How to Feel Like You Belong in New York

I’m a nester by nature. I just want to belong. An apartment’s not home until all the boxes are unpacked; a new block’s not mine until I have a local coffee shop; a party’s not fun unless I have someone to peruse it with (I’m also a clinger). Nothing fills me with more peace than arriving somewhere and being told to “settle in and call me in an hour.” I love settling in!!!

In New York, though, my eagerness to feel like I belong has required more patience. New cities aren’t hotel rooms; you have to do more than unpack your bags to get the lay of the land. Sprawling metropolitans especially make you work for it. But “to belong” is kind of an abstract concept anyway, isn’t it? It can be hard to pin down what precipitates it or recreate it on a timeline.

I’m two years into my stay in New York, and the city feels both like home and like a strange land. Traversing this in-between has meant getting comfortable with feeling different ways about it on a near-daily basis. More importantly, it’s meant learning to give myself time — to build a network, to know my spots, to point north. Below are 18 New Yorkers who’ve already done this whole dance. I asked them to recall when they felt like they “belonged.” Was it a moment? An era? A nebulous shift in attitude?

“It was the first time I invested in a real piece of furniture. Three years ago I had a dining table custom-made upstate, and I felt like I was an adult.”

Natalie, 36, 15 years in New York

“When I saw my old favorite restaurants close, and then their replacements close, too. Also, when I finally moved to Brooklyn six years ago and realized I should have done it years earlier.”

Rebecca, 36, 14 years in New York

“I grew up 60 minutes north of New York City and, as a teen, I was there once a week. When I was 21, I was living in Hell’s Kitchen and walking across town to Hunter College. It was one of those perfectly beautiful spring days and I was just bopping along, feeling good. Several people stopped to ask me for directions, and I knew exactly how to get them where they wanted to go. I felt like I must have looked like New Yorker, and floated all the way to 68th Street.”

Sheila, 59, 10 years in New York

“There are days when I feel like this city was molded around me – like the streets were paved around the crevices of my body, the buildings extensions of my limbs, the soul of New York an extension of my own. But there are other days where no matter where I am – be it on the block I’ve lived for 18 years or a new, undiscovered corner – I feel I don’t belong. I feel small, insignificant, lost. I feel alone – the strangers on the street don’t see me, the buildings swallow me, the sounds drown out my voice. I feel like an outsider in my own home.

But then I find comfort in my small community, my hometown: the cluster of blocks nestled in the heart of Manhattan. Because New York is really just a bunch of small towns coming together, you just need to find your own. You find your pizza joint where the guys greet you by name, your coffee shop where they know your order. You see the same people on the streets when you walk your dog, you begin to wave. You become familiar with the smells and sounds — the wafts of the halal cart on your corner, the subway whoosh escaping from the grate, your neighbor’s dog that scratches on the hardwood floor above you. You have your space, your community, within a city of millions. And that’s when New York becomes truly magical.”

Sydney, 22, born and raised in New York

“It took that first day. I got my keys out and looked down at this heavy silver thing that said my home was nowhere else but here. I walked past tourists with my key in hand and smugly told them in my head, ‘I get to stay!’ Sure, other shifts came along the way (not being surprised at anything I saw in the subway, being at the ready to tell someone off if confronted, increased sophistication in diet), but that exhilaration of not going home to anywhere but here was instant. I once heard somewhere say that the quintessential New Yorker isn’t from New York. This place is unique — not being from here can actually make you feel ‘belonging’ even harder and faster.”

Nichole, 45, 10 years in New York

“I felt like I belonged immediately, and still it’s never felt permanent.”

Amanda, 30, 9 years in New York

“Born and raised in Manhattan, now living in Brooklyn. I feel most strongly that I am a ‘true’ New Yorker when I travel — my sense of belonging feels most powerful when I leave my city. It pulls me back. I love the deeply unique pace, spirit and energy of New York. I feel out of sync anywhere else. It’s a special kind of homesickness.”

Megan, 23, born and raised in New York

“It definitely took me two years. The first year was about getting my bearings, figuring out the city and trying to find a job. But by my second year I had managed to make real friends, had a job and had moved to my own studio apartment. The shift really came with developing a network here. It’s so hard when you move to the city with almost no contacts. I built that network through work relationships, first in the restaurant industry, then in publishing.”

Leslie, 36, 10+ years in New York

“I moved to NYC after graduate school for theatre and felt at home right away. I lived in the West Village, but all my friends lived on the Upper West Side and couldn’t understand what I was doing all the way downtown. I didn’t know either, but I knew I liked it there. I played the piano and earned my living as a vocal coach and played auditions for Broadway shows. It was a real education in musical theatre and how Broadway works. I musical directed a couple of shows, and I remember feeling upset when I didn’t get a show that I really wanted (I had foolishly told all my friends and  family it was a sure bet!). A good dancer friend cheered me up by telling me, ‘Hey, don’t be embarrassed. There’s four billion people on this planet who don’t give a f*ck!’ It worked.

