By Bridget Gourlay
New York City. Those three words conjure up images of a breathtaking skyline, the Empire State Building and the Sex and the City girls strutting along Fifth Avenue in $500 high heels. But, as I found out, it’s the neighbourhoods that really give this immigrant city its charm.
Take Chinatown and Little Italy, which stand side by side. Both have been home to immigrants for decades, and both were relatively untouched by the police, left to the ruling clans to organise everything from business to law and order.
I was there on Christmas Day. Little Italy was the most ridiculously over-decorated place I’ve ever seen. Enormous wreaths covered every door and restaurants were resplendent in red, gold and holly. All restaurants and apartments were firmly shut up, as everyone was at Mass, but peeking in the windows you could see six foot tall angel statues and nativity scenes crammed in every corner inside.
But cross the road into Chinatown and it’s like entering another world. Despite the below freezing temperatures, an inner city park is filled with elderly men playing mah-jong and practising Tai-Chi. All the shops have Chinese letters in large print, with the occasional sloppy translation into English below it. It’s hard to believe you’re in the West, let alone in an English-speaking country, until you hear the thick Manhattan accents of the Chinese faces clearly born and bred in America.
But the Chinatown/Little Italy area is also home to pockets of other ethnicities. Within a twenty minute walk, my friend and I gawked at a perfectly preserved 19th century synagogue, a Ukrainian Church, a Filipino Church, a couple of Buddhist temples and finally an ugly 1960s building, containing the bizarrely named Beth Israel Chinese Church of God. If there is such a thing as a Chinese Jewish Christian, they could only exist in New York.
The infamous immigrant slums of the 18th and 19th centuries, where large families festered in small apartments, were pulled down years ago, but stark images of their lives can be seen at the Museum of New York.
You’ve got to wonder how desperate the starvation was in Ireland or how cruel the pogroms of Russia for so many to sail miles and miles to live in dire poverty half a world away. But they did. And many continue to.
Illegal Mexican immigrants are everywhere in the city, I am told by a fiery Catholic peaceworker. Although not as prevalent as the southern border states, they are often the kitchen hands in restaurants, the sign-holders on the streets, or the rubbish-collectors and street cleaners during the night. They don’t earn minimum wage, he tells me. They often have to pay their employer from their measly salary to live in whatever flea-infested accommodation he provides.
Today’s immigrants and refugees have gone about creating ethnic enclaves just as vibrant as the waves of immigrants before them.
Like Le Petit Senegal, in Harlem. It’s home to the recent and increasing waves of people escaping the war torn region, opening West African shops, restaurants and cafés.
Throughout the block, it’s possible to hear French and see people wearing warm duffel coats over brightly coloured African dresses.
But the neighbourhoods aren’t just shaped by ethnicity. Soho and Tribeca offer Bohemian delights. The wrought iron former factories and workshops were abandoned until the 1970s when they were turned into lofts by artists. Today it keeps its alternative feel, with little boutiques, art galleries and restaurants, but is really now a shopping mecca.
Expensive labels such as Prada and Marc Jacobs as well as chain stores like H&M occupy multi-storey shops in Soho. Tribeca is no longer a haven for poor artists, these rescued lofts with their wide windows and natural light attract only the commercially successful — as the rents are some of the priciest in Manhattan.
Another neighbourhood well worth exploring is the Upper East Side. Home to some of the richest people on earth, these beautiful historic apartment buildings bordering Central Park are carefully guarded by doormen in crisp jackets.
They escort women in fur coats and men in Armani suits in and out of waiting limos. It’s wealth on a scale we don’t see in New Zealand — this really is a world of immense privilege, where people are waited on by drivers, nannies, butlers and maids. One of the more hilarious aspects is finding the entrance for the apartment staff, usually down a side street a good hundred metres away.
But while the neighbourhoods offer charm and diversity, don’t discount the tourist trail. The Empire State building really does offer insane views, Central Park is an oasis of calm, and Times Square is as gaudy and noisy and overwhelming as it looks in photos.
If theatre doesn’t spin your wheels, the several story tall Pop Tart World, Hershy’s World and M’n’M World, selling elephantine packets of chocolate will. Lit up with flashing neon signs, the entrances employ mascots dressed as their chocolate bars to wave you in. This can only be described as capitalism on crack.
And my own Sex and the City moment happened. I met Mr Big. Well, actually the actor that plays him walked past me while I was stuffing my face with a Dunkin’ Donut. Not my best look. But it doesn’t matter. I’ll be back.
- New Zealand and the United States have a close trading relationship. In 2010, New Zealand exported more than $3.7 billion worth of merchandise to the US — largely beef, dairy, sheep meat and wine.
- During the same period New Zealand imported more than NZ$4.3 billion worth of merchandise. Aircrafts were top of the list, followed by aircraft parts, turbo jets, medical or veterinary instruments and motor vehicles.
- The US is New Zealand’s second largest source and destination of foreign direct investment (FDI) after Australia. In terms of tourism, it’s also New Zealand’s third largest market in visitor arrivals and expenditure, coming in after Australia and the United Kingdom.