I did not arrive in New York free of preconceptions. Far from it, actually. I was convinced I would find a city full of pomposity and completely assured of its own status as a cultural icon. In my mind, before I arrived, I had already stripped its inhabitants of their humanity and pictured the city as a grim roll call of tourist- clogged sites that leapt out the pages of my city guide insistently. That was short sighted of me. In an international city of New York’s stature, a delicate balancing act is played out. People strive to preserve their own cultural identity in tact whilst adhering to an American one. New York surprised and charmed me beyond imagining, but also gave me a glimpse into the fiendishly complex dilemmas facing modern American society.
Our accommodation was in Harlem, so naturally we saw a lot of this neighbourhood during the trip. Harlem is renowned for its southern soul food. This influence comes from African-American communities who moved to New York from the rural southern states. A typical soul food meal is comprised of chicken, cornbread and beans. A staple of my diet throughout the trip was chicken and waffles. I demonstrated my utter lack of self control by eating two meals similar to this every day and then whingeing about my indigestion. A culinary highlight came in the form of Brunch at Syliva’s. This restaurant has been open since 1962 and runs a brunch every Sunday where diners are serenaded by a gospel singer. During our meal, she floated around the tables and asked individual diners where they came from before incorporating the answer into her song. For a brief while, I was torn from my chicken and had to consider whether to answer “greater metropolitan London” or “Croydon”.
The Empire State
Unlike London’s premier skyscraper, the Shard, you can announce that you were taken up the Empire State without someone giggling at you. Once I got to the top, the view was breathtaking. Manhattan is relatively small and bottle shaped. Every conceivable space, with the exception of Central Park has been filled. Seeing so much humanity in such a confined space is eyeopening to say the least. As we were looking out, darkness began to fall and the city gradually lit up below. It was almost impossible not to find the view slightly inspiring.
My abiding memory of Brooklyn Bridge will always be watching a New York local trying to cycle across it. Seeing the hundreds of people in front of her, she made the conscious decision to remain on her bike and cycle in a perfectly straight line. As she reached the first pedestrian she was forced to slightly alter her course. She did so, after stopping the bike and screaming “WHAT THE HELL” at the bemused tourist. Ahead of her, stretched another thousand or so sightseers clutching cameras and city guides. I can only hope that she maintained that level of ire for the entirety of her crossing.
America and commemoration
I felt inexplicably drawn to the site where the World Trade Centre once stood. I think most visitors to New York feel the same. Given the magnitude of 9/11, and the sorrowful events it predated, an indelible mark has been left upon the city. Memorialising such an event was always going to be complex. The city’s solution is beautiful in its simplicity. The peace pools stand in place of the foundations of the world trade centre. Water runs down their sides, before dropping off, unseen into a second pool at the centre of each one. Around the side, five deep, are the names of the 2977 victims. On their birthday a white rose and American flag is placed on a victim’s name. The pools exude a calm, tranquil, atmosphere.
And people just don’t know what to do.
Uncertainly, they look around for confirmation, before taking out their selfie sticks and posing with their family. And like any family taking a holiday photo, they pile in with beaming faces. Behind them the pools remain quite serene. Children lounge casually on the sides, whilst a small army of security officials in fluorescent green jerseys admonish them for leaning on the names of victims. People’s behaviour is almost distasteful,unless you take into account the circumstances. In the space of a single block,the city turns from a holiday destination to a national site of mourning. It is impossible to escape the immediacy of such tragedy, even 15 years later in commemoration. New York has done a wonderful job of honouring its dead without being defined by those events
I expected Times Square to be a thoroughly shitty homage to commercialism and was entirely correct. Everywhere I looked screens incessantly blinked at me, with irritatingly personalised messages to New-Yorkers. What’s more, the whole square was infested with pick-pockets. It took all my will power to keep my eyes on a coca-cola advertising board and my mobile phone simultaneously. Just avoid it.
Taking the subway
If you truly want to get to know a city for what it is don’t’ stand on top of a view point, or wander round its cultural sites of interest. Just take the subway. New York’s underground is a utilitarian sea of steel. There is a lack of maps and navigating is rather difficult. In short, New York’s underground is stark, impersonal and uncaring. This doesn’t just refer to the surroundings either. As I wandered through Penn station, I caught sight of a homeless man propped up against a wall. Hosts of people walked by him,including two police officers. His pleas echoed of the walls unanswered.
“Why don’t I just kill myself, maybe I’m the problem.”
No one blinked. It was as if he didn’t exist. With no comprehensive insurance coverage nationally, those who need help most desperately are wilfully neglected in their thousands. I’ve seen abject poverty before, and the United Kingdom is by no means a socialist utopia, but New York staggers and saddens me. How could a society enjoying such prosperity neglect people so wilfully? The answer is simple. America has cultivated a culture which places more emphasis on the preservation of symbols and ideals rather than the individual. In its bid to enshrine human rights, it has trodden over and neglected people in the process. Each year, a rose is placed on the name of a victim of 9/11, but those in dire need of mental health services are left to wander the streets and subways, crying out for help.
It would be unjust to end this article by claiming the entirety of New York lacked compassion. Staying in Harlem gave provided me with a fleeting glimpse into a neighbourhood which is a microcosm of everything which is good about America. Around 50% of Harlem’s community is of African-American heritage and diversity is celebrated everywhere. All around I saw colourful murals portraying the cultural background of Harlem’s inhabitants. Eclectic bars and restaurants, showcased food and music from around the globe. I have never felt more warmly welcomed. People struck up conversations with me in the street, in restaurants and in bars. If a community often mistreated and underrepresented by a government can be so welcoming, I can only hope that New York and America’s inhabitants one day elect the leaders which they deserve.