When you last heard from me, I was explaining why it took me so long to make my first visit to New York City and showing you my nostalgia-fueled journey there on the Amtrak. But did I like it there? As the title of this post suggests, yes, yes and yes! Let’s take a look at the highlights.
First, I had the good fortune to be hosted on the Lower East Side of Manhattan by an old friend and former roommate from my undergrad days. Being roommates again was a high point of my stay, reminiscing about the good old days and learning about this new-to-me city from someone who’d already explored it a fair amount.
Right from the start, on my first day walking around, I discovered that one of the ideas I’d had about the city was wrong. In the US, New York City has a reputation for being unfriendly. People there, I’d always heard, were constantly in a hurry, invariably gruff and surly and probably planning to rob you. Even Sesame Street made sure we knew what a tough city it was.
So although I knew stereotypes don’t always reflect reality, thank heavens, on some level I’d mentally braced myself. “Do your worst,” I told the city. “I live in Paris!” Nothing could faze me after 10 years in the French capital.
But it turned out that while the reputation Paris has is (generally) well deserved, New York City’s isn’t. Throughout my entire stay, I consistently heard Excuse me, Sorry and Thank you, and on several occasions people spontaneously offered me help when I looked like I needed it. On my way into the city, loaded down with a heavy suitcase, I was looking at a flight of subway stairs in dismay when a passing woman volunteered that there was an escalator a bit further down the hall. Another time, I was sitting on a bench applying band-aids to my blistered heels when another passerby offered to supply me with more band-aids should I need them. And on the train to the airport on my last day, my fellow travelers (who could see from my luggage where I was going) helped me figure out what to do when the train service was temporarily halted, without my even having to ask.
So perhaps most New Yorkers are only “rude” in comparison with, for example, invasively friendly Midwesterners. In small-town Wisconsin, strangers actually get a bit too much into your business sometimes, so I can imagine rural folk who haven’t traveled much being disappointed by city-dwellers who don’t always have time to chat with you.
But on several occasions, locals actually did strike up a conversation. One afternoon, taking a break from a street art expedition in Brooklyn, I sat down in a café with a matcha latte and pulled Orlando out of my bag. The middle-aged gentleman working on a laptop at the table next to mine took his headphones off to remark on a coincidence: he was in the middle of writing an opera based on another of Virginia Woolf’s books! We spoke for a few minutes about the smallness of the world and the difficulties of adapting stream-of-consciousness literature to a musical form. When I asked when he expected to finish the piece, he chuckled and said sometime in the next decade. We each went back to our respective occupation and, making a mental note to pay more attention to operas, I wondered if he were somebody famous.
Little encounters such as these add a nice human touch to one’s existence, I find. This dimension of city life is something I’ve talked about on this blog before, and my stay in New York City only reinforced the fact that I truly miss it.
As for the city itself, one of the things I was most interested in was its background. I’d already learned about its Dutch roots at museums in Amsterdam and was curious to know more about other ethnic groups, like Jews and Italians, that don’t have so much of a presence in the region I’m from.
The Lower East Side, as it happens, is an ideal starting point to learn about the city’s history of immigration. Just a few blocks from my friend’s apartment, I discovered and fell in love with the Tenement Museum, a learning center that explores the uniquely American story of immigration and the rich, diverse landscape it continues to create. For me, an immigrant myself, this topic has special resonance. Founded in 1988, the museum is made up of two former Orchard Street tenement buildings, each featuring several apartments restored to the way they would have looked at different points in history. The museum offers different guided tours designed to focus on particular themes telling the stories of actual families who lived in the buildings. I opted for the Sweatshop Workers tour, which takes you through the cramped living spaces of two Jewish families, the Levines (c. 1892), who operated a small garment factory in their sitting room and kitchen, and the Rogarshevskys (c. 1908), who worked at apparel factories outside the home and therefore had different living circumstances.
On this tour, and also a separate Tenement Museum walking tour that I joined, I learned that Orchard Street and surrounding areas were once the beating heart of the nation’s garment industry, with most families doing piecework in their homes for long hours six or seven days of the week. Walking down the street, you could have looked up and seen someone bent over their sewing at just about each window and heard the whirring of sewing machines from all sides. It was also a street clogged with pushcarts since itinerant vendors were a convenient source of groceries in the day.
The district has been home to various ethnic groups that arrived and dominated, population-wise, in waves. In the 1840s, so many settlers from the German states had come that the area became known as Klein Deutschland. Next were Italians and Eastern European Jews, and by around 1920 the Lower East Side had the largest community of Jews in the entire world. After World War II, Puerto Ricans and African-Americans began to appear in greater numbers. Today there’s a prominent Chinese presence, but a mix of other ethnic groups live there too.
To learn more about New York City’s immigrant history, check out the Tenement Museum’s podcast, How To Be American.
To take a peek inside 97 Orchard Street, watch the video below. If you look around YouTube a bit, you may also find a funny Saturday Night Live tribute to the museum.
And for a deeper dive into the immigrant experience, I highly recommend Betty Smith’s semi-autobiographical novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn focusing on an Irish-Austrian family living in the Williamsburg slums in the early 20th century. Titles of other fiction and non-fiction works about immigrants in NYC are listed in the museum’s shop.
A vestige of the Lower East Side’s Jewish days can be seen in the beautiful and painstakingly restored 1887 synagogue now known as The Museum at Eldridge Street. Below are a few glimpses into its interior.
The two other museums I saw on this trip were the Guggenheim – the building was the main attraction for me since Frank Lloyd Wright (a Wisconsin native!) is my favorite architect – and a museum devoted to Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.
Other art can be seen on the city’s walls for free. There are quite a few impressive murals by Brazilian street artist Kobra, and Invader has quite a few pieces there too. I also saw some pieces by Stik and Frank Ape.
And what about the vegan food scene? It was, of course, amazing! Much like in London, you can find decent vegan items on the menu of just about any mainstream restaurant, and there are many fantastic all-vegan places. Within a three-block radius of my friend’s apartment, I counted three places to get vegan ice cream. Just down the street from the Tenement Museum is Orchard Grocer, a little food shop and delicatessen with a range of delicious made-to-order vegan sandwiches. I was very impressed by their Bowery breakfast sandwich and their Edith bagel with cashew cream cheese and carrot lox that could easily be mistaken for smoked salmon. Adjoining this shop is Moo Shoes, which has a nice selection of vegan footwear, bags and T-shirts.
Other places I loved included Riverdel inside Essex Market, which offers a wide range of gourmet vegan cheeses plus hot and cold sandwiches (their hot breakfast sandwich was divine!), Beyond Sushi, Dun-Well Doughnuts and Van Leeuwen ice cream. There were some spots I didn’t manage to get to, like Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Modern Love in Brooklyn, so those will just have to wait for my next visit!
So there, in a rather long-winded nutshell, you have my first visit to New York City, a place I strangely felt at home in right away. Maybe because it combines the things I like about Paris (a major international city filled with people from all over the world and lots of art and culture) with the things I like about the US (friendliness, the ability to chat with strangers, greater acceptance of veganism and a wide availability of vegan food) and of course the fact that I blend in and don’t have to be an ambassador for my country.
10/10 would visit again! I have to, anyway, since I still have so many more things to see there.
Have you been to New York City, and how did you like it?