Downtown vs. Uptown: What​’s the ​Difference?

Media provided by Jason Briscoe, via Unsplash.

Uptown (Upper East and Upper West Side) vs. Downtown Manhattan: two separate cultures, divided by 59th Street. Growing up in Tribeca and attending school in NoHo has meant that the extent of my uptown knowledge ends with Gossip Girl. Stuck in my downtown bubble, multiple questions arise: Do uptown teenagers feel the same disconnect when considering downtown? What are the differences between each of the cultures? 

Everything north of 14th Street seems like a foreign planet to me, a faraway star lost in the bustling galaxy of downtown life. Whenever I drive through uptown, I constantly find myself staring out of the window, mesmerized by the unfamiliar schools, people, and even architecture. The neutral-toned apartment buildings with forest green awnings are omnipresent; they seem to pop up on every block.

Except for the occasional hot dog stand or candied nut carts, I rarely see street vendors uptown. This is very unlike Union Square or Washington Square Park where there is never a shortage of ladies selling lime-doused mango chunks or sugar-covered churros. 

There is also a noticeable difference between the populations of each end: stylish college students and colorful tourists roam SoHo, while middle school girls adorned with luxury jewelry and Golden Goose sneakers stalk the uptown streets. But of course, these are the narrow, one-sided observations of a writer who only travels uptown a handful of times per month. To gain a better and more complete understanding of these differences, the Gazette turned to the Grace population for answers.  

Before arriving at Grace last year, Zamira F. ‘24 attended Heschel, a Jewish uptown school. Transitioning from an uptown school to one in the heart of lower Manhattan gives her a unique perspective on the two cultures. Zamira, along with other Grace students, appreciates downtown for its lively, youthful energy and uptown for the calm escape that it provides. 

My own isolation from uptown has definitely restricted my outlook on Manhattan, but it has also allowed me to recognize a similar relationship between regions of lower New York City: the vibrant nightlife of the West Village provides a stark contrast to the quiet streets of Tribeca. 

The majority of students also mentioned that, in general, downtown feels more “stimulating” and “energetic” than uptown. Amaya S. ‘24 related this distinction to the history of New York City, saying “uptown life has stayed stagnant throughout the years in both people and culture, whereas downtown is continuously changing and has a more modern atmosphere.” 

Amaya attributed downtown’s modernity to its variety of cultures and, in a later interview, explained that ethnic neighborhoods, particularly Chinatown and Little Italy, are a result of immigrants moving there and forming communities in the 1800s. Her answer also explains the range of stereotypes and ideas that are associated with each side of Manhattan. 

Buildings that jut out of Chelsea and Tribeca, such as The Whitney and the “Jenga” building (56 Leonard Street), appear to be very industrial and modern, compared to the older architecture of the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side. While many students acknowledged the obvious divide in architectural styles, there was definitely a preference for uptown architecture mainly due to its preservation of historical, pre-war buildings. 

As a downtown native, I have to admit that it is hard not to admire the intricate stone details on apartment buildings: features of the Upper East Side that are not present on modern, glass skyscrapers. The marbled, sometimes checkered floors of uptown lobbies are timeless and far more visually interesting to me than the minimalist, white-washed downtown hotels and apartments. 

The abundance of details on the exterior and interior of uptown restaurants and buildings are a rarity downtown. From the innovative designs of the Oculus and the Vessel to the historical beauty of the New York Public Library and Grand Central Station, it is incredible how New York City is able to preserve much of the past while simultaneously pioneering the future. 

In my experience, fashion is another clear indicator of the two cultures. From scrolling through social media and simply walking down the street, I’ve gathered that the tried-and-true combination of leggings and a Brandy Melville top is a popular outfit among uptown high school female students. On the contrary, Grace students’ fashion is varied as there is not a set standard of clothing or outfits considered acceptable or unacceptable. 

Kristina E. ‘24, who has also attended both uptown and downtown schools, attributes the difference in styles to the fact that people are “idolized for being different” downtown, whereas “uptown tends to have a more rigid socially acceptable fashion sense.” 

Zamira added that there was more pressure to follow trends in her uptown middle school, which is not an experience she has had at Grace. 

In a survey conducted by the Gazette, a majority of students prefer downtown fashion over that of uptown, citing the diverse, unique outfits that they see daily as the reason for this choice. Amaya describes her preference for the “erratic style of downtown to that of minimalist uptown because it displays the colorful part of Manhattan, the one that the media often sees.” 

Ava A. ‘22 also appreciates the eccentric fashion of downtown, observing that downtown fashion is “much more pieced together from thrift shops and parents’ closets than purchased from designer stores.” 

Listening to the perspectives of students who are familiar with both uptown and downtown cultures has given me a new, more nuanced view of what connects and differentiates the two ends of Manhattan. Daring to step outside of my downtown bubble has revealed the complex world of upper Manhattan, including its unique intersection of culture, architecture, and fashion. 

Despite their differences, I think that all New Yorkers can agree that both sides of the city reflect years of culture and history and, as Zamira phrases it, “one can’t exist without the other.”