Malwina Chabocka – Art & Design
Malwina Chabocka – Art & Design

This is the second part of my New York trip saga. While the first one focused mostly on the island of Manhattan, now I’m going to look at the characteristics of some of the other islands and oasis within this great city.

In a recent post about Luxembourg, I emphasised the country’s cultural and linguistic diversity. With New York, this is even more striking: more than 600 languages are spoken in the city, making it one of the most linguistically diverse cities in the world. At the same time, some of those languages and cultures tend to concentrate in specific areas, making the topographic journey of a tourist quite a thrill. According to the locals, sometimes all you have to do in order to taste a completely different flavour of the city is to simply walk a couple of blocks (remember those from my previous post?). If you’re heading eastbound from the Upper East Side, then as soon as you cross the 96th Avenue, you’ll be greeted by a completely different set of shops and people. Even within already ethnic-specific areas like The Bronx, you’ll find a difference between for example Woodlawn and Wakefield, which one Reddit user summed up as “Bangers and mash vs curried goat”, adding that while both neighborhoods are English-speaking, it’s tough for an American to understand what people are saying in either of them.

One can spend a month tracking and observing these various socioethnic differences across the whole city, and while my time in New York was limited, I was still able to notice a lot of variety and differences in the places I visited during our stay.

The island of Brooklyn

When the question “What two neighborhoods feel like you’re crossing into a different country when you travel from one into the next?” was posted on Reddit, the first answer was: from Hipster Williamsburg to Hasidic Williamsburg. While I can confirm that the latter differs from everything else I’ve seen (more on that later), admittedly we didn’t have a lot of time to visit the hipster parts, because one of the biggest discoveries during this trip was just how big Brooklyn is! The borough encompasses approx. 56 neighbourhoods and covers 180 km2. Within that, you’ll find anything — from $25 million Brooklyn Heights brownstone mansions and 55-story skyscrapers like the “Hub” through to housing development projects such as the Red Hook Houses which in 1988 got labelled as “the crack capital of America”.

Americans love digging in their ancestors past, and the landlady of our Airbnb apartment in Breukelen was very eager to tell us about the history of the neighbourhood. Brooklyn became part of New York City at the end of the 19th century, and apparently many newspapers of the day called the merger the “Great Mistake of 1898”. As of 2022, the borough is the second-most-densely-populated county in the United States behind Manhattan, and has a very diverse ethnic composition.

We had a walk around Prospect Park up to the Brooklyn Heights and found it to be indeed a rather posh and predominantly white area with charming leafy streets and shops selling overpriced biological food. When we found ourselves in Sunset Park, where my husband had to pick up an item he had bough online from a warehouse, the vibe was entirely different. Sunset Park is predominantly Hispanic and comprises average to low income households. We were there in the evening and although the area around the subway station didn’t feel particularly welcoming, we decided to sit down at one of the cafes for a meal because we were starving and it would have taken us at least an hour and a half to get to our apartment in Prospect Park South. The cafe staff spoke very little English and the menu was in Spanish, but the enchiladas we ordered, which cost us the equivalent of an ice cream in Park Slope, turned out to be one of the best meals of our entire trip.

Speaking of Brooklyn, one has to mention Dumbo (short for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), a neighborhood historically known as Gairville, connecting Brooklyn to Manhattan across the East River, and continuing east from the Manhattan Bridge to the Vinegar Hill area. Originally a ferry landing, now it’s a highly fashionable neighbourhood, famous for art galleries, technology startups, and hoards of tourists. According to Reddit, it’s not a neighbourhood but a “Brooklyn-themed amusement park created by Two Trees Realty”.

But of course, being tourists we did go to Dumbo, yet instead of dining at the overpriced Time Out Market, we grabbed a $5 cheesecake and ate it on a bench overlooking the bay (I found it to be a great spot for people-watching). We then walked the 1.8km over the Brooklyn Bridge, admiring its beautiful construction and breath-taking views. Designed by John A. Roebling and opened in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge was the first fixed crossing of the East River and it’s one of the city’s iconic sites, depicted in numerous works of art. It would have been an incredibly pleasant walk, if it wasn’t for the 5 or so 360 swinging camera platforms, all playing 30 seconds of the famous Alicia Keys / Jay-Z song on repeat (Concert bung hole wet dream tomato), which makes you feel like an extra in a Black Mirror episode. Add to that numerous other vendors selling live snakes, illegal cocktails and $1 fridge magnets, and suddenly, those weed vendors on Charles Bridge in Prague don’t seem so annoying anymore.


