A Very Fair Comparison of NYC and Cambridge
This blog might have a history of ragging on Boston (or Cambridge) in favor of New York, and I might feel a little lousy contributing to it, but after having spent my first “working week” (as opposed to “recovery week/end” of which there have been a few) back in New York since I left it a year and a half ago, I can’t help but feel a very strong reaction to the differences between the two. Fair warning that this represents my most narcissistic, “self-exploration” post since that time I thought really hard about what it means that I can’t remember song lyrics for shit.
Let’s start with sleeping. This may be a weird category of analysis, but I seem to need less sleep in New York — I think because New York literally wakes me up. Walk out the door and your pace immediately has to flow in with that of the rest of the crowd. I was doing a Washington Heights to Morningside Heights commute nearly every day and was pulled back into the rapid and impatient pace of morning subway traffic, so that even before I’d settled into the library with my first cup of coffee I was buzzed and awake. Also I was reminded yet again that Harvard’s main library feels like a mausoleum compared to Columbia’s. On the other hand, New York also translates to me being less healthy—less sleep, less running (the commute seems like exercise enough), more bars, more drinking.
Weirdly enough, for a city supposedly built on artifice, I think New York allows for much more naturalized social interactions than Cambridge. In my experience, people in New York are more easily and informally befriended and absorbed into goings-on; social gatherings come together sporadically/organically during a given night while in Cambridge they tend to take a week of pre-planning. Part of this has to do with the crowd — in Boston/Cambridge so far (and this may be my fault) people seem to stick within their occupational crowd, while in New York, friends and friends of friends extend over a variety of interests/activities. Boston seems bubbled, New York networked.
Ok, now for some Cambridge positives. The slower pace of life often allows for more sanity (New York neuroticism is no myth). I am, shall we say, more domesticated in Cambridge than I think I would be in New York. I cook more, I’m more invested in my home environment, my mind is in some ways clearer about what’s going on in my life. Admittedly, I was a feckless undergraduate for most of my time in New York and I spent nearly a year of my working-life living in a cockroach-ed apartment at 151st street, which I mainly avoided by organizing daily happy hours with friends. And my initiation into domestic-heaven may have begun when I moved to Park Slope, where I regularly feared getting pregnant by osmosis. Nonetheless, there is something calmer, quieter, and in some ways more lovely, if not more beautiful, about Cambridge.
Cafes are an interesting question. New York ones tend to have better working environments (Hungarian Pastry Shop in Morningside Heights, Think Coffee near NYU), and I think this is because, despite the fact that Cambridge has a greater number of cafes around it than Morningside Heights, Harvard Square tends to centralize both a student and work crowd in the same square mile or so, making everything (the square itself, sundry coffee stops) feel distractingly crowded. People in New York tend to be dispersed among any number of cafes/delis/restaurants, which means that each establishment, whatever it is, is saved from being overrun by an onslaught of people seeking the one place they can grab both a coffee and a sandwich.
A key question I’ve always wondered about is which place is better (i.e. results in better work) to do a PhD. I’ll let the other tentacles weigh in on this as I think we’re about evenly divided between the two. Personally I’m torn. I was a less focused undergraduate in New York than a graduate student in Cambridge. The energy of New York can be just as distracting as it is inspiring. At the same time, I think there is more talking going on in New York, and I’ve learned much more about what it takes to actually do history through conversation than through reading (which is partly why I like to engage in talking’s poor cousin, blogging). And it’s possible that the discipline that a PhD demands might give one the ability to harness the city’s energy in the interest of completing a dissertation. In any case, consider the floor open for your opinions, complaints, accusations of urban snobbery, as well as examples of reduction, misrepresentation, and nostalgia to rival my own.