New York: We Like That It Sucks

How dare anyone suggest things could improve.

Hanson O'Haver
The Big Apple

This spring, when I could go inside restaurants again, the first one I went to was Peter Luger Steak House. I hadn't eaten there in a decade, since the night I celebrated my graduation from New York’s $50,000 per year state school. Luger’s had been the subject of some controversy in the ensuing period: The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells wrote that the food is inconsistent, but a meal there always includes “the unshakable sense that I’ve been scammed.” New York City stalwarts were up in arms. Cool chef Eddie Huang wrote in an apologia that, "Peter Luger’s is the greatest steakhouse in the world bar none.” He said it’s good that it’s expensive. The prices make it aspirational, a place for people to go as proof that they’ve made it here. And its brusque waiters are like the mean sales clerks at Supreme (a compliment).

They’re both right. There are dozens of really good restaurants in New York City that I’ve been to exactly once and never felt a desire to eat at again. I could have gotten a much better meal — or even a better steak — at plenty of places, but that didn’t feel like the point. As Huang argues, Luger’s is an outlier in a restaurant world dominated by trends and conformity; while most restaurants are increasingly designed around as many customers as possible, Luger’s is an unchanging institution. The food was good, the waiter was funny, I paid 30 percent more than I would’ve elsewhere, and afterwards when anyone asked if I’d done indoor dining yet I could say I went to Peter Luger’s. A few days after my meal, two guys eating at the restaurant got into an argument. One of them tried to shoot the other, and instead wounded two nearby diners; inevitably, this was cited as evidence that New York is back, baby.

To live in New York is to face a constant stream of indignities: broken infrastructure, vermin, humidity, tragicomic rents, tourists, the Democratic political machine, and so much trash. But to be a real New Yorker is to develop a twisted admiration for these things. Call it posturing or Stockholm syndrome, but when you walk by a poultry house on a residential block in 95-degree heat — hey, you’ve gotta hand it to them. Obviously we complain, but when someone goes too far in suggesting that things should improve, it's clear evidence that they're not really one of us. It's sort of like how WASPy aristocrats love fraying rugs in run-down manors. New York City: We LIKE that it sucks.

I don’t mean this in a “concrete jungle where dreams are made of,” sort of way; New York isn’t good in spite of its basic hostility to life. The hostility is what we want. Here the simplest tasks are still a whole ordeal. Car or no car, grocery shopping is a constant challenge; even finding a decent onion is tough. And, as can be said for everything sold here, the prices! Truly we are the Statue of Liberty’s paypigs — and we can’t get enough.

It’s an ethos that’s infiltrated every aspect of our lives, from our politics to what’s for dinner. When mayoral candidate Andrew Yang said that his favorite subway stop is Times Square, the commentariat rose up. Finally we had undeniable proof of what we’d long suspected: Andrew Yang is not a real New Yorker. Real New Yorkers gripe that Time Square has been filled with tourists ever since Mayor Giuliani kicked out most of the sketchier elements and forced the rest to inhabit Spiderman costumes. Today's Times Square is an insult to the memory of the 1970s, when hustlers paced outside of X-rated movie theaters (possibly selling drugs, too). Times Square sucks now, but not nearly as much as it sucked back then, when we would have liked it. As NYC legend Eileen Myles recently put it, “When I came here in the ’70s, the city was corrupt, dirty, but it was about itself.”

And while the grime and ripoffs used to be more authentic, our commodities remain special — which is to say superior — by virtue of existing here. Luger’s is a prime example, but acquired tastes abound among New York’s gastronomical highlights. From Bemelmans — a too-bright piano bar serving $27 martinis to the rarified strata of rich people who aren’t even hot — to the boiled hot dog, we can’t get enough of things that would be ridiculous or completely forgettable in any other city. In knowing to like these things, we feel ourselves become better New Yorkers, which is ultimately to say better people. This attitude extends way beyond food, of course. For a decade, I got iffy haircuts at the underground barbershop mall on Astor Place that had its entrance decorated with pizza shop–style photos of visits from celebrities like Pussy Posse–era Leonardo DiCaprio.

So much of New York’s quintessential cultural detritus traffics in this paradox. Lou Reed, the films of Martin Scorsese, the entire table of books at any local bookstore (Just Kids, Please Kill Me, Ninth Street Women, Meet Me in the Bathroom, etc.) that function as hagiographic remembrances of grittier times, Fran Leibowitz. It’s there when Eric Adams says Taxi Driver is his favorite New York City movie, but it’s also there when people talk about taxis. Sure, drivers never know how to get where you’re trying to go, and good luck convincing a yellow cab to take you to Brooklyn, but Uber is an evil Silicon Valley import. Sure, everyone mostly uses Uber anyway, but we like yellow cabs.

However inhospitable the city may be, it’s also a delicate ecosystem. All the trash brings rats and cockroaches and ominous oozes. To be clear, this trash is not litter, but the officially sanctioned refuse of 7 million people, sometimes bagged but often just spilling across the sidewalk. We’ve accepted that this is just the way it has to be, to the point that we almost just elected mayor the person formerly in charge of the Sanitation Department. Because this is the way it has to be. We have no room for alleys or even trash cans with lids. Most cities have enforceable rules about not just putting toilets and mattresses labeled “bugs” out on the curb, but New York can’t afford such luxuries. If the city didn’t pick them up, they’d sit there forever.

Which is really the core issue. The fundamental reason New York City sucks is intractable from the main reason anyone wants to live here: people. You can fantasize about reallocating the budgets and progressive taxation and legalizing everything — and I think you should — but there’s no getting around the fact that the city is physically too small. It’s too crowded. There’s just too many of us; if that changed, the city would be worse.

Hanson O'Haver is a writer in New York.