From California to the New York islands

Is New York an island? Well, it’s complicated. Manhattan and Brooklyn are (the latter being the west end of Long Island which isn’t technically an island according to a 1985 Supreme Court ruling, but being surrounded by water counts as one, just like Coney Island isn’t an island but a peninsula, yet the name stands). Some islands are uninhabited — the North Brother and South Brother islands which were once known as de Gesellen (Dutch for “the Brethren”), are home to herons and egrets, and closed to the public, just like the two Mill Rock islands which were used as storage for cannons in the War of 1812. Others, on the other hand, have one clear function — the Rikers Island for example is a 10-jail prison complex.

Some have had a makeover — Randall Island, which in the 19th and early 20th century sheltered smallpox patients, juvenile criminals, Civil War veterans and the mentally ill, is now a vast public park with bike and walking tracks, a golf centre, tennis courts and 60 fields for other sports. Similarly, the Roosevelt Island, which is a residential area very well connected to Manhattan via (apparently the most modern) aerial tramway, was previously the site of a smallpox hospital, a laboratory and a lunatic asylum.

Some islands played an important role in history, like the Ellis Island, where approx. 12 million immigrants arrived to the famous Immigration Station built at the turn of the twentieth century or the Governors Island, which was a military fort used to target the British navy in 1776.

Some islands are iconic — the Liberty Island is the home of the Statue of Liberty, designed by the French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi (Lady Liberty) and Richard Morris Hunt (the granite pedestal), which was a gift from the French in honour of the American centennial. Or there’s the recently built artificial Little Island, designed by British architect Thomas Heatherwick, which was a $260 million present to the City of New York from billionaire Barry Diller and his wife, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg’s.

And other islands are completely unremarkable, like the Long Island which doesn’t have much to offer to those with modest salaries (“You’re essentially paying NYC level rent with none of the amenities”, according to a Reddit user) or the Staten Island which is the most suburban and conservative borough.

Admittedly, I only went to Staten Island to get a good view of the Statue of Liberty, and didn’t see much beyond the shopping mall where we killed time waiting for the next ferry. I did hover, visit the non-island Coney Island, and that was an enjoyable experience, especially as I knew the place from a few films, including Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, Alan Parker’s Angel Heart and Sam Esmail’s Mr Robot series. It’s in of the alleys in the Luna Park that the notorious F Society hackers are plotting to take down one of the biggest corporations in the world. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the famous arcade where the group had a base exists virtually intact and hasn’t been turned into a money-making tourist attraction. Likewise, I didn’t expect the amusement park to echo its portrayal in the series as a remote, desolate and eerily gloomy place, but that’s exactly how it felt on a Sunday morning, before it got opened. The creepy Steeplechase Face smiling from the entrance to the Scream Zone, combined with the sound of empty roller-coasters squeaking with no people in sight was unsettling to say the least. I can well imagine why Mr Robot chose to hide there.

Big Chinatown & Little Italy

Among the few distinctly ethnic areas I visited, both Chinatown and Little Italy certainly made an impression on me, although the latter has sadly been progressively shrinking over the past few decades. In 1974, Frank J. Prial wrote in The New York Times that “For 50 years, Little Italy and Chinatown enjoyed a colorful, peaceful, but highly unorthodox coexistence, like wontons in minestrone. Until recently, that is. Now, according to some Italian‐American community leaders, an enormous influx of Chinese immigrants into the area threatens to engulf the old Italian community and destroy it.” At the time, Little Italy was defined as the area of approx. 45 square blocks, bordered by Canal Street, Broadway, Bleecker Street and the Bowery, with a population of approx. 20,000, including fewer than 10,000 Italians. Meanwhile, Chinatown was estimated to have anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 Chinese residents. And while Italians went as far as forming an association to preserve the character of Little Italy, the Chinese fiercely denied playing any role in forcing Italian residents out.

But those fears were not ungrounded. Fast-forward to 2023, and the population of Chinatown has grown to around 90,000-100,000 people, making it the highest concentration of Chinese people in the Western Hemisphere, whereas the U.S. Community Survey from 2010 found that “none of the people living in Little Italy were born in Italy, and 5% of residents identified as Italian American”.

