When you mention New York City, several reactions tend to come up. First, you have the cynics who shudder at the thought of stepping foot in such a grimy concrete jungle and think it is where the worst of humanity collects to poison this fair country. On the other hand you have the romantics who have played tourist here and whose eyes sparkle with Rockefeller lights and stoplights; whose memories are threaded with thin crust pizza and yellow taxi cabs, The Plaza Hotel and carriage rides in Central Park, subways and miles of glamorous storefronts, and who imagine living here is like having your life scripted from a hallmark movie.
The trouble with either notion is its one-dimensional view, because New York City is easily one of the most diverse places in the world- definitely the most diverse I’ve been to. Now, when people talk of its diversity, it is usually in regards to the population, which isn’t wrong; it’s definitely one of the best thing the city offers. Visit Queens and you’ll find languages you didn’t know existed swirling about your ears; you’ll visit supermarkets full of tendon balls and crispy fungus, and you’ll eat foods that savor of spices you never dreamed of. Go a few blocks further and all the signs turn to Spanish. Little bakeries litter the blocks, selling pan dulce, and cumin and lime mingle with the ever present scent of “trash day somewhere.” Go to Brooklyn and find yourself suddenly surrounded by black hats and long skirts and wigs, with the slightly familiar Yiddish floating past your ears. Chutzpah. Klutz. Schmutz. Walk on for a few blocks and you find there is hiphop playing and basketballs thudding and shops advertising beautifully intricate braids and locks. Head to the Upper West Side and the city turns almost quiet, dignified, stately. Little families roll down the sidewalk with their stylish babies in strollers, with designer trench coats floating at their heels, and with perfect blonde waves grazing their shoulders.
So yes, New York City’s population is certainly diverse, which I do not cease to love about it. But it’s more than that. In many regards it is a city of stark contrasts, perhaps more than I’ve seen anywhere else in my limited travels.
Take, for example, the weather. In the winter we bundle up in coats and fleece leggings and jeans and scarves and hats and mittens, and still the wind manages to nip through the many layers and frost our souls. It is coldcoldcold, and you feel it so much because going anywhere here requires more outdoor walking than a brief couple feet out the door to the car. The air is damp and bone-chilling and mind-numbing, and you wonder if summer will ever come again. But it does, surprise! and before you’ve properly enjoyed the springtime the city begins to swelter. You lie on your bed, sweating, you wear the fewest layers you can get away with, you take cool showers and as soon as you’re done, the heat presses against you again. Going anywhere is an exercise in faith, faith in your deodorant, that is. The energy is sucked out of you by the relentless humidity, and you just have to accept the fact that if you venture to go anywhere, you will be arriving at your destination wilted and limp with beads of sweat on your lip. This is summer in New York City. It’s easily as hot and humid as states much further south, but far colder in the winter. Such opposites.
It’s not only the weather. The economic ranges here are also startling, glaring in their contrast. You walk down Park Avenue past stores which sell luxury items I couldn’t dream of ever affording. Huge lobbies gleam with marble and crystal chandeliers, with well-groomed doormen ready to attend to your every need. Silks and cashmeres and velvets are set off by diamonds and designer bags and shoes. The air smells clean, fresh, expensive. You step outside of such a building and walk past people huddled on pieces of cardboard, toes peeking through their broken shoes, cups scrawled with letters asking for help from pitying strangers. Instead of Burberry perfumes, you smell sickly sweet marijuana smoke mingling with unwashed body odors. There are people born into fabulous wealth living alongside stereotypical starving artists who check their bank accounts to see if they will refill their metro card or hop over the bars to the train today. There are stockbrokers making squillions of dollars every year on Wall Street in their well cut blue suits, and there are people spending their days inside the twelve square feet of their food cart truck on the same street, toiling over their smoking grills day after day, making lamb skewers and gyros to feed the hungry. It’s jarring.
The very infrastructure of the city is full of contrasts. In one day you can breeze between skyscrapers so tall you have to crane your neck to see the mirrored tops, or which on cloudy days, simply vanish into the gray mist, and everything is glass and concrete and stone, as far as the eye can see; then you go to Central Park and get lost in the winding trails. If you hit up the less-populous north side of the park, there are unkempt fields and brushy woods which make you feel like perhaps you wandered into farming country by mistake. Once you find your way out, take the train to parts of Queens where it’s all little three-story apartment/houses with balconies and tiny yards for blocks and blocks and blocks, interspersed by bodegas and little eateries and 99 cent stores. Not as beautiful architecturally, but more down to earth than Manhattan, if quiet is more your thing. Go to Forest Hills and the houses begin grow, turning into gorgeous, old stone structures with ivy growing up the walls and hemmed in with lush green yards. You wonder if perhaps you wandered into an old English town by mistake. Head south to Brooklyn and you can lie on the beach, watching the endless waves roil, full of seaweed and happy children. If you go in the winter you’re liable to have the frosty beach nearly to yourself, with Cony Island’s deserted rides casting eerie shadows in the setting sun, as unsettling as they are delightful. Trek across bridges, either the old, gracious, stone and wire creation which everyone knows and loves, or go north a couple bridges and find yourself on a concrete one which is covered with graffiti the whole way across and which is, oddly enough, pink. Cold and hungry? Go to The Village and enjoy the classic brick buildings crisscrossed with fire escapes, with the stray garden on the roof here and there. Pop into some charming little bakery or other and have yourself a croissant and espresso as you admire the ivied wall across the way. Nature and skyscrapers and sea and old architecture and new, all in one happy jumble. It’s fantastic.
The food is another contrast. You can eat questionable hotdogs from a cart for three dollars, or perfect tamales from a five gallon bucket outside your train stop for two. There are huge plates of noodles and orange chicken available every few blocks for reasonable sum and bubble tea shops pepper my neighborhood, thicker than my eyebrows. But if you’re not in the mood for such food, why don’t you join the New Year’s party at Daniel and enjoy a five course French meal for a mere six hundred and twenty-five dollars a person. You’ll probably want to leave your Uggs at home for this. Not sure your retirement fund will be happy with that? You can compromise and visit Dominique Ansel bakery where the former pastry chef from Daniel whips up creations that will make your senses sing, and not leave you living in a cardboard box afterward. There’s something for everyone.
The list wouldn’t be complete without spirituality. There are plenty people here who hate God and everything Christianity stands for, and who are very vocal about their anger. This is what many outsiders, particularly those who have grown up steeped in Christianity, think of when they think of the city. On the other hand, I’ve found New York City is also packed with vibrant churches, churches which grow and thrive and worship in spirit and in truth. Being a Christian doesn’t come as easily as in the Bible belt, perhaps, but it’s often not as casual either. It’s beautiful.
Next time you choose to visit New York City, look out for some contrasts of your own, and see if you aren’t a little surprised, as I have been, by the vastness of the scope it offers.