The truth about life for Kiwis in the ‘city of millionaires’


“New York is a gruelling place to live if you’ve got bills to pay and dreams to fulfil.”

So says Hayden Withers, a 27-year-old Kiwi who moved to the so-called “city of millionaires” nine years ago to study theatre.

The Christchurch native said he’s had more work than he believes he would have if he’d stayed in New Zealand, but he’s had to fight hard for each role, and “side hustles” are essential to his survival.

“NYC is a tough city to live in, and it’s not worth living here honestly if you can’t afford to enjoy it. Which is hard as an actor because you can spend more time looking for acting work than actually acting.”

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Pre-pandemic, Withers typically held down two to three jobs at a time, often working for 21 days or more straight so he could make ends meet, and take advantage of the cultural and culinary options on offer in arguably the most energetic city in the world.

The instability and relentless pace left him “really unsettled and ungrounded”, so he was almost relieved when Covid-19 stopped the city in its tracks.

Life in NY can be tough for the Kiwis who choose to call it home.

Joshua Earle/Unsplash

Life in NY can be tough for the Kiwis who choose to call it home.

“Honestly it was really cleansing for the soul,” he said.

Finally finding time for artistic projects his busy lifestyle had forced him to put on hold, he made dance videos, raised funds for those on the frontline of the Black Lives Matter protests, built furniture in his backyard, and met and cultivated a relationship with his current partner.

Now working as a production health supervisor for network TV shows as well as acting (his credits include The Drew Barrymore Show, The Last OG, Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin and Awkwafina is Nora from Queens), he still works long hours, but reckons the hard graft is worth it, believing the city’s 24-hour culture, diversity and ability to make you feel you can be whoever – and whatever – you want to be are priceless.

“I think the opportunity and excitement offered here in NYC surpasses anything in the world.”

Frank Sinatra famously sang that if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere and a small subset of New Zealanders have taken that as a personal challenge.

Hayden Withers said New York can be strangely isolating for a city of 8 million, but he’s managed to establish a tight group of friends who he says has been integral to his survival there.

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Hayden Withers said New York can be strangely isolating for a city of 8 million, but he’s managed to establish a tight group of friends who he says has been integral to his survival there.

It’s not so much the American Dream they’re chasing as a desire to prove to themselves, those who know them – and in some cases the world – what they’re capable of. In the process, they experience the excitement (and exhaustion) that comes with life in a city that –as an art, dining, shopping and entertainment mecca constantly in search of the next big thing – doesn’t have time to stop for a second. Or sleep.

But life in the Big Apple, which has just become more accessible to New Zealanders thanks to Air New Zealand’s new non-stop service, can be rough for those who can’t count themselves amongst the 345,000 millionaires and 59 billionaires who have seen it dubbed “the world’s wealthiest city” and the “city of millionaires”.

According to data from Numbeo, a user-contributed database of cost of living statistics, the average monthly salary after tax in New York is 42% higher than in Auckland at $10,061 compared to $5719. New Yorkers need those extra dollars though: The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment is 68% higher in New York at $6862 and the price per square kilometre for an inner-city apartment is almost double at $26,833. Consumer prices, meanwhile, are 47.8% lower in New Zealand’s biggest city than New York.

Musician Sally Gates finds it inspiring being surrounded by other artists at the top of their game.

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Musician Sally Gates finds it inspiring being surrounded by other artists at the top of their game.

Most of the Kiwis Stuff connected with in the city found the cost of living challenging, but all felt it was a price worth paying to reside in a city so perpetually alive. For those with a work-hard-play-hard mindset, the Big Apple – a core centre for finance, the arts and technology populated by proudly tall poppies striving to be the best in their fields – is a bone fide land of opportunity. If you can hack the pace long-term.

Often romanticised onscreen, New York can leave new arrivals feeling disoriented and disillusioned. Initial excitement at being in such a world-famous metropolis can wane when the realities of long working days and living in a sprawling, permanently crowded urban jungle sets in.

Those who stick it out though and are able to find fairly paid work they enjoy and a decent place to live tend to find the city grows on them. They discover a neighbourhood that suits and learn where to head to indulge their particular passions – no matter how niche, they’re albeit guaranteed to be catered for.

Musician Sally Gates said her career opportunities exploded when she moved to New York from Miami in 2018.

Originally from Auckland, the guitarist and composer had been flying to New York regularly to play shows, and was captivated by the “incredibly inspiring” music scene.

Sally Gates has played to crowds across America during her time in the States.

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Sally Gates has played to crowds across America during her time in the States.

“You’re surrounded by the best in the world and people are typically very welcoming and open to collaboration,” she said.

Initially finding the city as overwhelming and chaotic as it was exciting, she nevertheless settled in fairly easily, helped by the network of musician friends she already had there.

Working at a music school before the pandemic and performing with her alternative rock, jazz and metal band Titan to Tachyons after hours, Gates said life could get very hectic, leaving her with little, if any, time to relax or take a break.