What remains now is roughly three blocks on Mulberry Street, which admittedly felt very Italian, but it’s a drop in an ocean of a city. And of course, there are other Italian American neighborhoods in New York, but it’s Little Italy where the Corleone family from the Godfather trilogy lived, not to mention several other film and real life characters, so it’s a little sad to see it swallowed up by the neighbouring Chinatown district with its impressive scale and character. In many European cities, Chinatown often comprises a few streets and a bunch of restaurants, and it’s a place you pop in and out of. The Chinatown in New York swallows you and teleports you to its Asian roots. Sitting on the bench in a local park, watching elderly Chinese people doing their calisthenics, singing and playing traditional instruments, was a trans-like experience.

Nevertheless, the Italian soul is deeply present in the heart of New York, and is manifested in numerous places, one of them being pizzerias. Apparently, while pizza as a dish originated in Naples, it was the Italian immigrants in New York City who mastered it. You can read all about its history, but one thing is certain: there’s no shortage of places where one can get a “traditional New York slice”. And besides the genuinely excellent pizzerias, there are the famous $1 (or more commonly these days, $1.50 due to inflation) 24-hour pizza stands, where one can get a freshly baked slice of something that a true Italian would most certainly smirk at, but which is the most comforting dish when you find yourself hungry at 2am in Manhattan.


Across 110th Street

Out of all the neighbourhoods I’ve visited, it was Harlem that spoke to me most. Harlem is a neighborhood in Upper Manhattan, bounded roughly by the Hudson River on the west; the Harlem River and 155th Street on the north; Fifth Avenue on the east; and Central Park North on the south. As a result of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the deindustrialization of New York City after World War II, rates of crime and poverty increased significantly and for a long time the neighbourhood suffered from bad reputation. This has, however, radically changed in the 21st century. In the 2010s the south part of Harlem and Morningside Heights started being rebranded as “SoHa” (i.e. “South Harlem”, a reference to SoHo or NoHo) in an attempt to accelerate gentrification of the neighborhoods.

A lot has changed since Bobby Womack sang that “Across 110th Street / Pimps trying to catch a woman that’s weak / Across 110th Street / Pushers won’t let the junkie go free ” but the further east, especially northeast, one goes, the less polished the neighbourhood gets. According to the New York City crime map however, west Harlem is now safer than Chelsea.

Like with many places in New York, I first saw Harlem in the aforesaid Angel Heart. Precisely, it was a scene in one of the neighbourhood’s mission churches, that got imprinted in my memory. This particular place of worship, called the Kingdom Mission, where detective Harry Angel is introduced to Louis Cyphre, is fictitious, but there are over 120 places of worship listed in this guide alone, including various protestant denominations, Catholics, Mormons, scientologists, Jehova witnesses, Muslims, Afro-American Judaism etc., and according to unofficial sources, there are plenty more, including some pretty underground ones, not so different from Pastor John’s mission in Parker’s film.

Apparently, black magic and voodoo are not a thing of the past, and in fact, voodoo is still practised among the Haitians living in New York city, serving as an identity marker. After the 2010 earthquake, many people within the City’s vast Haitian community turned to voodoo in search of comfort, just like Harlem’s interest in the occult was shaped by the Depression years. With 300,000 people either born in Haiti or of Haitian descent living in New York, which is the largest concentration in the United States, voodoo temples are scattered all around the city, notably in Harlem, but also in Brooklyn and Queens. And they’re visited not just by Haitians — one of the voodoo priestesses, Edeline St. Armand, said that her Société La Belle Venus II temple attracts “hundreds of people from across the city, including Wall Street bankers seeking spells to guard against falling share prices and homemakers aggrieved about wayward husbands.”

Not being religious myself, I do appreciate the idea of various faiths peacefully coexisting and I found Harlem to be lively and incredibly friendly. It was in stark contrast to the uncannily closed-off Satmar community in Brooklyn.

Oh, I’m an alien, I’m a Polish woman in Williamsburg

When visiting a foreign country, both me and my husband try draw as little attention to ourselves as possible. I have a big dislike for people who are ostentatiously loud and don’t make the slightest attempt to blend in with the locals. But there are places where blending in is virtually impossible, regardless how hard you try. And one of those places is the Hasidic part of Williamsburg.

Those who have read or seen the Unorthodox, will understand our desire to take a closer look at this peculiar community. As someone who approaches all religions from a healthy distance, I am partially fascinated and partially terrified by the convoluted world of rules and laws in Orthodox Judaism.

