If you ever want to experience culture shock without leaving the USA, do what I did next – get on a plane from the sunny, open, blue sky country of Colorado, fly to New York City, and land in the middle of a torrential summer downpour, with traffic stalled, horns blazing, and angry faces everywhere. It is hard to believe the two can exist on the same planet, let alone in the same country.
Once I’d recovered from the change of scenery and culture, I spent a couple of days orienting myself to the city, especially my new neighborhood, Harlem. If Native American tribes think they have cornered the market on unique culture and identity, New Yorkers are worthy competitors. And I say this because it turns out that everything that can be said about what happens in New York City is said because it is New York City.
With a population of over eight million people, more than double the next largest US city (L.A.), New Yorkers have had to learn to survive in ways that the rest of us can’t even imagine – trash collection and food procurement being the most obvious daily challenges, on top of housing and transportation and obtaining even the most rudimentary of services. As Charles Murray noted in his recent book, “Coming Apart”, Manhattan is one notable home of the ‘superzip’ culture, but outside that bubble of wealth live millions of New Yorkers who are barely scraping by.
While Harlem is no longer the crime and crack capital of the city it once was, taxi drivers still balk mightily at delivering passengers there, and I was persistently warned to watch my back, hug my purse, count my change, and hide my house key till I’d scoped the block – and this not only from neighbors on the block, but store keepers and street vendors as well. Stores are secured with bars on the windows and heavy locking gates, and homeless sleep on park benches during the day or wander the streets, some yelling at passerby, others sifting through trash cans for food, and cans and bottles to trade in for cash. There is some gentrification, but there is a long way to go.
I chose a local park with playgrounds to hang out in, in hopes of meeting families with children. Sure enough, the parks had plenty of families hanging out, even during the workday, but I was not particularly successful. Unlike Americans in most places I’ve visited so far, locals here have little interest in talking to strangers, and in fact become fairly agressive if approached.
Starting with the staff at the free local swimming pool at the Jackie Robinson Community center, who insisted I tour the building with an escort, I had a series of rather dispiriting encounters. The escort rushed me through the pool facility in short order and then showed me the door, a middle-aged woman started yelling at me and chased me out of the adjacent park, and a friendly looking family pointedly showed me the ‘Park Rules’ stating only parents can be in the playgrounds, no other adults allowed, indicating I should head out.
I got the message loud and clear: I would need to be creative and agressive to have any chance of talking to people. Finally, after a discouraging couple of days, I came across a family of four willing to talk at length.