This “Crypto City” guide looks at New York City’s crypto culture, its most notable projects and people, its financial infrastructure, which retailers accept crypto, and where you can find blockchain education courses — and there’s even a short history of the controversial regulatory regime required to operate in the city.
City: New York
Country: United States
Population: 8.8 million
New York City is a bustling metropolis in the American state of New York. The city is divided into five separate boroughs — the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island — each with its own unique geography and culture. While the state’s capital is Albany, NYC is its most widely known city and is one of the most famous cities in the world.
The most populous city in the United States, NYC is home to an estimated 8.8 million people, with an additional 1 million people traveling to the city every day for work (pre-pandemic). In 2019, the city also welcomed nearly 70 million tourists seeking to take in the bright lights of Times Square, see a Broadway musical, visit the Empire State Building, and enjoy NYC’s dining and nightlife, among the many other sites and attractions the city offers.
New York City has been the setting for countless major films and television shows, which adds to its attraction as a tourist destination. Some of the most famous movies filmed in NYC include The Godfather, Ghostbusters, King Kong, Taxi Driver, West Side Story, Goodfellas, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Saturday Night Fever and many, many others. Sitcom classics Seinfeld and Friends were set in the city, and the long-running live sketch show Saturday Night Live broadcasts every weekend from 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
With Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange located in lower Manhattan, the city is generally recognized as the financial capital of the United States, perhaps even the world. It’s also the nation’s fashion capital and one of its major technology, music, film and television hubs. Home to around 3 million immigrants, NYC is widely known for its cultural diversity, with the Statue of Liberty famously inscribed with the words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
The city’s status as a hot location for crypto and blockchain culture has a lot to do with it being a major junction where finance and technology meet, according to Michael Moro, CEO of digital asset prime brokerage Genesis: “New York City has always been the epicenter of the capital markets and, over time, has earned a global reputation for being an innovation and technology hub.”
NYC is also a very wealthy city. “The advantage of the city is really Wall Street, right?” says Michael Shaulov, CEO of Fireblocks — an institutional digital asset custody, transfer and settlement platform. “You have a huge concentration of people who understand finance. You have a huge amount of capital flowing in from traditional finance into crypto. All the big venture capitalists are based in New York and are pushing into crypto.”
New York City has a long, well-established culture around cryptocurrency and blockchain. Way back on New Year’s Eve 2013/2014, Bitcoin Center NYC, a brick-and-mortar center dedicated to promoting and educating the public on the premier cryptocurrency, was launched by Nick Spanos — a real estate executive turned Bitcoin evangelist. The center quickly became a hub for fans of the still fairly underground cryptocurrency.
Spanos tells Magazine that “Bitcoin Center NYC brought Bitcoin from the back alleys to Wall Street, from something hidden to something celebrated, from something unknown to something open and transparent.”
Spanos later also founded the Blockchain Center, which is dedicated to education on the power of blockchain technology. He adds that while Bitcoin Center NYC has been relatively quiet during the COVID-19 pandemic, “we have a new space and are looking at bringing back the popular Satoshi Square gatherings — with an embrace of the growing crowd of Wall Street blockchain specialists and new believers.”
The Big Apple hosts a number of major blockchain and crypto conferences, including the annual New York Blockchain Week. Though it was ultimately canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, New York Blockchain Week 2020 was set to feature Consensus, the Digital Asset Summit, Ethereal Summit, The Block Summit, Magical Crypto Conference, ETH NYC and Smart Contract Summit #0. Some of the events went virtual, and the conference was again put on hold in 2021.
In-person conferences reappeared toward the end of 2021, including Blockworks Digital Asset Summit 2021, Mainnet 2021 and SALT, which were held in September, and CoinGeek Conference in early October, while NFT.NYC 2021 is scheduled for November.
Alex Mashinsky, a New Yorker who serves as CEO of crypto borrowing and lending platform Celsius Network — which is headquartered just across the river in New Jersey — tells Magazine that New York really is a crypto city: “You have money, you have people, you have tech, and you have a lot of customers who consume this technology. It’s a very cosmopolitan city, so you have people from every country and walk of life.” He adds, “We see a lot of wealth here. If rich people want to put 1% to 5% of their wealth into crypto, it’s going to happen here.”
