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Living in New York with a family

If you have only visited New York for a quick city break or work trip, it may be hard to imagine actually living here with a family. But locals will tell you there’s nowhere better to raise a child. The wealth of culture and variety of activities on offer make this an exciting city where the entire family can indulge in just about any passion you can think of – although most of it comes at a price.

Where to Live?

Born and bred New Yorkers advocate passionately for their immediate neighbourhood and form a vice-like attachment to the restaurants, cafés and corner shops within their 7-block patch.

As parents, try to be within easy reach of your child’s school. To take advantage of the free yellow school buses which the city provides for every student from age 5 to 11, whether at public/state or private school, find out in advance the routes they run to your choice of school. You may have to walk your kids a few blocks to the nearest stop. If they are older, choose somewhere they can walk to school on their own or consider the bus and subway routes carefully to minimise travel times and transfers. All students who live more than half a mile away (and don’t take the school bus) get a free MetroCard.

Also consider proximity to a park or playground, especially if you will not have outdoor space at home. While gyms, swimming pools and indoor playrooms are common in many apartment blocks, there is no substitute for getting your kids outside for a run around, especially if school sport is limited. If you have energetic kids and/or a large dog you may want to live close to Central Park, to let off some steam.

The reputation of the United Nations International School (UNIS) and the British International School (BIS-NY)situated next door to each other on the East River, means that students travel there from a wide area, even on the ferry from DUMBO, Williamsburg or Long Island City.

Others live nearby in Stuyvesant Town (Stuytown for short, pronounced Stye-town) or the adjacent Peter Cooper Village. These huge, private post-war residential blocks (110 of them) are dotted with playgrounds, basketball courts and other amenities. Right on the doorstep of BISNY is Waterside Plaza, where kids of all ages meet up after school to kick a ball around in the courtyard. However, the wind whistles through this development and it can feel cut off from the rest of the city by the busy FDR Drive (though there is a footbridge). 

The M15 bus, which travels regularly up 1st Avenue and down 2nd Avenue, makes many neighbourhoods from the Upper East Side to Battery Park easily accessible to these schools. Most children cope with travelling on the bus alone by the end of middle school. It is generally considered easier for children than sending them on the subway on their own, although plenty do this too, once they are used to the system.

Money Matters

New York is an expensive place to live with eye-watering rents, especially in Manhattan. Parts of Brooklyn are now very popular and can be just as expensive, especially near a subway stop. But there are some beautiful brownstone houses with backyards if apartment living is not your thing. Of course, you get much more for your money in Jersey City or Long Island City if you are willing to commute. Most people use a broker to find accommodation, but you can look on www.streeteasy.com  to get a good idea of availability and price.

Eating out is a huge part of life in New York. Many locals hardly cook for themselves, and even luxurious apartments can have tiny galley kitchens. With the huge variety of cafés and restaurants on offer, at every price point, you may not mind. However, once you add on the sales tax and tip you can easily spend more than you plan to, whether it’s a deli sandwich (though it will be huge and delicious) or a meal for two at a smart restaurant, especially if you opt for a decent bottle of wine.

Tipping is standard here and needs to be factored in to your budget. The minimum wage in NYC  is lower for restaurant staff, as tips are expected. Be prepared to tip on every customer service transaction, from a dollar a drink sitting at a bar to 15-20% in a restaurant or at your beauty salon. You will be expected to tip your building staff generously during the holiday season – everyone from the building manager to the handyman. Don’t worry about remembering everyone’s names as you will probably be provided with a list in advance!

Public Transport

Taxis and Ubers are reasonable, and easy to find unless you’re leaving the theatre district at 10pm on a Saturday night. Public transport is good value and covers any trip, including transfers. However, the subway system has suffered from years of under investment and many commuters would happily pay a bit more to see it being brought up to date. At least contactless (OMNY) keypads are now being introduced at many stations, but only one in three has an elevator which means anyone with a wheelchair or stroller needs to plan their trips carefully.

Health Matters

Register with a local paediatrician as soon as you arrive, asking your insurance company for a list of approved practitioners. Vaccinations are numerous and compulsory for attending school, and most private schools require an annual summer health check.

In New York you have easy access to every specialist you might need, but check with your insurance first, if you are in any doubt, or you could be landed with a hefty bill.

You can get your prescriptions and any over-the-counter medications at a Duane Read or CVS pharmacy, which are on every block. Many are open late and serve as a mini grocery store too. Sign up for their loyalty scheme to accumulate points and save a fortune.

