Sydney versus New York City

Okay, people endlessly ask me about the differences between these two cities and which one I like best. Up front I have to say, hello? Born and bred in Sydney! What do you think I’m going to say? But I’m a reasonable person, I can give an actual opinion unswayed by the fact that me, my mother, my father, and my sister were all born in the one hospital (which no longer exists, alas) in inner-city Sydney. I can forget the fact that my whole family and many of my friends are there, that I tasted good whisky for the first time there, read the majority of my favourite books, my favourite movies, did the majority of my schooling there, including high school, my undergraduate and graduate degrees, and that there is no city in the world that I know as well as I know Sydney, I can overlook all of that, and give a fair assessment of the differences between the two cities.

Sydney  New York City
The Weather
The FoodThe BarsThe Wildlife

Pretty much perfect. I am a total wimp. Can’t stand the cold. One time I looked up the cities around the world that rarely drop below 10C (55F) in winter and rarely get above 35C (95F) in summer. And guess what? Sydney was bang on. The winters are mild and gorgeous with a tonne of sunlight. The summers are deliciously hot with a fabulous fresh southerly wind to cool you down at the end of the day. There really isn’t an autumn or a spring in Sydney (cause why bother?). The flowers are in bloom all year round.

Almost total crap. Winters are foul and involve snow (uggh). It NEVER snows in Sydney. Summers are vile. Intense heat with no relief at all (except for this year when the winter just kept on going, until one day it was suddenly replaced by vile hot humid summer). NYC has no cooling winds. Spring is damp and chilly. Autumn on the other hand is the only reliably excellent season. It’s cool, but by September everyone’s dying for things to get cool. And it’s crisp cool not freeze-your-tits-off cool. The farmer’s market is full of the most amazing apples and tomatoes you ever tasted. The trees all change colour. Spectacular. Beautiful. Compensates for the vilely cold days and the stinky hot ones. A NYC autumn is great for wearing (Sydney) winter coats.

Superb. (Except for Mexican, NEVER eat Mexican in Sydney.) Tetsuya’s, Rockpool, Boathouse. I could go on and on. But the fabulous thing about Sydney is that it’s not just the over-the-top high end places that are amazing. There’s places like Singapore Gourmet too. Where two of you can stuff your face for less than AU$15 (US$10). There are noodle joints in chinatown where you can stuff yourselves for less than AU$10 (US$7). (And you don’t have to tip.) The Thai food is so good it will make you weep and I’m not just talking about Sailor’s Thai. The fruits. Oh my God! In summer there’s rambutans and mangosteens and pineapples and mangoes and longans and lychees and everything that makes a person smile. In winter there’s custard apples. All year round you can get sugar bananas. The fruit and veg in Sydney is just amazing. I could go on and on and on.


Also superb. (Except for Thai, NEVER eat Thai in NYC.) I’m just a block from Frank’s, and Supper, Prune, and The Tasting Room are pretty damn close too. There are more excellent vegetarian restaurants than anywhere else on the planet (my current favourite—Counter). Had my first raw food restaurant experience here—way richer than I had expected. Good. Possibly addictively so. Then there’s the joys of cheap Mexican, like San Loco. Cheap Ukrainian. There’s fabulous Ethiopian, Venezuelan, Indian and Korean. There’s organic produce everywhere you look. A wonderful farmers’ market at Union Square five times a week. You can get almost anything you want (if you’ve got the money for it) from caviar to arugula to Reese’s Peanut butter cups (something you can’t easily find in Sydney). There’s even a peanut butter restaurant.

Sydney has more of a pub culture than a bar one. There are lots of fab pubs that I like a lot, but none of them makes me as happy as my favourite bars in NYC. I know, I know, I’m a hideous traitor. Would it make things better if I say that James Squire Amber Ale is way way way better than any American beer? Comparisons are so invidious. Okay, how about: There’s no NYC equivalent to the humble RSL or Lawn Bowls Club where you can buy four drinks with a ten dollar (Aussie) note and be given change that you’re not expected to hand straight back as a tip (and you have the added pleasure—if you’re a bloke—of having the old codgers hiss at you to take your hat off, "Show some respect, son!"). Plus you get to play lawn bowls. There’s no where to play lawn bowls in NYC.


I can admit it when NYC is way ahead. And when it comes to bars NYC wins hands down. Not really a contest. Though it makes me sad to say it, the bars in NYC piss all over those in Sydney. The majority of bartenders know how to make every cocktail under the sun. There are bars with superb food. There is no Sydney equivalent to Veloce (great Italian wine and fabulous panini), to Decibel (an unbelievable number of different sakes, not to mention great dumplings, edamame and any other Japanese snack food you can think of), to any of the hundreds of other bars I could name.

