SF vs. NY: Which is Better, Really?

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Lightning Storm - Golden Gate Bridge

America's two greatest cities. On the left coast, we have that shining bastion of the west, San Francisco: open your Golden Gate, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair, etc. To the East, there's New York: concrete jungle where dreams are made, the city that never sleeps and other Liza Minnelli lyrics.

These are the only two urban centers many of us would ever deign to live in (not counting commuter friendly parts of the East Bay, adjacent NYC boroughs, occasional ventures to New Orleans and Austin and of course several major destinations in Europe) and with good reason.

As demonstrated by above songs lyrics, several major motion pictures, key pieces of American literature and even a couple of sitcoms, these really are the places to be. Below, see a comparison between the two major American cities that dominate their coasts. I don't like to think of the relationship between the two as a rivalry: it's more like affectionately competitive siblings. They're both clearly from the same family that includes other noteworthy cities (London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Rio) but each of them has gone out of their way to assert very independent identities. By the way, if you were to ask either city about the competition they would both state without hesitation that there is no competition, as both clearly feel entitled to the title of best U.S. urban center.

But you know, when you're the best you don't need to say that.



San Francisco and New York both share strong Native American roots that were eventually usurped by early colonialism. For Californians, it's Spanish, for New Yorkers it was originally Dutch ("old New York was once New Amsterdam." Remember?). While both cities have worked to preserve their early colonial landmarks (San Francisco has our Mission and assorted early adobe settlements dotting the Bay Area, New York has a smattering of Dutch and eventually English colonial settlements and landmarks associated with the later era founding fathers), there's also still the occasional hint of families and names associated with the earliest era of western settlement in both cities. A few "Knickerbocker" descendants still exist in the New York social register while, every now and then, you find a ranchero family connection in San Francisco or (more frequently) someone who can trace their lineage back to the Gold Rush. The rich histories of both cities are a source of pride with a special emphasis on survival in both narratives. San Francisco has gone through boom and busts, major cultural upheavals and the occasional (knock on wood) devastating earthquake, while New York has come out on the other side of major crime-waves, urban decay and terrorist attacks. New Yorkers are more overtly assertive about their survival abilities (which is their right) while San Franciscans are more resigned to quietly keep living here until foreign invaders retreat and seismic upgrades secure things for the next generation.


Arguably the biggest similarity between the two cities (and the source of their mysterious superior urban powers) is the diversity of their populations. You know why no one gets excited to move to that city in the middle of that state that's filled with just white people? Because there's nothing exciting about a mass of sameness (not that we have anything against white people -- Caucasians have allegedly contributed a lot to society). The port nature of coastal cities has always attracted a wide range of ethnic groups, races and refugees fleeing less interesting places. Anyone that's too extreme for their places of origin generally seeks out either city, and we're glad you do.


The ethnic diversity makes for great eating with the following exceptions. Anyone ordering Mexican food in New York (especially San Franciscans and other Californians) will be severely disappointed. It's nothing personal, but I've had better takes on Mexican cuisine in Ireland. Likewise, I'm sure New Yorkers will flinch at anything we refer to as Cuban food or, God forbid, a California bagel. You get bagels, we get burritos, we're cool.


Our enclaves on both coasts are cherished natural resources. It's with pride we announce that we live in certain neighborhoods and woe is the person who claims we reside in the Castro when we know we're really Mission dwellers or someone claiming that technically, you're just on the other side of the Chelsea border. Look, we know where we live so please, don't argue with us. Usually, it's cab drivers that want to debate the finer points of residential geography, which is an irritating habit in someone you have to tip.


We have the Castro (and everywhere else), they have the West Village (and everywhere else). Credit where credit is due: Stonewall begat Harvey Milk (although we had our own gay uprisings in the early '60s in San Francisco prior to the famous 1969 riot in New York), but we're two cities both highly informed by our queer populations. Again though, credit where credit is due: San Francisco is the only city I've ever been in where people regularly ask you what your preferred pronoun is. Score one for San Francisco sensitivity.


Yeah, they're realities in both cities. You know what I noticed on my most recent trip to New York? The crappy new ticky-tacky condos in Williamsburg look almost identical to the ticky-tacky condos in the Mission. Is there one crappy architect for all these projects? Now, score one for New York: not once did I almost get pulverized by a tech shuttle in Brooklyn.


Admittedly, New York wins for better transit system hands down (runs 24 hours, goes greater distances, actually works), but San Francisco Muni wins for better transit system...with a guarantee of living theater on each journey! Yes, you get the homeless that make panhandling announcements on the L train and kids on the 6 selling candy for band uniforms, but where else but San Francisco can you see a drag queen shaving her legs (or doing a "re-tuck") on the bus at 9am? Whether it's a loony discussion of socialist policies in Weimar Berlin on the 22 Fillmore or actual performance art on the 49 Mission, our transit can't be beat for entertainment value.


In New York, it's the Hamptons, the Catskills, etc. In San Francisco, it's Napa, Guerneville, etc. New York NEEDS escapes from the summer humidity, but, if the weather goes above 80 in San Francisco, we're more than happy to stay put and enjoy a (November) summer day from the comfort of the city. The Hamptons gave us Grey Gardens, but Napa gives us wine so they've both done a lot for humanity in their own ways.

Cultural references

We're not going to run through the complete list of films, music, television shows, books and other forms of media that have celebrated each city. Let me just say: Sex and the City could have only happened in Manhattan (because San Franciscans discover their peccadilloes way before Carrie Bradshaw's age) the same way Full House could have only happened in San Francisco (a three-way gay relationship raising kids in Alamo Square). New York has the Algonquin Roundtable, we have the Beats at City Lights. And for the record, I'll gladly put Judy Garland singing "San Francisco" at Carnegie Hall up against the original recording of her daughter Liza singing "New York, New York" any day (see what I mean about both cities being informed by their gays?).


Natives in both cities are becoming rarer and rarer commodities. Rare and fierce. A native New Yorker is just as proud of their city of birth as a native San Franciscan and both see the special distinction as a badge of honor that allows them to tell any newcomers "oh, you should have seen this place ten years ago...things have really gone downhill since that Starbucks moved in."


You know what might be the real commonality between both cities? We can both give you a thousand reasons why el Lay (although I hear the people that live there call it "Los Angeles") will never be a contender for this title. I could see myself rooting for the Mets or the Yankees (unless they're playing the Giants), but I'd sooner drink L.A. tap water than ever say a kind word about the Dodgers.