Weather

New York can be uncomfortably hot and humid in the summer and cold (but often bright and sunny) in the winter. If you are dressed appropriately the climate is generally manageable.  There hasn’t been much snow in recent years, but you will need boots and a long coat, hat, scarf and gloves on most days from December to February, and a sunhat, sunglasses and light cotton clothes from May to September. The spring and autumn/fall are normally beautiful!

If you are stuck in the city with children over the summer, head to the outdoor public pools and water playgrounds. You can always retreat inside a shop or restaurant to cool off in their A/C. Most bookstores have a café and are a good place to spend a couple of hours – no one minds if you sit and read one of the books off the shelves. The museums, galleries and public libraries are also good places to visit in the midday heat.

Safety

Most parts of New York are as safe now as any big city, which means you should stay alert at night and stick to well-lit streets as much as possible. The rougher neighbourhoods tend to be in Harlem, The Bronx and in certain parts of Queens, where the violence is centred around drugs and gangs.

Gun laws are strict in New York compared to many other states, with open carry not allowed. However, you may want to check there are no guns, or that guns are safely locked away, before allowing your child to go to a schoolfriend’s home for the first time.

Most schools have strict security with passes for all students and parents checked at entry points. Schools run regular lockdown (active shooter) drills which, unfortunately, become as normal to students as fire drills.

Grocery Shopping

New York streets are plagued with chains of grim grocery stores such as Morton Williams, D’Agostino and Gristedes, which seem to be designed to lower your spirits while simultaneously emptying your wallet. But don’t despair, as just a bit further afield you can find a Trader Joe’s, and the savings will warrant the cost of a taxi home. The range of goods may be limited, but the fresh, quality produce costs a fraction of the price of other stores. There are many organic options as well as hormone and additive-free beef and chicken. The frozen food is well worth a look too. Don’t worry if there’s a huge queue as there are many check outs and it’s all very quick and orderly.

Alternatively, a Whole Foods Market is a good, though expensive, option. Many New Yorkers shell out for a grocery delivery service such as Fresh Direct, but you may find you need a second mortgage to join them.

For Brits craving a fry up, Myers of Keswick sells delicious sausages (bangers) and “proper” bacon plus meat pies, sausage rolls and fruit scones, baked fresh on the premises. You can order on www.mercato.com  for next day delivery or make a trip to browse the shelves. You will find a treasure trove of branded goodies from Heinz baked beans to Twiglets and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, plus seasonal Easter eggs and chocolate advent calendars.

Clothes Shopping

Shopping does not offer the same bargains it used to, or at least not for tourists having to deal with the strong dollar. But if you live here, and are paid in dollars, it will seem more affordable. While the Madison Avenue designer boutiques and famous department stores offer good window-browsing potential, bargain hunters visit TJ Maxx, Nordstrom Rack and Century 21 on a regular basis. Here you can find your pick of designer clothes, sports gear, luggage, handbags and home wear often at ridiculously low prices, especially if you are prepared for a bit of a rummage.

Otherwise, high street stores like Zara, H&M, Gap and Banana Republic are well represented here. Uniqlo has its huge flagship store on Fifth Avenue and is great for basics and padded coats. Also look for Cos and & Other Stories for women’s clothes, Brooks Brothers for classic work clothes for both men and women and North Face for good quality (though pricey) outdoor gear. Paragon Sports is a fantastic sports shop which organises day trips to a local ski resort, including loading your pre-selected rental skis and boots on to the coach for you so you can get on the slopes as soon as you arrive!

Most little girls will love to visit American Girl for a very special treat. Their costly but cute dolls are available in all skin and hair colours, with every accessory imaginable. There is even a doll’s hair salon and hospital (incredibly, if your doll breaks a leg, she is magically whisked into surgery, and a perfect (new) doll (in your doll’s clothes and hairdo) returned to you with a miracle cure! They certainly stand by their product!)

New York Etiquette

It’s quite unusual for New Yorkers to entertain at home in the city, mainly because of their limited cooking and dining space, as well as the risk of the noise disturbing sleeping children in a small apartment. A lot of professionals have vacation homes in the Hamptons, in Connecticut or “upstate”, and if you are lucky you might be invited to join them there for a weekend. Otherwise, most people meet up with friends at bars or restaurants, even if it means paying for expensive cocktails and a babysitter.