We are going to the moon pic.twitter.com/66MvxpWW4w
— Alex Mashinsky ©️ (@Mashinsky) October 19, 2021
New York City has also been part of the burgeoning nonfungible token art scene. In March 2021, the artist collective Superchief opened what it alleged to be the first-ever brick-and-mortar NFT art gallery, and the Postmasters gallery in lower Manhattan has an NFT-focused division called PostmastersBLOCKCHAIN. Meanwhile, Beeple’s $69-million sale of “Everydays: The First 5000 Days” in March took place via the NYC branch of auction house Christie’s.
However, some warn that NYC has been undergoing a “brain drain” that has seen top talent going elsewhere, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“During the pandemic, other cities and states have been aggressively courting the crypto community with business, tax and regulatory incentives, and some have chosen to leave,” says Moro.
Mashinsky adds, “When you look at how fast Miami is moving, they created a coin for the city. They did all kinds of stuff, so we’re definitely behind. We’re almost reacting instead of enacting.”
Maybe that’s why crypto has been shaping up as an election issue. In June 2021, Eric Adams, the Democratic frontrunner for NYC’s next mayor, proclaimed that he would turn the city into “the center of Bitcoins.” Meanwhile, his Republican competitor, Curtis Sliwa, has pledged to make New York “the most cryptocurrency-friendly city in the nation.”
Projects and companies
Many crypto and blockchain companies have called the tech and finance hub home. While New York State’s strict regulatory requirements may have prevented some exchanges from setting up shop (more on that later), Gemini still has its headquarters in NYC, as does the decentralized exchange Uniswap. Blockchain.com also maintains its U.S. headquarters in New York City, though it recently announced that it intends to relocate to Miami.
Several investment firms active in the crypto space are based in NYC, including New York Digital Investment Group, Galaxy Digital, Grayscale Investments, Union Square Ventures and Digital Currency Group.
Research firm Chainalysis is headquartered in NYC, as are infrastructure provider Bison Trails (which was recently acquired by Coinbase); financial services providers Fireblocks, Paxos and Paxful; digital-asset prime brokerage Genesis; NFT marketplace OpenSea; Ethereum-based software engineering firm ConsenSys; crypto-centric PR firm Ditto; peer-to-peer trading protocol AirSwap; and media company Cointelegraph. At least one-half of the team behind NFT tokenization platform Fractional is based in New York City.
Genesis’ Moro, a native New Yorker, tells Cointelegraph that he has “always loved the energy, grit and determination that defines New York.” He adds that Genesis has no plans to leave the city:
“Genesis was born here. Our clients are based here. As an institutional prime brokerage, we think it’s important for us to be here. Because of the elite and diverse talent looking to enter the industry, particularly from the universities and Wall Street, our strong preference is to continue to grow our business here.”
Several other companies are headquartered elsewhere but have a physical presence in the city, such as Pantera Capital, Bitwise and Horizen Labs. Meanwhile, Celsius used to have an office in the city but shuttered it when the pandemic struck. (A recent letter from the New York State Attorney General’s Office asking for details about the business may be a factor in whether Celsius reopens its office…)
The city has itself launched blockchain projects. For example, in January 2019, the New York City Economic Development Corporation opened the NYC Blockchain Center, a 4,000-square-foot facility that operated for one year and focused on supporting entrepreneurship and promoting diversity and education.
New York City is a notoriously difficult place in which to trade cryptocurrencies, as only exchanges that have been awarded a coveted BitLicense from the New York State Department of Financial Services are allowed to offer “virtual currency” services to New York-based customers. At the time of writing, only three centralized exchanges — Coinbase, Coinbase Pro and Gemini — are accessible to New York residents. In addition, the number of coins available to trade on these platforms is limited when compared with what is available in other states. For New Yorkers who are willing to brave the waters of decentralized exchanges, all of the top DEXs — such as Uniswap, 1inch, PancakeSwap, SushiSwap and others — can be accessed from the city.
The city’s hustle and bustle may result in you needing to buy BTC on the go. Thankfully, the city that never sleeps has dozens of Bitcoin ATMs scattered throughout the five boroughs — though only a small handful of them allows you to also sell BTC. The city also has a Bitcoin Cash ATM located in the Bronx, an Ether ATM located in downtown Manhattan, and one ATM in the Bronx that will let you buy and sell Bitcoin, Ether, Litecoin, Dash and Zcash.