When we took the subway to Marcy Avenue, South Williamsburg and walked for a couple of blocks south of Division Avenue, the area was instantly transformed. Firstly, the people — we were the only non-Hasidic passersby and Saturday being The Sabbath, there were many local residents walking with their children, so that emphasised our feeling of being outsiders. Secondly, the architecture — one of the signs that you’re in a Hasidic community is the presence of zig-zagged balconies.The balconies are built this way in order to accommodate the autumn holiday called Sukkos, which requires believers to eat meals in huts that are open to the sky, which is why balconies cannot be placed directly above each other.

There are less pleasant things too, notably the amount of litter on the streets. Walking around the neighbourhood almost felt like walking into someone’s house by mistake, and feeling compelled to leave. From what I’ve read, there’s an ongoing feud between the Hasidic residents and the “hipsters” settling in the Northside, the former being vividly opposed to making any changes in the street infrastructure, such as building bike paths. Hasidic schools are “almost entirely religion-focused, with religious lessons taking up most of the day, six days a week except Saturday”, according to an article in Le Monde, which also stated that when in 2019 some of those Hasidic boys schools agreed to give their students a math and English assessment, partly in order to secure government funding, it turned out that 99% of the students failed. On Reddit, Satmar members admit to not have any interests beyond the history of their culture and no wish to go beyond the eruv. “We are our own world, we aren’t Americans, we are Jews”, one user wrote, and I found that statement very powerful and bold, as it stands in stark contrast to the pride Americans feel about their country.

As it happened, we saw a manifestation of that pride in the two other cities we visited during this trip.

New York Trip Bonus 1: Philadelphia

When planning our New York trip, we thought it might be fun to do a day trip to another city. But the supply of places one can visit and return from within the same day without spending half of it on public transport is rather scarce. Then a friend of mine recommended Philadelphia, and since it’s only 1.5 hours from New York, we decided to go there and try the Philly sandwiches. Incidentally, Pennsylvania is where my American aunt used to live, the one you can read about in my Californian post. So I was particularly curious about the place.

It was one of the very few rainy days, which only emphasised the rougher and darker look of the city compared to New York. We started our excursion by visiting the Independence Hall, where on 4 July 1776 The United States Declaration of Independence was signed, followed by the signing of the Constitution 11 years later, in 1787. It was an interesting experience, but we were slightly taken aback at the amount of credit Americans seem to take for inventing a democratic system, and the sense of self-importance.

We then tried the (in)famous Philly cheesesteak, which is essentially a quarter pound of beef in a baguette, covered with “cheese” (I use quotation marks because I live in the Netherlands. Whatever that yellow thing was, was not cheese, the way I understand it). An intense experience for two people who otherwise eat very little meat, but we have a rule that wherever we go, we like to try all local specialities, regardless how odd, unhealthy or plain disgusting they are (wait until you read about our trip to Japan). A more rewarding experience, according to my husband, was a hot dog from a local gritty stand, which, at only $2 for a dog with cheese and sauerkraut, offered great value. He still talks about it.

The rest of the day was spent on exploring the city: old town and Pen’s Landing, through Museum Mile, City Hall and Chinatown, with a visit at The Mütter Museum, which has an impressive collection of anatomical specimens, models, and medical instruments. Again, not for the faint-hearted, but as an artist fascinated by all aspects of the human body, I have a penchant for these sorts of places.

New York Trip Bonus 2: Washington

Highly recommended by our friends, Washington was an actual bonus, because technically it was a 23 hour layover on our way back to Amsterdam. My husband excels at finding the best possible flight connections, so we were able to see a glimpse of a very interesting city (and visit another state!). Greeted by incredible humidity, we spent an evening walking around before adjourning to a local pub for a comforting meal and a pint of local IPA. If I had successfully managed to avoid seeing cockroaches in New York, the short visit to Washington more than made up for that loss — I saw three big cockroaches walking down the street in the space of a couple of hours. Yikes.

But aside from insects, the city was a pleasant surprise. As with Philadelphia, we were given a crash course in American history, this time at the Capitol, where I miraculously managed to secure one of the last free slots. There are several tours happening at once around the Capitol, each with a very charismatic and dedicated tour guide. The fact that we were visiting the city the day before 4th July, meant that there was an even more noticeable air of pride and patriotism. For a moment, I regretted not having been to the city on the actual Independence Day, but when after getting back to the Netherlands I read about the 17 mass shootings recorded across the country the previous day, I was glad to have departed on the 3rd.

That’s the thing about America — a beautiful vision gets punctured by the sound of a rifle, and I’m instantly reminded why I wouldn’t want to live there. But still, visiting America is a lot of fun and I’ll definitely be back for more.

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