When my daughter Amelia was born, I had been offered a full-time teaching job at a university in New Jersey, and her mom — a native New Yorker who had been more than patient being married to a freelance musician like me — said, ‘Maybe it’s time to buy a house and go get tenure.’ Prior to that, New Jersey always seemed as far away as Kansas, but her mom was right: We moved and I took to teaching right away. It’s 30 years later and I’m still enjoying it all. I guess I’m very lucky; I live close to the city and now my daughter lives in the West Village. I think she loves it even more than I did. The city does that to you: Whatever you do — music, fashion, business — you feel like you’re in the very center of the universe. And you know what? I think maybe you are.”

Eric, 65, 11 years in New York

“I felt like I belonged in New York right away. Coming from a very conservative Latin American society that I never identified with, arriving to NYC, a city where people are unapologetically themselves, made me feel like I found my place.”

Valeria, 34, 17 years in New York

“I’ve been here 7 years and sort of feel like I belong, but it took me going on a trip to Austin to discover that. It took a stranger in Austin telling me I’m ‘very Brooklyn’ to realize I actually might be the babe I still look around and think I’m not! Inclusion in this city is crazy, I am still searching for community regardless of the fact that my friends are here. But what sucks is I don’t know how to change that. I keep thinking the location is the problem, that if I lived in a bigger apartment or in a different neighborhood, then I’d feel at home. But then I wonder if home is where there’s love and sun and instead I’m living in a city where people are more self-centric and winter is six months long. Sometimes I wonder if this is just an ‘it is what it is’ situation and I should either cope or leave.”

Missy, 27, 7 years in New York

“I was born and raised in Queens. I’ve noticed that I feel a little bitterness toward those who move to New York from other states. To this day I work in gentrified areas that I never would dare be in if it wasn’t for all of the ‘others’ moving in. It truly conflicts me — on one hand, there’s so much art, culture and life that stems from this gentrification, and on the other hand, there’s a feeling of resentment. Why can’t I afford a one bedroom in Manhattan with my boyfriend? My conflict goes deep because I myself am a native New Yorker. I pride myself on being so, and I also scoff at those who are so not New Yorkers. But, am I really doing anything by caring? I have always felt that I belong, a feeling of belongingness that sort of makes me feel that I deserve it more than others.”

Priscilla, 24, born and raised in New York

“It took me three years to begin to feel that I belong here. It’s been a gradual shift and each year I feel more and more at home. It took a lot of time, effort and patience to create the life I want to live here — finding the right neighborhood, job, friends and creative identity has been a constant work in progress full of mixed emotions. I felt lost, alienated, determined, and excited to find my way here.”

Sara, 29, 7 years in New York

“I’ve lived in New York since moving here for college in 2006, and I felt like I belonged once I intuitively knew how to navigate the city without a map, four or five years in, i.e. I could hop off a delayed train and immediately run across an avenue and hop another line. I also can ‘bushwhack’ through the city and still wind up exactly where I intended to be. You belong in the city as soon as you know how to travel it purely on instinct.”

Liz, 29, 12 years in New York

“I grew up in New York (Brooklyn + Staten island) and I still don’t feel like I belong. But working and living here you realize that while New York is pretty rough around the edges, people don’t suck as much as New Yorkers do in the movies. It’s a place where you can literally be whoever you want and people won’t look at you twice; probably because they don’t care.”

Angela, 26, born and raised in New York

“I felt like I belonged when tourists would stop and ask me for directions. This started happening about five years in. I carried myself with more confidence and looked older. I could easily direct people without giving it a second thought.”

Laura, 33, 11 years in New York

“The shift for me happened when I was living in the pitch dark for a week during Hurricane Sandy in the West Village. The daytime involved walking uptown to jump on the first spare outlet you could find, but at night, restaurant and venue owners in the village tried to keep spirits up. From shucking $1 oysters at Mary’s Fish Camp by candlelight (with Mary herself) to an intimate concert at Smalls Jazz Club, I felt that we collectively turned a struggle into something fun. Living in New York, you hit a lot of road bumps — what makes you a New Yorker is your ability to translate the rough patches into unique, memorable experiences.”

Lev, 29, 7 years in New York

“Not sure if it counts that I was born here but I definitely started to feel more like a real New Yorker when I was finally allowed to walk places by myself. I felt that I reached ‘fully-formed New Yorker’ when I figured out how to navigate the subway system on my own. I guess it was in these moments that I started to feel like I wasn’t just a child of New Yorkers, but was one myself.”

Gillian, 20, born and raised in New York

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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