NYC residents have a number of options when it comes to traditional banking, including Chase Bank, Citibank, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Capital One and more. But when it comes to using the money in one’s bank account to purchase crypto, banks have historically been somewhat hesitant, with credit card purchases a notorious sticking point. In February 2018, crypto exchange Coinbase reported that customers of Chase, Bank of America, Citibank and Capital One were being blocked from purchasing crypto via the exchange.
However, banks seem to be easing up, and Mashinsky points out that “August and September were very good months for crypto from a bank standpoint,” with multiple major Wall Street banks announcing crypto services. “Definitely plenty of progress this year from the tier-one banks.”
Where can I spend crypto?
If you want to spend your hard-earned cryptocurrency, most retailers still won’t accept it. However, New York City does have a small handful of crypto-friendly locations, according to Coinmap — although many of them appear to be now closed.
If you are craving a bite to eat, bagel spot Forest Hills Bagels, Middle Eastern restaurant Shawarmania and Chinese food eatery Yong Sheng — all located in Queens — accept BTC. But if shopping is more your thing, vintage women’s clothing store Marmalade in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, family-friendly apparel boutique Little Hippie in Williamsburg, or mineral seller Astro West on the Upper West Side of Manhattan may interest you.
The Postmasters art gallery in lower Manhattan accepts Bitcoin and Ether for any object available for purchase. The sale is done as a wallet-to-wallet transaction, and digital art sales come with freshly minted NFTs certifying ownership. Tamas Banovich, co-director of Postmasters, tells Magazine, “There is this whole new market opening up with people having cryptocurrency. I think very soon, they will be interested in all kinds of art, not just digital and NFTs, and I want to be there early and make it available.”
Meanwhile, private gym The Fitness Office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan accepts crypto, as do non-alcoholic bar Kavasutra in Manhattan’s East Village and Yeras Restaurant Sports Bar in Jackson Heights, Queens.
There are multiple educational and training programs in New York City. Graduate students at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business in the Bronx can take on a secondary concentration in blockchain technology. The program promises to give students “the opportunity to master the skills needed to stand out in this space.” Enrollees will take courses exploring the technology itself, the role and function of cryptocurrencies, and the business and legal concerns surrounding the space. The school also hosts the Fordham Fintech Network, which connects students with fintech firms and professionals.
New York University’s Stern School of Business in lower Manhattan offers a fintech specialization that includes courses such as “Accounting and the Blockchain,” “Topics in Cryptocurrency Investing” and “Digital Currencies, Blockchains, and the Financial Services Industry.” Separately, students at NYU’s School of Professional Studies can receive certificates in “alternative investments” and in fintech, both of which include a course titled “Blockchain and Cryptocurrencies.” Those looking for further on-campus engagement can join the Blockchain Lab @ NYU student group.
While Columbia University in upper Manhattan doesn’t have a specific crypto concentration or certificate program, students can enroll in several courses focusing on blockchain and its various implementations, offered by Columbia’s engineering and business schools. The university also hosts the Columbia-IBM Center for Blockchain and Data Transparency, which is focused on education, research and innovation around blockchain and data. In addition, high school students can participate in a summer university immersion program and take a three-week “Blockchain, Cryptocurrencies, AI, and Beyond” course.
Meanwhile, Hunter College on Manhattan’s Upper East Side has previously offered an “Intro to Blockchain” course, and Cornell University, which is upstate in Ithaca, has an MBA program through which students can participate in an NYC-based fintech intensive consisting of four courses — including “Blockchain and Cryptocurrencies” — that are taught over seven weeks in the spring.
New York City and crypto represent an interesting dichotomy. On one hand, NYC is a major hub for finance, technology and innovation; on the other, the state of New York is the most highly regulated place to do business in the nation. Any organization seeking to carry out “virtual currency business activities” in the state or to serve customers located in the state is required to acquire a license known as a “BitLicense.” The application process, maintained by the New York State Department of Financial Services, is known to be long, costly, arduous, confusing and highly complicated. Companies may also choose to apply for a limited-purpose trust charter and face even stricter regulations but receive additional benefits, such as fiduciary powers.
