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The lives of eight million: All about… New York City {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by Brian Richards, museum curator for New York Yankees. Brian has coordinated 10 exhibits from scratch since the museum’s opening in 2009, including last June’s exhibit on Mickey Mantle. He currently lives in the Bronx and enjoys strolling down Fifth Avenue on Saturday evenings.

*

This post may raise a few eyebrows when compared to the others in this series that focus on global places, since New York City obviously isn’t a foreign country. However, it was a completely foreign environment to me when I moved here four years ago. I grew up in the tiny borough of Hughesville, Pennsylvania (population: 2,000), with a cornfield behind our home. In my teenage years, I dreamed of teaching history at Hughesville High School, marrying a local girl, and raising a family in that same little town. Even when I went to college at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, and on to graduate school in Cooperstown, New York (both also communities of 2,000 people), I never thought I’d one day move to America’s largest, fastest-moving, most exciting metropolis.

When I was hired by the New York Yankees in September 2008 to assemble and run a museum in the new Yankee Stadium, I was filled simultaneously with exhilaration and terror. How would I ever live in New York City? Simply tolerating the “Big Apple” would have been enough for me, let alone loving the place. I settled into the Riverdale neighborhood in the Bronx and have grown by leaps and bounds, both personally and professionally… and in my understanding and love for my new home.

Here are five important things that I’ve learned about New York City:

1.) There are many New Yorks within New York City. Think of New York City… what images immediately come to mind? Most of us will imagine Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Central Park, etc. As for me, I always thought of bustling Times Square where “The Great White Way” and Seventh Avenue grandly intersect. It’s easy to think that “this is New York City,” but that’s only partially true. New York City is also quiet streets of townhouses in Chelsea. It’s tree-lined streets on the Upper West Side where ancient brick paving pokes through well-worn asphalt. It’s Hudson Street in the West Village, with little shops and restaurants that offer a refreshingly laid-back atmosphere. And that’s just Manhattan! I regret to say that I haven’t explored Brooklyn or Queens very much… and have never set foot on Staten Island… but those boroughs no doubt offer even more “New Yorks” within New York. I no longer picture Times Square when I think of this metropolis; in fact, I intentionally avoid the area for that very reason. It’s beautiful to learn about and savor the unique aspects of these communities-within-a-city.

2.) New York City… it ain’t what it used to be. I think there’s a common conception among non-New Yorkers that NYC hasn’t changed since the 1970s and 1980s. By that I’m implying a New York City with crumbling infrastructure and subways that double as easels for graffiti artists, a New York of rampant homelessness and violent crime. Maybe that was just the perspective I came from, but I certainly believed it. When visiting a busy area of the city, my father warned me to always keep my wallet in one of my front pants pockets to avoid pickpockets. Before living here, New York City invoked in me a sense of wonder and an equally strong sense of fear. Thankfully, all my fears were unwarranted. NYC experienced a renaissance of sorts in the 1990s which continues to the present day. Streets and subways were cleaned up, new shelters were built for those needed housing, and crime rates plummeted. There’s a reason why New York is consistently rated as one of the safest cities in America; in Manhattan, there’s (almost literally) a police officer on every street corner. The days of municipal bailout requests, blackouts, and “Son of Sam” are long since over. I can walk down any street in Manhattan without fear of any sort of danger. And I always keep my wallet in my back pocket.

3.) Nuuu Yawkers — they’re not all pushy, arrogant boars. If you’re within “radio range” of New York City, tune-in to WFAN sports radio sometime. The not-so-graceful words of Mike Francesa may attack your ears. Francesa, a staple on New York sports talk radio shows, embodies the stereotype of New Yorkers that I formerly held. He gives his callers few opportunities to defend their opinions while arrogantly dismissing them in a condescending manner. This is what I expected all New Yorkers to be like — constantly blowing horns, pushing in lines, and griping in voices loud enough to permanently impair hearing. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find very few people here like that. It does, however, feel like every New Yorker is constantly in a rush, but everybody realizes that the people around them are rushing, too. New Yorkers recognize the presence of over eight million people around them and understand the need for tolerance and coexistence. That doesn’t mean that deliberately ignorant behavior will go unrecognized or without comment. But as long as you’re thinking and respecting those around you, a profanity-laden tongue-lashing in Brooklynese won’t be a concern. Unless, of course, you call in to Mike Francesa’s show.

