It’s easy to become blasé about New York’s status in our America’s Best Cities rankings.
The city is #1 so emphatically and so often—this year, besides being first overall, it’s first in Neighborhoods, first in Universities and first in Crime Rate (low, not high), Nightlife, Museums, Shopping, Restaurants, Culture, Fortune 500 Companies, Google Trends, Facebook Check-ins, Instagram Hashtags and TripAdvisor Reviews.
Okay, the city is #27 for Weather, but extreme heat and cold just adds a little frisson to the hustle, right? Apart from a few deviations within the Top 10, New York is #1.
The reason is that the City That Never Sleeps also never rests on its laurels. Consider shopping. Much has been made of New York’s growing number of conspicuously empty storefronts in high-traffic areas, with blame heaped on landlords, online shopping and a growing desire for experiences over material stuff.
Yet shopping is always an experience, especially in a glittering international city where every brand needs to plant a flag(ship). For many of New York’s 64.2 million visitors (2018), shopping is integral to the character of the city. Want to keep a stranglehold on your #1 ranking for Shopping? Ignore empty storefronts and build an entire new mixed-use city within a city at Hudson Yards, an 18-million-square-foot, $25-billion project that’s the most expensive real estate development in U.S. history. Then, offer more than 100 stores and 720,000 leasable square feet, and see 80% get snapped up, according to real estate website YIMBY. Give it the high-rise shopping-in-the-future vibe of Dubai and Hong Kong, and add New York’s first Neiman Marcus.
Finally, hear a deafening chorus of boos from critics, architects and haters, and watch hordes of people descend on the Yards to shop and gawk, take selfies at Snark Park, climb The Vessel (the centerpiece of the project’s 14 acres of public space) and be awestruck by The Shed, the development’s performance venue.
Hudson Yards opened in March 2019, and its proximity to the High Line, along with the incessant buzz, will undoubtedly make it a must-see for many out-of-towners wondering how bad The Vessel, the 100 shops and 35 or so eateries—including José Andres’ Mercado Little Spain and David Chang’s Kawi—can possibly be. The fact that Hudson Yards’ retail is essentially a multi-level mixed-use mall experience will be either ideal or a total turn-off. Fortune magazine reports that, for Neiman Marcus, it was precisely the Yards’ mix of retail, commercial, culture and condos—common in the Middle East and Asia—that made it an obvious site.
Of course, high-end retail competition is hot on Hudson Yards’ heels. Nordstrom opened a men’s flagship near Columbus Circle in spring 2019, and the women’s counterpart opens this fall. Nordstrom sees a $700-million opportunity in the New York region, according to Fortune, fueled both by the new flagship and the subsequent online sales that could spin off from it.
New York’s iconic shopping venues aren’t taking the challenge lying down. Sak’s Fifth Avenue has been overhauling its flagship for the better part of two years and looks every bit of-the-moment. And there’s interesting shopping in unexpected places: elsewhere on 5th, Nike Lab has joined Adidas and other athletic powerhouses in creating engaging sneaker-shopping experiences. South Street Seaport is home to the highly-experiential 10 Corso Como, and Appear Here, an international organizer of pop-ups, has set up shop, helping small New York retailers find temporary venues. And over in Staten Island, Empire Outlets is preparing an opening of its first outlet mall in New York this year.
If you’re keeping score, that makes two malls in one year in the famously anti-mall city.
Of course, in order to bite into the Big Apple, visitors first need to get to it, and so the city is investing massively into some of its air transportation infrastructure. JFK, LaGuardia and Newark handled some 132 million passengers in 2017—many of them badly, if customer surveys are to be believed. Now JFK and notoriously unpleasant LaGuardia and Newark are getting $24 billion in improvements designed to make you feel less like you’re enduring a hazing ritual and more like you’re welcome in the city. LaGuardia is even getting an AirTrain to downtown. While LaGuardia now has a new Central Terminal concourse, these are not short-term projects—JFK, for example, will be rolled out in stages until 2025.
In Manhattan, the Moynihan Train Hall is bringing Penn Station into the 21st century, and even if the L subway line between Brooklyn and downtown is intermittently closed for post–Hurricane Sandy upgrades, the shared Citi Bike program is growing. On the water, NYC Ferry now has six routes that provide an entirely thrilling new perspective on the skyline, provided it’s not January. (The waterfront is getting another attraction with the $250-million Pier 55, a park-on-pods that will add to the allure of the growing Meatpacking side of the city upon completion in 2020.)
The takeaways from our lesson in staying on top? Build the future of whatever category you need to dominate, and don’t forget to celebrate the past. Example: the Museum of Modern Art will complete a 30% expansion of its gallery space this fall, and the Metropolitan Museum celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2020.
We trust that the 49 other American cities on this list are taking notes.