Sydney wins. Our birds are more beautiful: rainbow lorikeets, sulphur-crested cockatoos, the unbelievably beautiful black cockatoos. Hell, even pesky myena birds are better looking than any NYC bird. Flying foxes, possums, penguins, lizards, skinks, foxes (okay they’re evil and bad—but they don’t have them in NYC). Sharks. Tropical fish. We win! We win!


Birds: seagulls, sparrows, pigeons. That’s right, they only have the crap birds. There are squirrels, but who cares? They’re just rats in drag. They got rats out of drag too. But we got those in Sydney too. Tougher and bigger. NYC is very animally deprived. Their cockroaches are small and can’t even fly.

I could crap on about how foul the Eastern Suburbs are, the North Shore, Sutherland Shire, but it would be sheer prejudice. I’m a firm believer you have to live in a place for a while before you have the right to say it sucks. I don’t always follow that precept, but, hey, this is written down, not bitching with my mates. I’ve only ever lived in the inner-city. Places like Annandale, Camperdown, Chippendale, Newtown, Stanmore. There are differences between them but they’re not huge. What would I know about Chatswood or Vaucluse or Sylvania Waters? I’m sure they’re all lovely.


I’ve covered a much bigger area with the places I’ve lived in New York City than I have in Sydney. Two boroughs: Manhattan and Brooklyn. Six different neighbourhoods: Hell’s Kitchen, Upper West Side, Cobble Hill, Lower East Side, East Village and Washington Heights. In Manhattan I’ve lived all the way down on Houston and as far up as 188th Street. The only one I didn’t enjoy was Hell’s Kitchen and with such an excellent name I really tried to like it.


Possibly the most parochial city in Australia. Definitely the most hated. There’s way more to Australia than just Sydney. But neither is it the seat of all corruption, vice, crassness and self-infatuation. ("And totally forgets the rest of the country exists—especially the western third—that little bit where your friend Helen lives".)*


Possibly the most parochial city in the USA. Definitely the most hated. There’s way more to the USA than just New York City. But neither is it the seat of all corruption, vice, crassness and self-infatuation. (I’ve many friends in the USA who live outside NYC—I’m sure they would agree that the big apple "totally forgets the rest of the country exists".)
Roof tops

When I was twelve or thirteen, me and my friend Michal climbed up onto the roof of my parents’ house in Annandale. I think we had recently seen To Catch a Thief and had visions of fleet-footed running from roof top to roof top. We ran and leapt, all the time talking a million miles an hour, gossiping about school, exclaiming about the view, and how cool it was to be running around like Cary Grant’s body doubles. We didn’t come across anyone else up there. Just birds. Later that day while Michal and I were at the movies, my parents answered the door many times to complaini
ng neighbours who had not only had to deal with elephant thuds on their roof but could relate loud snatches of twelve-year-olds scintillating conversation which my parents gleefully quoted back at me when I got home. Apparently in the south of France (or on that Hollywood backlot) the noise doesn’t carry quite as much as it does in Sydney.

I had a lot more success up on the roof of various buildings at the University of Sydney (sadly, the access to almost all of them has now been blocked). Up on those roofs the only other people you’d see would be workers toiling endlessly to stop the Main Quad from falling to pieces. There’d always be signs that other non-workers had been there before you: empty beer bottles, cigarette butts, grafitti, yet we never ran into them. The views up there! 360 degrees. The city, Glebe Point Island Bridge, the Harbour Bridge, the harbour. On one of those crystalline, perfect days when the air is so clear everything stands out in sharp relief you could see all the way to the Blue Mountains. So beautiful. I miss home. Sometimes October seems a very long way away.

New York rooftops are a whole other world. You can live in an apartment block right smack dab in the middle of town and find escape by climbing the stairs and going out onto the roof. This year we watched the Fourth of July fireworks from a friend’s rooftop in Brooklyn (I love Brooklyn). We sat up there drinking champagne, oohing and ahing the fireworks from the four barges in the East River with their Manhattan skyline backdrop, the Empire State Building, the Chrsyler. There was a crescent moon. It was spectacular. Though confusing: I kept wanting to yell "Happy New Year!" I mean hot weather, champagne, fireworks, what else could it mean? (Though, naturally, Sydney New Year’s Eve fireworks are better.)

Up on the roof of our eight-story building you can see the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges, the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings (My verdict? Chrysler prettier by day, Empire State by night). We’re taller than most of the buildings close by. So we can look down at all the other people on the surrounding roofs, sunbaking, escaping the heat, reading, hanging out with their mates, drinking a beer or two at the end of the day. You can see water towers, and rooftop gardens stretching in all directions. Some looking like minature rain forests, elaborate and expensive, and clearly employing several gardeners, others simply a matter of a few plants in pots. The light, the breeze, everything is different up there. There’s so much sky. Down on the ground in Manhattan you can be forgiven for forgetting there’s a sky at all. For having no idea about the spectacular sunsets. Up on the roof everything’s glorious.