When the requirement was first implemented in mid-2015, a significant number of companies that had been serving NYC residents simply stopped offering their products to New Yorkers rather than go through the intense application process. At the time, the New York Business Journal dubbed it “The Great Bitcoin Exodus.”
Spanos tells Magazine, “The NY DFS BitLicense was the death knell for crypto innovation in the entire state. It was the ultimate backroom deal cut in a smoke-filled room that allegedly protected consumers but actually harmed New Yorkers and restricted their free choice.” He adds, “If you do not have massive capital, you will not get off the ground.”
Some of those that pulled out of the state include exchanges Kraken, Poloniex, ShapeShift and Bitfinex; peer-to-peer marketplace LocalBitcoins; mining firms BTC Guild, Genesis Mining and Eobot; and payments service GoCoin. While Paxful remains headquartered in the city, it is in the strange situation of not being able to actually serve anyone who lives there.
Mashinsky tells Magazine, “The BitLicense was not put in place to protect the consumer or protect the community. That was something that this or that regulator put to create a job for themselves.” He adds that the requirement also reduces healthy competition, resulting in higher fees for customers — such as those seen on Coinbase. “The reason they can get away with it is because they have a BitLicense and others don’t.”
However, Shaulov holds a different perspective, saying that the city’s firm regulation is ultimately beneficial. “At least there is some level of clarity of what is required in terms of what it’s like to operate in the city,” he tells Magazine, adding, “In the long term, where regulation will exist everywhere, clarity — even if it’s somewhat unclear — is best.”
“The inconvenient reality is that you can’t escape regulation forever. At some point, you need to deal with it.”
In 2019, the state initiated a new crackdown, this time on Bitfinex and Tether. It alleged that the sister companies lied about the backing of USDT and intentionally covered up massive financial losses. In February 2021, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced that the two companies — neither of which has a BitLicense — were banned from all trading activity involving New Yorkers, would pay a fine, and would submit to mandatory reporting requirements. A week later, James issued a warning to the industry: “You either play by the rules or we will shut you down.”
In addition, cryptocurrencies must be approved by the state before they can be listed or used in New York. The Department of Financial Services maintains a “Greenlist” of preapproved assets, which includes a handful of major coins, such as Bitcoin, Ether, XRP, Litecoin and Binance USD. Crypto assets not included on the Greenlist must be individually certified.
These controversial regulatory decisions trickle down to the average investor as well, as the opportunities to buy, sell and trade cryptocurrencies in New York City are rather limited. It’s no wonder that Reddit is full of posts asking questions like “Why is it so hard to buy cryptocurrency in New York state?” and “Why does New York suck so much ass for crypto investors?”
New York City is home to a wide range of interesting characters, including many crypto pioneers, entrepreneurs and advocates. Some of its more notable figures include:
Hayden Adams, creator of Uniswap and CEO of Uniswap Labs; Charles Cascarilla, co-founder and CEO of Paxos; Devin Finzer, co-founder and CEO of OpenSea; Michael Gronager, CEO of Chainalysis; Robert Gutmann, co-founder and CEO of NYDIG; Letitia James, attorney general of the State of New York; Joe Lallouz, co-founder and CEO of Bison Trails; Joseph Lubin, co-founder of Ethereum and co-founder and CEO of ConsenSys; Alex Mashinsky, founder and CEO of Celsius Network; Michael Moro, CEO of Genesis; Michael Novogratz, CEO of Galaxy Digital; Anthony Pompliano, prominent investor; Michael Shaulov, co-founder and CEO of Fireblocks; Laura Shin, host of crypto-centric podcasts Unchained and Unconfirmed; Barry Silbert, founder and CEO of Digital Currency Group; Michael Sonnenshein, CEO of Grayscale Investments; Nick Spanos, founder of Bitcoin Center NYC and the Blockchain Center; Ross Stevens, founder and executive chairman of NYDIG; Cameron Winklevoss, co-founder and president of Gemini; Tyler Winklevoss, co-founder and CEO of Gemini; Andrew Yang, former presidential candidate and cryptocurrency advocate; and Ray Youssef, co-founder and CEO of Paxful.
Cointelegraph team members and contributors based in New York City: Jay Cassano, Jonathan DeYoung and Gordon Meyer.
Suggestions for additions to this guide are welcome. Please email: [email protected]