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Cultural Capital

NYC’s TikTok Zoomers Want You to Meet Them in West Village

"I just heard of this like a month ago, that East Village is actually the East Village, and only locals get it."

6:15 PM EDT on May 4, 2022

For as long as real estate speculation has existed in New York, the names of neighborhoods have been fluid. The East Village is only called what it is because of developers and landlords attempting to connect it in spirit to Greenwich Village in the 1960s. In the late 1990s, as "trendiness invaded Little Italy" according to the paper of record, NoLita stuck. Where and what is East Williamsburg?

Today we have a new renaming. A recent generation of New Yorkers (or at least a sizable minority), are making like Sean Parker and dropping the "the." Just: West Village. East Village. Lower East Side.

I first noticed this trend on TikTok, where my algorithm—which is curated perfectly for when I want to waste a few minutes and turn my brain off and generally includes some combination of sports highlights, recommendation videos, and standup—served me young New Yorkers around my age (25) traipsing around downtown Manhattan, recommending bars or showing "days in their life."

In one video, we have a woman giving a tour of an apartment in "one of [her] favorite neighborhoods in the city, East Village." In another, a well known TikTok presence says "you walk around West Village and you know you’re the main character." A younger TikToker has less positive things to say about the West Village, arguing in a video about dating red flags that "[one red flag is] if he lives in West Village. It’s the new Murray Hill." [Ed. note: This person also called Governors Island "Governor Island."]

The dropping of the "the" is inconsistent, both between accounts and even between videos on the same account—the same creator might use "the Lower East Side" one day and "Lower East Side" the next. What is consistent is these New Yorkers’ engagement style. They are posting constantly, very rarely about any sort of actual work, and appear to have an unlimited reserve of capital. What they have discovered in all of this hanging out are various "speakeasies" and a pink midtown bar that lets you drink out of IV bags.

I wanted to get to the bottom of this trend. So I called up some TikTokers.

Codey James is a handsome guy with a rapidly growing collection of tattoos who grew up in Minneapolis. He comes to New York—where he’s been for a little over a year—by way of Los Angeles. He works at Reddit and wasn’t even on TikTok until last September, when at the encouragement of some friends he began to post content, mostly about what he’s getting up to—and wearing—as a young person in New York. James lives on the Lower East Side and sometimes, though not all the time, drops the "the." He’s racked up a few thousand followers, gone semi-viral multiple times (mostly for day/weekend in the life videos documenting his time hanging out in New York), and found a friend group in the process.

"All of my new friends are New York TikTok people," James said, by which he means twenty-somethings who spend a lot of time recommending bars and showing off their outfits on the street. "It’s crazy how the algorithm kind of feeds you people who are similar to you and are interested in the same things. So from there, we’d kind of hang out at the same places, recognize each other in the street, you’d follow each other, become mutuals, and then you kind of just start getting into a crowd."

I asked him whether people take to his TikTok comments section to correct him, which comes almost immediately when the denizens of #NYCTikTok give downtown neighborhood reviews.

"I get that comment all the time, which is so funny because now I’ll purposefully not add the 'the' because I know people are going to comment on it. And so honestly, it kind of helps with engagement," James told me. "Every time I don’t say 'the,' I know I’m going to get people who are going to be like 'go back to Ohio…' but it’s always someone with a [display name like] user11278."

Tyler Walsh, another content creator who moved recently, works for entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, posts TikToks frequently about hustle culture (including his offer to "work for Gary Vee for free"), and does less New York-based content but sometimes works it in—including some fear-mongering about the LES—didn’t know about the "the" at all until recently.

"I just heard of this like a month ago, that East Village is actually the East Village, and only locals get it," he said. "Which, I wasn’t aware of that, but, yeah, it’s a thing."

When people move to New York without much contextual understanding of the city, they spend a decent amount of time staring at maps, especially the subway map, which themselves don’t include a "the." Maybe this is how it started. But the phenomenon has grown, as young people get many of their recommendations for where to eat, drink, and be merry from TikTok, where the content creators are still figuring it out themselves.

The act of moving to New York in your early 20s and flailing around a bit is not new. Even documenting it on social media is now decades old. Still, there’s a different kind of self-confidence—that often runs smack into delusion—that’s required to post videos exploring New York every day with the hope that a lot of strangers will see them. The TikTok algorithm can turn any bite-sized video viral and random creator into a micro-celebrity overnight. The "creator economy" can launch careers based entirely around posting cringe to fans happily lapping it up.

Where this gets trickier, though, is how the algorithm affects establishments. For example, one big NYC TikToker identified "Benelmans" (Bemelmans) as one of the hardest places to get into in New York, and the bar has had to hire a bouncer to keep out the throngs of young people who heard about it on TikTok.

This is a funny detail. It also suggests the coming of a legitimate bisection of the city. Because the TikTok algorithm feeds on itself, you get "experts" recommending the same places, over and over. A friend of mine recently referred to a downtown establishment as a "TikTok bar." The app has the power to completely change the character of an operation, much more than something like a rave in the New York Times ever could.

If enough people start to call it East Village, that’s what it becomes. And no matter what New York City natives who have stumbled onto TikTok have to say about it, it seems like it’s here to stay.

"I’ll be here for a while," James said. "So take that, user11278."

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