She’d been playing to crowds across America for more than a decade, when the pandemic brought her career to a screeching halt, forcing her to find other projects, such as writing a film soundtrack.

“Fortunately during the pandemic there were efforts from the state and non-profit organisations to support artists, with programmes such as City Artist Corps and Creatives Rebuild New York offering grants and guaranteed income to help artists survive through those rough times,” she said.

Also working on an album at the time, she was determined to stick it out in the city where “you can basically experience anything you want to”.

She’s glad she did, saying New York feels like home for her now, although she still considers New Zealand her “true home”.

“I’m not sure how long I’ll be here, but I would imagine another five years at least… I never thought I would live in such a dense city, but I was happily surprised to learn that there are some beautiful beaches not far away in the Rockaways and Long Island. And then if you head upstate, there are incredible mountains for hiking and skiing, as well as a bunch of cute rural towns.”

For her, the cost of living and exhausting sense of overstimulation that can come from being surrounded by people and noise 24/7 are the only real downsides to life there. In her line of work, she says it’s an “uphill battle to stay afloat”, making saving and investing impossible. That said, the higher wages balance things out to some extent.

“You just get used to spending an arm and a leg on a night out.”

Matt Ritchie, by contrast, has found New York to be far more affordable than big-city New Zealand.

“Yes, accommodation and dining and drinking out are more expensive. But when you factor in the higher salaries across all industries, at the end of the day you’ve got significantly more disposable income.”

The 28-year-old architect and photographer, originally from Wellington, moved stateside in 2018 to fulfil a lifelong dream of living “in a big city like New York with endless things to do and see”.

Having never visited before, he was, like all those Stuff spoke with, initially overwhelmed, but he said it only took him a couple of weeks to “fully embrace the energy of the city.

“New Yorkers are incredibly friendly and outgoing and the Kiwi community in NYC became a great network to meet people.”

Until the pandemic struck, his life was a whirl of work, trying out new bars and restaurants, and going to shows and concerts.

“There was just so much to do that anytime not making the most of what the city had to offer felt like a wasted moment.”

When New York became the so-called Covid capital of the world in early 2020, Ritchie couldn’t bring himself to leave, having already fallen for the city hard.

“Going home back to NZ would’ve been the easy option, but also would’ve resulted in me giving up on everything I had worked so hard on – my visa, job, friendships…”

Returning to the office after a few months of working remotely, Ritchie said his life resumed its pre-pandemic normal fairly quickly, so he’s back living that lifelong dream.

“NYC has a real work-hard-play-hard mentality. I feel like I’m constantly being pushed by incredible people around me, that there’s no better place I’d rather be at this time in my life than here… NYC is home for now, but there’s no place like New Zealand so I certainly see myself returning there to live one day.”

Alice Morgan moved to New York after going as far ash she thought she could in New Zealand.

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Alice Morgan moved to New York after going as far ash she thought she could in New Zealand.

Like Gates, Alice Morgan moved to New York to further her career as a designer, deciding she had gone as far as she could in New Zealand.

Arriving in 2019 knowing just one person in the city, she nonetheless found it easy to make friends.

“I really had to put myself out there to make friends, but that is the great thing about this city – you meet so many cool and amazing people wherever you turn. There are also so many other people doing the same thing that I did, so once you find these people you really are amongst like-minded friends.”

A senior digital art director at America’s largest digital and print publisher, she feels so at home in the city she wasn’t at all tempted to move back to New Zealand when visiting her husband in Aotearoa for a couple of months during the earlier part of the pandemic.

After three-and-a-half years in New York, she still feels it has much to teach her, and that she’s only scratched the surface of what it has to offer.

“The opportunities are endless… I love and admire the diverse cuisine and culture between Chinatown, Little Italy, and Washington Heights as well as all the events all year round. Pride month is a big favourite of mine; a really fun time to be in the city!

Withers said he believes it will take New York years to fully recover from the pandemic.

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Withers said he believes it will take New York years to fully recover from the pandemic.

“This is home for now. There may be a time that I feel like I would leave this city, but like I said before, since there is so much to see and do as well as so much to learn career-wise, I feel like this is the right place for me right now.”

Withers said it is the people he has met in New York who have enabled him not just to survive in the city, but thrive.

While he found it hard to make genuine friendships at college, some connections have stood the test of time, and he “adopted” some fellow Kiwis who moved to the city a few weeks after he did.

Ultimately, he feels that it will take New York years to fully recover from the pandemic but, as a city that constantly reinvents itself, emerging phoenix- or 9/11 Memorial-like from the ashes, he has no doubt it will eventually become bigger and better than ever.

In some ways though, he appreciates the slightly mellower creature the city has become during the pandemic. The unhurried early days relieved him of his general anxiety and workaholic tendencies so, now the busyness is back, he is “working on finding a middle ground.

“I think in so many ways the world has forgotten the valuable lessons the early days of Covid taught us, and it’s definitely worth revisiting those and trying to fit them into our everyday lives.”

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