4.) Owning… and driving… a car really isn’t necessary here. Okay, now this one seems like a no-brainer, right? Who doesn’t know that an empty parking spot is impossible to find in NYC? But consider this: if everybody really knows that “fact,” why are there still so many cars, and why is parking still so coveted? Life without a car was simply unimaginable when I grew up in Hughsville, and I still held that belief as I drove my 1993 Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight Royale to New York from Cooperstown in October 2008. The dream of keeping my beloved car quickly turned into a nightmare. Not only are parking spots in Riverdale difficult to find, every car has to be moved at least once per week for the street sweeper. I drove 90 minutes straight without a break one night — literally, a full hour-and-a-half — trying to find another spot. I quickly realized that the car was a luxury here, not a necessity.  It’s definitely convenient to come and go whenever you please rather than just missing a bus or subway train, but the city’s public transit system really does get you where you need to go. I never thought I could live without my car. Now, I can’t live with the car here. The parking, sky-high insurance rates, city gas prices, etc. are simply unneeded stress.

5.) Celebrities are not standing on every street corner. Another “obvious fact,” right? Not necessarily. It seems like everybody who is anybody in film, sports, music, etc., calls a chic Manhattan flat “home” for at least part of the year. Many people come to New York expecting to bump into Jennifer Aniston in the supermarket, wait for a subway with Jay-Z, or get a restaurant table next to Eli Manning. I have yet to experience any of this (although I have spoken to Rudy Guiliani, Whoopi Goldberg, Henry Kissinger, and Richard Gere while working at Yankee Stadium. OK, so I’m special.). Next time you venture into Manhattan, you’d might as well forget the autograph books. What you will find is something far more beautiful — the lives of common people unfolding before your eyes, by the thousands, at any given moment. Everybody has needs, wants, longings, joys, and sorrows, and New York shows all that drama unfolding and multiplied by eight million. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t mind bumping into Rachel McAdams at Starbucks sometime. But seeing and hearing so much genuine human drama excites me far more than seeing any famous face could ever do.

"Daily Life in NYC," Chuck Kuhn

“Daily Life in NYC,” by Chuck Kuhn

YankeeStadium-NewYork-SeatingBowl-990x442

Yankee Stadium (Stock Photo)

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2 thoughts on “The lives of eight million: All about… New York City {a cultural project}

  1. RogueAnthropologist on said:

    I’m glad you wrote about a place in the U.S. Taking the perspective of this series to a more familiar location gives it fresh eyes. Several of my good friends from college moved to NYC after graduating, and though I’d been there many times for the typical sites, it wasn’t till Iw as able to start spending weekends with my friends in their various neighborhoods that I discovered the “many New Yorks within New York” that you described.

    While it’s true that violent crime rates in NYC have dropped significantly since the 1980s, I’m not so optimistic about the “renaissance” that cleaned streets and supposedly housed the homeless. There are still lots of people in New York struggling to meet their basic needs (including people who most recently became homeless thanks to Sandy), and Guiliani-style “urban revitalization” has done more to hide and displace poverty and homelessness from the more visible areas of the city than it has to eradicate either crisis.

  2. THANK you. I guess “out of sight, out of mind” is still an adage that holds true — I knew this about NYC, but didn’t consider it with the framing of this post. I wish that “cleaning up the city” meant improving social infrastructure, but you’re right — it all too often just includes displacing lives and widening social divides. This reminder is much appreciated.

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