I was lucky enough to receive a government-funded Australian Research Council (ARC) Postdoctoral Fellowship which meant that for three years (think of it!) I had funding to research and write full-time about science fiction in New York City in the forties and fifties. When that fellowship ended the University of Sydney stepped in and continued my funding for another nine months. Both institutions thought my work was important enough to support it. Without that funding I would not have published my first book or have a contract for my second or be very nearly finished a third. It transformed my life and turned me into a real scholar and writer. I could not be more grateful. There are very few countries in the world that have such long-term research fellowships available.

However, when in Sydney, whenever I was at a party or in a situation where the what-do-you-do question came up I would tell the person and once they had grasped the concept of a research fellowship I would get the following response: "Geeze, nice work if you can get it! So you’re telling me the Australian government pays you to sit around and read science fiction novels? Must be nice. I’m so glad my tax money’s being well spent." I’ve never encountered this response anywhere else in the world.

When I first went to university I was so jazzed at the prospect of finally getting to sit in a room full of my peers who were all excited about ideas and writing. At last! I thought. The shock of that first English tutorial. There they were the same people I’d been in high school with. They still couldn’t be arsed doing the readings, they still rolled their eyes when anyone ventured an opinion. There was still only one or, at most, two students in the room (other than me) who’d not only done the reading, but was itching to talk about it. It was pretty much the same throughout my undergraduate degree.

Sydney is full of smart women and men pretending to be dumb, affecting to be more interested in sports than in anything intellectual (as if the two are somehow antithetical. Where did that ridiculous idea come from?) I’ve never heard anyone in Sydney describe themselves as an intellectual without then apologising for it. Sometimes I don’t miss Sydney at all.


I know very few people in New York City who are full-time researchers working on their own projects. The PhD students are mostly funded from year to year (though I know some who are funded for only a semester at a time) and that year’s funding does not include the summer months. Australia has a postgraduate allowance that is an untaxed stipend that runs for three years with the option, if you need it, of a six month extension (in Australia PhD programs are thesis only—no course work—so it doesn’t take ten years. The [to my ears] ludicrous notion of All But Dissertation does not exist). You never have to line up summer work. Once you finish your PhD at an American university, there are fellowships available (the majority of them privately endowed). As far as I can tell very very few of them run for more than a year. Let alone the three years of a postdoc, or the five years of the senior ARC fellowships.

However, when in New York City, whenever I was at a party or in a situation where the what-do-you-do question came up I would tell the person and once they had grasped the concept of a research fellowship I would get the following response: "Wow. The Australian government is fully funding your research here? That’s amazing. You must be a hell of a scholar. What an incredible opportunity for you. Can you tell me more about it?"

My friends who went to NYU, Columbia, the New School, Vassar, and other New York universities I’ve forgotten the name of tell tales of all-night phisophical and literary debates amongst ten or twenty of their peers. They talk like these were a regular thing. I have friends in NYC who never went to (or didn’t finish) uni who tell tales of similar evenings. I’ve never met so many interesting and interested autodidacts as I have here. People who’ve read (and understood) Gramsci and Foucault and Judith Butler and Donna Haraway without having been made to. How incredible is that?

I’ve never met anyone in NYC who tried to hide their intelligence. Though I’ve met a tonne who are under the delusion that they’re way, way, way smarter than they actually are. There are lots of intellectuals here who enjoy sports but they don’t feel they have to make a big deal out of it to somehow make up for their being an intellectual.

Swimming Pools

In Sydney there are more swimming pools than there are people. Every person has their own Olympic fifty metre pool. Okay, not really, but everywhere I’ve lived in the city I’ve b
een an easy walk from at least one swimming pool and often two or three. All of them fifty metre. Proper swimming pools.

We also have a tonne of beachside salt water pools. They’re not chlorinated and the water is from the sea—flows in at high tide and flows out at low. (Though never so much that you can’t swim.) They’re completely excellent.

Everyone in Sydney can swim.


There are no Olympic swimming pools in New York City. Or those that exist are well hidden on the top of the Trump Tower or underground and only really rich people can go to them. The public swimming pools are crap. You start your lap and after two strokes you’re at the end of the pool, that is if you can get past the thousands of other people, and actually swim a lap.

I’ve met lots of people my own age in New York City who have never learned how to swim. How is that possible? How do they cope? What kind of a no-diving-in-at-the-deep-end, no-middle-of-the-pool-tickle-fights, no-contests-to-see-who-can-dive-the-deepest-longest-bestest, pathetic, miserable life is that?


Pedestrian Traffic Lights

In Sydney the little green man signalling that you can walk is on for approximately 10.4 seconds. If you are less than hale and hearty you will not make it across before the little red man appears and starts flashing. If you are hale and hearty the flashing red light means sprint for your life: the cars are about to mow you down.