If you are invited to someone’s home, it may be less formal than you are used to. You may be told to help yourself to drinks and platters of food, instead of sitting at the table for a formal meal. You may even get a delivery from their favourite restaurant rather than a home-cooked meal; just be flattered that they feel comfortable having you in their home. As in most cultures it’s polite to take a bottle or some quality chocolates.

New York for Kids

Take out a library card with the New York Public Library, and you’ll be able to borrow passes and make reservations for two or four people at nearly all the top cultural institutions throughout the city. Click here for a list of participating organisations.

Everyone knows the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of course, and if you go before it gets too busy it is a wonderful place for all ages. Kids tend to love the Egyptian artefacts above all – especially if they’ve read the Horrible Histories books or studied the period at school. Do it in bite-sized chunks instead of trying to see everything at one go – that’s true for adults too!

The American Museum of Natural History is a given for families. Who can resist the dinosaur exhibition, the planetarium and the famous giant blue whale model? Not to be missed is the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, a former air craft carrier moored on the Hudson River, which boasts an amazing display of aircraft on its desk, and even a Concorde alongside it.  

Kids may enjoy some of the modern art at MOMA or the architecture of the Guggenheim, where they can imagine Mr Poppa’s penguins sliding down the circular ramp.  History buffs young and old will enjoy the Tenement Museum and parts of the New York Historical Society, which had a fantastic The Magic of Harry Potter exhibition not long ago.

Take the train north to visit the Bronx Zoo or the adjacent NY Botanical Garden, which is a great place to stretch your legs and get your fix of greenery. At Christmas there’s a wonderful model railway display which is worth a visit in itself. The small zoo at Central Park is good for primary age children. The park is a wonder in itself, and it’s no wonder that tourists and locals alike flock here on a good day. Every time you visit you will find something different to do from climbing on the rocks to rowing boats on the lake or sailing model boats on the Conservatory Water. In the summer months swim in the outdoor public pool, have a picnic on the Great Lawn, or play tennis or beach volleyball.

Count the turtles in the lake, listen to the myriad of buskers and watch the street entertainers strut their stuff at the top of the steps down to the Bethesda Fountain. For more classical entertainment go to the Shakespeare in the Park performances throughout the summer. Visit the John Lennon memorial at Strawberry Fields, climb on the Alice in Wonderland statue, or let your kids loose at the numerous playgrounds, many of which have been upgraded recently. There are plenty of restrooms and water fountains.   

In the colder months you can ice skate on one of two outdoor rinks at a cost (it’s cheaper if you bring your own skates). On an increasingly rare snowy day, especially when school is cancelled, tobogganing is great fun for all. The best slopes are Cedar Hill (gentle, for younger kids) and Pilgrims Hill (steeper).  

And what about Covid?

Being hit hard by COVID early on, New York took lockdown seriously. For several months the streets were eerily deserted, with a noticeable absence not just of tourists, school children and university students, but also of downtown office workers. Sent home to work, if they were lucky enough to keep their jobs, many of them decamped to their weekend homes or returned to live with their parents, depending on their stage in life.

In June, outdoor dining made the streets come alive once more, with many restaurants setting up sophisticated spaces on pavements, patios and even in the road, with the usual city permits being waived. Even through the winter, many residents braved the elements in order to indulge in their favourite hobby of eating out, especially when limited indoor dining was banned again over the holiday period. Despite offering a take away/delivery service, it has not been financially viable for some establishments, and, sadly, many restaurants from famous names to neighbourhood favourites have closed for good.

Museums, gyms and swimming pools are now open with limited capacity and social distancing measures. Broadway theatres are firmly shut until mid-2021, however, as are cinemas and nightclubs, while sports are played behind closed doors. The city’s government and residents are still taking the pandemic seriously; just about everyone wears a mask even walking down the street. If you don’t, you are likely to be glared at or even shouted at.

Private schools have mostly been open since September 2020, with the option of remote learning, even from another country for those who fled the USA at the height of the pandemic but may still come back.

As for public schools, NYC became the major US city to open all its schools in October 2020 but then it closed them again six weeks later as cases climbed. Only elementary schools were allowed to reopen in early December. At the time of writing, Mayor de Blasio, has just announced that due to declining Covid rates and the impending vaccination programme for teachers, public middle schools will reopen at the end of February (though many will only offer a ‘hybrid’ mixture of in-person and remote learning. There is no plan, as yet, for high schools to reopen.

For more information on schools in New York, please go to the GSGI articles 'New York: education and international schools' and 'Best Schools in New York City considered by expatsor go to each school's individual entry on the 'Good Schools Guide Internationalsearch.

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