New York City’s crown jewel. A tiny island bristling with tall buildings. In some parts the enormous wealth and power of the inhabitants gives even the sidewalks a surreal sheen. In others, the timeless grittiness of the city shows through. Manhattan isn’t so much about tourist attractions as it is about a certain feeling of exhilaration. A trip to the top of the Empire State Building might leave you cold, but watching a fleet of yellow cabs race up the avenue at the light and seeing delis ready to sell you almost anything any time of the day or night gives one a sense of giddy omnipotence that, for me, defines the borough.
Every year the Sahara Desert grows by about 10 miles. Gentrification in Brooklyn, like desertification near the Sahara, creeps along at a few miles a year. Many hip brooklynites sip cocktails in neighborhoods their parents would have been scared to set foot in. As Manhattan becomes more expensive, much of the edgier arts and culture scene has decamped to Brooklyn. All of this makes Brooklyn a borough of contrasts: you’ll find sake bars and dollar stores side-by-side on some blocks. In some ways, the neighborhood of Williamsburg typifies these contrasts: Orthodox Jews, Hispanic families and young émigrés from Manhattan (or directly out of college) share the same few blocks.
According to the last census, the borough of Queens is the most ethnically diverse place in the world. Because Queens is home to so many recent immigrants, it’s a great place to go for authentic Afghani ashak and the best taramosalata outside of Greece. In recent years gentrification fever has hit Queens as well, so places like Long Island City and Astoria now have their pockets of hipness. Saturdays in the summer PS 1 (a division of the Museum of Modern Art) in Long Island City hosts a wildly popular daytime dance party with DJs, food, drink and museum installations to view when you’ve had too much sun. Go to www.ps1.org/ for all relevant information.
For New Yorkers from outside of the Bronx, it’s the least well known of 5 boroughs. This can work to the tourist’s advantage. Arthur Avenue in Belmont is a largely undiscovered Little Italy centered on a 75-year-old covered market. The Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, once a notoriously bad area, has experienced a bit of a renaissance. Artists, attracted by the large loft spaces and low rents, have been moving to Mott Haven and working with artists already there to create a vibrant community. Visit this web site run by MottHavenArt to read about events in the area.
Staten Island is a bit of a cultural anomaly in New York. It is the only predominantly Republican borough and will soon be home to the region’s only NASCAR track. The island is much maligned by other New Yorkers for its conservatism and for the recently closed Fresh Kills landfill. Until it closed in 2001, Fresh Kills was the largest garbage dump in the world. Legend has it that it was visible from outer space.
There are, however, some good reasons to get off the ferry. The Snug Harbor Cultural Center is worth a visit, as is Silver Lakes Park. Staten Island is also home to Sandy Ground, the oldest community created by free slaves in North America and an important stop on the Underground Railroad.