I have seen the less than hale and hearty stuck at the lights for hours cause 10.4 seconds isn’t even enough time for them to step off the curb. Many of the them stick to driving or simply walk round and round the one block, gazing wistfully across at the other side of the road, so near, yet so so far.

In NYC the signal for walk means that you have time to buy a bagel and pick up a copy of The Village Voice before you begin your leisurely crossing. The flashing light means that perhaps you should skip the bagel, but you can still grab The Voice before crossing. In New York City, well, okay, mostly in Manhattan, the pedestrian is ruler of them all.

Except for the insane bastards car drivers who seem to think they can turn a corner mowing down any pedestrians who happen to be legally crossing on account of that four-hour long walk signal. In Sydney there are arrow signals to prevent such a manoeuvere during the 10.4 seconds pedestrians can legally cross the road. If only there could be some kind of trade-off between the two systems . . .


Sexual Harassment on the Street

This is always a difficult one to talk about. There’s still this weird idea that if you mention guys calling out to you in the street, you’re somehow boasting about it. "Hey, I am so damn hot, that this paralytically drunk guy with no teeth lurched across the street, vomited in front of me, and said: ‘Show us your tits, love’. Boy, was I thrilled. Someone out there finds little old me attractive. My day, no, my life, is now complete".

So let’s just skip that crap, eh? You know and I know that most of the time men you’ve never met before in your life feeling free to comment on your appearance (negatively or positively: I’ve had several blokes in Sydney feel moved to tell me how ugly I am) is a pain in the arse. You’ve just lost your favourite jacket, your job, your best friend, and some charming bloke thinks it’s his duty to say, "Give us a smile, darls." Now there’s a killing offence. And even when they don’t say anything there’s that horrible prickling feeling along your skin that you are being looked at, and at any moment someone may be moved to demand you show off your mammaries or perform sexual favours for them.

I hate to say this about my beloved home city but the harassment there is world class. I and my friends have heard more choice misogynist nastinessess in the glowing Emerald City than we’ve ever heard anywhere else in the world. Gross, scary things. Now it could be that that’s because we couldn’t understand what was being yelled in Tel Aviv or Bangkok, or because we lived in Sydney during the peak period of a girl’s life for copping this crap. It’s possible. Let’s just say that none of us, despite being told that one day we would miss the catcalls and invitations to suck a total stranger’s bed flute, are experiencing said sadness as we get older and hear less and less of those oh-so-flattering invitations.

That said an acquaintance of mine met the love of her life, with whom she has now lived happily for more than fifteen years, in a conversation, okay argument, struck up on the streets of Sydney when he offered her a too-graphic compliment and she took him to task for it. He was drunk at the time and still remembers their first meeting with much chagrin. Lucky for him he turned out not to be the man she’d thought on that first encounter.

In the parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan I and my friends live the harassment is much less nasty than Sydney. Like I said this could be because me and my peer group are longer in the tooth than we once were. Maybe the seventeen year olds are copping it every bit as bad as me and my mates did at that age. I hope not. Or maybe we’re more sure of ourselves and less intimidated. I hope so.

That said, there’s a lot more of it. A woman on her own walking down those beautiful New York City footpaths is hit with dazzling smiles, lots of hellos, how’re you doings (yeah, yeah, I know, that’s just friendly), and hears a lot of the kinds of noises people make to attract the attention of their cat. If she responds in any way, the guy will elaborate further with comments on her hair, skin and clothing. (Including the dreaded, "Show us a smile, sweetheart".) Or possibly a suggestion that they indulge in some form of love making together.

New Yorkers altogether seem more inclined to talk to people they don’t know. Especially on the subway, at Madison Square Garden, on the street, in lines for the toilet anywhere at all, and in bars. Women in NYC often comment on the clothing of strangers. Always positively, sometimes a little too positively. One woman on the subway, after telling me that she loved my coat, offered to buy it from me. "Er, no", said I. "Thanks though, quite happy with coat". I have even been so bold as to tell the occasional resplendent stranger in this fine and well-dressed city how fab their coat/hair/tattoo is, though I always keep walking to make it clear it’s a strings-free compliment.

I’ve got nothing against compliments, me. Just, you know, as long as a fella doesn’t think it entitles them to anything. Begad! Did I write that? Could have leapt from the pages of a Georgette Heyer novel. (Not that that would be a bad thing—given that she was one of the twentieth century’s most talented humorists. And invented a whole new genre. I’d love to invent a new genre. Who wouldn’t?)

List subject to growth. Stay tuned.

*My friend, Helen Merrick from sunny Perth, made me add that bit. No comment, says I.

New York City, 22, 28 June and 6, 24, 25 July 2003