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August 17th, 2009:

5 Things about New York City that make America Great (and 4 that remind me of Europe)

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A street vendor hawking umbrellas near Union Square.

In some ways, New York is the most American of cities. Its energy, drive and optimism are emblematic of the American spirit. It is also the birthplace of many great American institutions that have yet to disseminate across much of the rest of the country, like taxi cabs that take credit cards. But with its high density, multitude of languages and pedestrian culture, New York is also the most European place in America.

Below is my list of the top 5 things that make New York (and America) great, and the top 4 things about New York that suck (and remind me of Europe).

–Things that make New York (and America) great:

1: 24-HOUR SUBWAY

The London Underground closes at 11 PM. The Paris Metro stops service at 1AM. And thanks to shoddy maintenance, Berlin’s S-Bahn doesn’t run much at all these days. But while European countries are content to shutdown their subways every evening, New York is the city that never sleeps. Thankfully, neither does its subway system. If you either work the graveyard shift or are just part of the bar-and-club crowd, the world’s only 24-hour subway means you’ll never have to pay price cab fares or wait hours for the morning’s first train.

2: ENTERPRIZING STREET VENDORS

Every major city has street vendors selling “Gucci” bags and shoddy watches, but New York has vendors that sell things you actually need. Take umbrellas for example; no matter where you are in Manhattan, the second a raindrop hits the ground vendors appear on every corner selling umbrellas for only $5. Then there are the fruit and vegetable carts located all over town. I’m not sure about the rest of the city, but the one at my corner is open 24/7, rain or shine. Some might call it crazy or suspicious, but I like to think of it as an example of the American entrepreneurial spirit. One thing is certain: you could never buy a tomato at 3:30 AM in France.

3: FREE DELIVERY, EVEN FROM MCDONALDS

You can get any food you can imagine in New York, often at any hour of the day. And because of the high density and cut-throat competition, restaurants have to deliver—for free. This is even true for McDonalds! I’ll have a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, please—delivered.

4: TAXIS TAKE CREDIT CARDS

Chalk this one up to Mayor Bloomberg. As of 2007, taxi cabs in New York come equipped with interactive terminals featuring GPS, video programming and credit card machines. Now you never need to worry about having enough cash before hailing a cab: just swipe and ride. If only other cities were so civilized.

5: BARS OPEN UNTIL 4 AM (sometimes)

While not unique to New York strictly speaking, 4 AM bar closing times are nevertheless a great institution. Back in my home state of Michigan, the neo-prohibitionists in the state legislature force bars to shut their doors at 2 AM—which means last call comes at 1:30. In New York, 1:30 is nothing more than the half-way point in a good night out. Unfortunately, increasing neighborhood activism means that precious few new 4 AM liquor licenses are issued by the city. The new norm is trending towards earlier closing times. Damn neighborhood associations!

–Things about NYC that suck (and remind me of Europe):

1: CREDIT CARD MINIMUMS

You would think that a city built on banking and finance—where even taxi cabs and street merchants accept plastic—would be paradise for credit card users. But alas, this is not the case. At restaurants and bars across the city, European-style credit card minimums are the norm. I don’t understand why the New York banks that earn a percentage of every credit card transaction allow their rules to be flouted in their own back yard. This is the birthplace of American Express for crying out loud!

2: LACK OF TOILETS

A city that houses 8.3 million residents, 2 million daily commuters and tens of thousands of tourists produces—to put it bluntly—a lot of shit. Early on, the massive market of human needs was exploited by pay toilet operators, like they have in Europe. But this inhumane practice was banned in the 1970s, thanks to the efforts of the Committee To End Pay Toilets In America. Unfortunately, many merchants in New York today do not live up to the promise of free toilets. They build small restrooms and keep them poorly signed and dirty to discourage use.  The net result is that New York City suffers from a chronic restroom shortage. Often the only place to pee is Starbucks, and the lines for their bathrooms are killer.

3: RESTRICTIVE LIQUOR LAWS

New York City might be home to the Godless East Coast Elite, but that hasn’t stopped the city from embracing puritanical liquor laws straight out of the Bible Belt. Liquor cannot be sold in grocery stores, or any store that also sells beer. The few stores that do sell spirits cannot open before noon on Sundays, and often close by 8 or 9 PM in the evening!

4: HORIBLE SERVICE

There are two kinds of waiters in New York City, the ones who are bad because they are overly smug—typically found at your pricey 3-star restaurants, and the ones who are bad because they are perennially out-of-work actors—who are found everywhere else. The horrible European-style service found across New York City is a real stroke against New York’s otherwise unparalleled restaurant scene. Instead of being a gastronomical nirvana, it is more like the snooty restaurant scene in Paris, but with hotdog carts.

Previous topics mentioned in this post:

#6. Chargebacks and Credit Cards

€1. Pay toilets

The American Dream is alive and well

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