses of Murray Hill (anything below 40th Street is walkable); the Upper East Side (school bus or drive) or Gramercy Park/Union Square/Flatiron (walkable). The East Village is also popular and convenient. Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan, increasingly draws expat families, who use school buses or taxis.
Many UNIS/BIS-NY parents choose to live in Waterside Plaza, the towering apartment complex right next to the schools. The huge convenience factor, plus the very nice swimming pool, just about compensate for Waterside’s windy walkways and rather cramped apartments.
Get acquainted with the housing market before you talk to your broker. The website Street Easy (streeteasy.com) gives a good idea of what is available. Focus on the location you want, and then forward the properties you like to your broker, who can set up the viewings.
New York runs a free school bus service, and most schools have access to it. These characterful yellow tanks, some of which look quite ancient, are widely used and worth considering if your child is old enough (over five). Private school buses are another option—they pick up from your door, a bit like a taxi (so good for younger children). Check with your school to decide the best way of getting your child to and from school.
If you are coming from London or Tokyo, New York will not seem terribly expensive, and some things (taxis, takeaway food, dry-cleaning) will seem cheap by comparison. Once you know where to shop, clothes can also be very reasonable. By most world standards however, Manhattan is an expensive place to live.
You can expect to pay at least $15 per hour for baby-sitting; and $80-$140 for a cleaner. A meal for two at a smart restaurant will set you back at least $150. For tickets to theatres and musicals, prepare to pay upwards of $150 per seat. Private school fees are very high, currently hovering at around $35,000 per year.
Tipping is important in New York. Keep a stash of small bills handy at home, for tipping deliverymen, handy men and so forth. Your concierge and doormen will expect generous tips at Christmas. Tipping in restaurants is usually included in the bill, but check to make sure. If it is not, then double the tax and round the figure up. Taxi drivers expect you to round up the total, at least. At the hair salon, leave your tip of 15-20% with the cashier, who will often provide you with a little envelope that will go to your stylist.
Register with a paediatrician as soon as you arrive; you will need to find one that accepts your medical insurance (your insurance company will have a list of approved practitioners). Children are seen by paediatricians, not general practitioners.
Immunisations are more numerous than in the UK, and many are mandatory. Most schools will not admit your child without proof of up-to-date immunisation. Many also require your child to be tested for lead poisoning. You should always carry your medical insurance card with you—or at least have your insurance membership number written down in your wallet.
You can buy aspirin, painkillers and various medicines at Duane Read and CVS, the city’s main pharmacy chains. Many are open 24 hours and also sell basic groceries (milk, cereal, cookies, etc).
New York’s extreme summer and winter temperatures take many visitors by surprise. From December to February, you will need a heavy-duty winter jacket, proper snow boots, and thick gloves. The average British winter coat and umbrella will not cut it here. Those with babies and toddlers might invest in a mountain-style buggy, as few strollers can cope with the mountains of slush after a heavy snowfall.
Summers can be sweltering. If you’re unlucky enough to get stuck in the city with children in August, dress appropriately and plan your days with care. Sun hats are essential; flips-flops and sarongs quite the norm. Playground fountains are good for cooling down in (ditto the kids’ departments of any Barnes & Noble or Borders) and retreating to air-conditioned interiors is infinitely preferable to braving the steamy sidewalks.
Despite all this, New York women have an uncanny ability to look elegant whatever the weather. Bear that in mind when picking out your winter boots or sandals.
For a big city, Manhattan feels quite safe. The days of hookers in Times Square and drug-dealers on the Lower East Side are well and truly over. Violent crime is falling, and these days, the only neighbourhoods to be especially wary of lie far from the centre, in areas such as Harlem and the Bronx—and even these are gentrifying fast. When out and about at night, of course, it is wise to be alert, wherever you are.
Long-time residents may bemoan the “Disneyfication” of the city, which started under former mayor Rudolf Giuliani and continues under Michael Bloomberg. But for families coming from abroad, it is good news indeed.
New York does have good grocery choices, though at first glance this is not apparent. Grim supermarket chains seem to dominate the landscape. And nothing will confirm your outsider status faster than staggering about with plastic bags from Gristedes, Associated, or any of the other chains that seem designed to kill the appetite.
New Yorkers in-the-know do their weekly shopping online at Fresh Direct, which delivers to the door. For day-to-day groceries, many brave the queues at the wonderful Trader Joe’s (low prices, affable staff and good range of organic food, though tragically, no online shop). For regular splurges, try Dean & DeLuca, Wholefoods or—even better—Eataly. If you’re entertaining, Wholefoods have an excellent catering department, and can deliver.
