Sunday, 5 September 2010
NY-LON Part I – The City that never sleeps
If you’ve never been to New York but are familiar with London then think of it as an amplified version. Both are undoubtedly impressive cities but New York seems to have more gloss, Times Square dazzles whereas Piccadilly Circus impresses. The statistics of both cities are not unlike each other with New York accounting for a slightly higher population and percentage of immigrants even though the London Olympic Committee claimed that over 300 foreign languages are spoken in the London every day. I would still put my money on New York having a more multicultural feel, because more so than in London, immigrants seem to thrive in the City. African-Americans who make up a quarter of New York’s population also add to its multicultural feel. The home of Essence magazine’s headquarters which celebrates the achievements of African-Americans, New York City is a success story for a number of Black people including but not limited to those who have been formally educated. There are many African-American families who mirror the lives of the Cosby Show’s Huxtables and boast property portfolios that include beautifully preserved Brownstones in Harlem and Brooklyn worth over $1 million. By contrast there is evidence of poverty in parts of the City with a high concentration of Black and Latinos; there are neighbourhoods, admittedly beyond mid and lower Manhattan where high rise apartment blocks hold stories of drugs, crime and illiteracy. The worrying thing is that the gentrification of neighbourhoods like Fort Greene and Park Slopes in Brooklyn as well as Harlem has resulted in poorer people being pushed into deprived areas and the creation of ghetto cities that propagate the cycle of poverty. Today Manhattan’s population is 51% White and Affluent with Americans and expatriate Europeans buying up properties that carry million dollar price tags.
As a visitor, New York captures you; the selection of restaurants, theatre, galleries, museums and stunning parks is enough to send your head into a spin. There is an abundance of choice when it comes to entertainment and because the city has featured so many times on the big and small screen, every location, every yellow cab, department store becomes even more magical and you feel like you’re attending a casting for the love story, New York. The lines between real life and art become even more blurred in a city that is home to so many of the rich and famous. If it’s Star-Spotting you’re into then there are bars and restaurants where you can go and feast your eyes provided of course your wallet can take the pressure.
For me, it’s the little things that make New York so phenomenal. I discovered the city as a fearless 20 year old staying with my uncle in lower Manhattan at the corner of 1st Avenue and 14th street. The first thing that struck me was how noisy the city was and also how hard it was to differentiate between the days of the week, a Sunday was a busy as a Friday with some businesses operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I realise that this is hardly everyone’s idea of living bliss but for a young insomniac, I relished being able to pick up a tub of Baskin Robbins ice cream at 3 O’clock in the morning. I also loved the fact that I could walk blocks; walking the equivalent of 5 kilometres would feel like a leisurely stroll as each block had its charm, its shops, cafes and people that I could marvel at. I discovered the East Village and then the West and kept going back for more of its eccentricity. Every day was a challenge to see which self-assured African-American man would come up with the most creative chat up line. I was blown away by the fact that they thought my 5ft5 curvy frame as worthy of praise where men in London tended to look through me and hone in on the borderline anorexic blonde. Lines like “Do fries go with that shake baby” and “Are your folks terrorists?.....cos you da bomb” deserve a place in creative language courses in my humble opinion...of course.
I partied with Brooklyn’s Jamaican community at nightclubs on Utica Avenue and tasted the best Trinidadian roti at a small restaurant in Crown Heights. I witnessed the rise of the fashion designed Moshood and his success in fusing Nigerian and African-American cultures within his vibrant and unique pieces. I was blown away years later by the diversity and charm of Fort Greene. As big as the city is, this neighbourhood and others like it feel like a small personable community where everybody knows and cares about each other.
Harlem represented African American achievement and I recall meeting a family of American-Americans who were third generation University graduates and PhD holders. Having come from West Africa where there academic and professional achievement was a given, to London where I discovered that being Black and a doctor was a big deal, it was refreshing to see so many accomplished Black people.
Over the years I’ve been to free concerts in Central park, had my hair braided in Petit Senegal in Harlem, read poetry at the Brooklyn Moon Cafe, been transported in the books I read at the architecturally stunning New York public library. My experiences have been as colourful and varied as the City’s population. The underlying theme though that I think makes New York City the greatest in the World is its lack of conformity. The City refuses to be one thing or the other, it everything to everyone and there is more than one way of making a life in New York, with millions of its inhabitants taking the road less travelled every day. I have countless friends who have shunned the doldrums of a nine to five existence; poets, photographers, jewellers, entrepreneurs working and living successfully on their terms. I’m still amazed to find so many people in parks on a normal work day when you would expect everyone to be pushing paper in congested open-plan offices as the majority do in other cities. I love the fact that although the city is fashionable, you can still walk around in last season’s trends without anyone batting an eyelid. There is a broader definition of style in New York City, far from being all about this season’s colours and cuts; it’s about creating your own unique identity however unconventional.
If you’re the adventurous type, a visit to New York City will make you feel like you just fell down a hole and landed in Wonderland. There is so much to see and do and experience. It can be daunting but the key to the Big Apple is to take one small bite at a time and to savour it as slowly as possible.