English expats pining after a sausage roll, pork pie or tin of Heinz baked beans should take themselves to Myers of Keswick, a family-owned British grocers in the West Village (634 Hudson Street).
Wine buffs take note: do not expect to pick up a bottle in your local corner store (though you will find beer). Only licensed wine shops can sell the stuff.
Go to Macy’s for old-fashioned service, and, for foreign visitors, 10% off any purchase (take your passport to show at the cash register). British expats will find Macy’s is the closest they will get to their beloved John Lewis.
Helpful, well-informed staff can also be found at Lord & Taylor’s, which has the prettiest windows at Christmas, and a nice restaurant on the fifth floor.
Loehmann’s is useful for discounts on designer clothes (especially womens’ coats and jackets), while Bloomingdales is a bit more fashionable—perfect for the teenage daughter.
Bergdorf Goodman is perhaps the city’s chicest department store. For smart menswear, try Barney’s.
The stretch of Madison Avenue between East 60th and East 72nd streets is where you will find the flagship stores of all the high-end designers (Prada, Ralph Lauren, Versace, etc).
Many New Yorkers buy their children’s’ clothes and accessories online (or over the phone) at Lands End (good customer service, decent designs). Lands End has frequent sales and free postage and packaging deals – time it well and you will never pay full whack.
Also online is the North Face, a New York favourite for warm winter gear for both adults and kids (jackets, snow boots, etc). You can buy children’s’ shoes online at Zappos, which has an easy returns system (so you can buy several different sizes and return what doesn’t fit). For children’s clothes labels, try mabel.ca.
Gap and Baby Gap are ubiquitous in Manhattan, and also seem to have constant sales and promotions. T.J. Maxx is useful for budget buys for kids. On Union Square, and in other locations, the popular Children’s Place chain sells reasonable kids’ clothes. Also downtown is Ibiza Kidz, at 42 University Place, which sells a smart range of shoes and upmarket accessories. Uptown, Planet Kids, on East 8th St & 2nd Ave, is a useful one-stop shop for clothes and school supplies.
For preppy classics and more formal clothes, try Brooks Brothers, which also has a website (they sell super cashmere jumpers). Talbot Kids (2nd Ave at 79th St & Madison Ave at 54th St) is also useful for slightly smarter outfits.
Dos and Don'ts
New Yorkers love to talk, and their natural gregariousness is on display in shops, cafés, street corners and playgrounds. Don’t be surprised to be asked personal questions by complete strangers (“Where does your kid go to school?” “What does your husband do?”). There is little room for the British reserve in this intense city of vertical living.
Do not, however, expect that this friendliness necessarily extends to anything lasting—deeper social bonds take years to form.
Tread carefully with jokes and British humour. Political correctness is quite firmly entrenched. What you say may be taken at face value, with unfortunate results.
When invited for an informal meal at someone’s home, do not expect to be waited on or hosted in the same way you might in Europe. Seating placements are not the norm, and a relaxed air prevails. You might have to ask for a drink instead of being handed one, and may even be shown the fridge and told to help yourself. Do not read this laissez-faire as rudeness. On the contrary, it is a way of inviting you to feel at home.
For a more formal meal, bring flowers or chocolates for the hostess.
Do not impose your British ideas of how to raise children on your new friends in New York. Though some may agree with old-fashioned discipline, many will view you as stuffy and out-of-date. Be tolerant of different parenting styles, and you will find yourself accepted just as generously in return.
New York for Kids
Try Coney Island in summer. You will be pleasantly surprised. Kids will love the two and a half miles of sandy beach, and there is also an amusement park.
In winter, tobogganing in Central Park is great fun. The best slopes are Cedar Hill (gentle, for younger kids) and Pilgrims Hill (steeper). Both can be reached via Fifth Avenue, at East 72nd and 79th streets.
Also at Central Park, the Zoo (Fifth Avenue at East 64th Street) provides a classic family outing. Take a packed lunch, to avoid the nasty café.
Most New York parents flock to the Botanical Garden in the Bronx (easy to reach by metro). There are regular family events and, at Christmas, an enchanting display of model railways.
Every little girl should be taken at least once to “American Girl”, a huge shop on Fifth Avenue (at 49th Street) selling costly but cute dolls and all their accessories (there is even a dolly hair salon).
Most museums and galleries have special workshops for children, or family programmes. Check the websites before heading out. Young history buffs will enjoy the “living history” tours at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (97 Orchard Street). And few kids will fail to be excited by a trip to the American Museum of Natural History (Central Park West at 79th Street).