Ten years ago I arrived in New York City with a couple of bags, an address and a phone number. I called the landlady from a payphone at JFK to let her know I was on my way. But when I got to the apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, no one buzzed me in. I sat down on the stoop. It was the last afternoon of August. The summer was far from over. Some guys on the block noticed me and began to holla at me. “Hey baby…” I looked the other way, at my new street, at Brooklyn. I knew I had to get smart real fast.
Even while sitting on the street with my stuff, I felt relieved. The hard part was over. I’d worked my butt off to reach that stoop. Through the preceding winter I’d cleaned offices during the day, taught bellydance classes at night, and performed on the weekends. I’d scrambled together (barely) enough money to get a six month long visa – on the second attempt. (The first time they denied me. I wasn’t taking no for an answer, and reapplied with a new pile of papers.) I’d found a cheap sublet on Craigslist in Sunset Park, a mostly Mexican neighborhood. I arrived with a few thousand dollars, enough to get me through the first three or four months. I didn’t have a plan for after that. I knew nobody in New York. At least I spoke the language.
The city welcomed me. I found everything I’d been looking for, even the things I hadn’t dared to want out loud. The dance scene was amazing. For the first time I didn’t struggle to make ends meet. New friends were all around, places to live were easy to find. Each new neighborhood was a new beginning. During four years I lived in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, twice in each. Some of those roommates became friends for life.
Tompkins Square Park in Alphabet City, Manhattan
Every so often a friend comes to visit (like next month), but these days I’m usually not around. The least I can do is make some recommendations. I got plenty, but still asked my friend Monet, one of the few native New Yorkers I know. Let’s lean in for her inside information!
“What would you call a New York must-see?”
“You’d need to ask somebody who’s moved here from someplace else. When you’re born and raised here you don’t really think about it.” (Telling it like it is!)
“Well what’s your favorite neighborhood to visit?”
“I like Astoria. It reminds me of Brazil.” (Huh?!)
“Where do you like to shop?”
“I don’t shop.”
There! You heard it from a native. She said to ask someone who’s moved here…so I asked myself.
I think the biggest mistake visitors make is never leaving Manhattan. (Taking the ferry to the Statue of Liberty does NOT count.) Okay, you wanna see the Empire State, the Met, some diner where Sally fake orgasmed at Harry…yawn. I’m not a big fan of touristy stuff, anywhere. The best of NYC does not come with an entrance fee or opening hours. What makes this city great is its PEOPLE. The mix of cultures, the different neighborhoods. People move to New York with big dreams, whether it’s finance, fashion, or arts – or simply supporting family back home. This city was built by ambitious immigrants. We used to arrive by boat from Europe, now we fly in from all over the world, and all of us have a chance to make it here.
A few historical neighborhoods are famous, like Harlem, Little Italy and the Village in Manhattan. All are worth a linger. But there’s a hundred others. The Greek-Arabic-Hispanic (and I suppose Brazilian!) concoction Astoria in Queens is one of my favorites too. A little further east is Jackson Heights, Queens, head there for a slice of Indian heaven. Right now I’m staying in Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, and I constantly hear Arabic on the streets. It offers me a soft landing from the Middle East. Wanna see what the kool kids are up to? Alternative is mainstream on St. Marks Place in the East Village, Manhattan – great for cheap eats, community yoga classes, bongs, tattoos, and other weird souvenirs.
Who doesn’t love Big Gay Ice Cream Shop! East Village, Manhattan
The Chinatown in Manhattan is far from the only Chinese dominated area. Try Flushing, Queens – women with umbrellas on a sunny day will confirm you’re in Asia. Or go check out the fashionable ladies in the Russian speaking Brighton and Coney Island in Brooklyn. If you keep your eyes open (or Google) you can discover interesting sub-neighborhoods like Koreatown, Little Haiti or Le Petit Senegal. I have a huge soft spot for my first hood Sunset Park, and to this day I head to 5th Avenue for cheap shopping, to hear what’s hot in Reggaeton and to grab some street snacks. (Not to be confused with the 5th Avenue in Manhattan! No Louis Vuitton here.) Other good shopping destinations are Flatbush Avenue, which is in a mostly black and Caribbean area in Brooklyn, Steinway street in Astoria, as well as Queens Mall. Great food is all around, you can find anything your heart desires, whether it’s cheap ethnic or fancy fusion. For a truly local experience, have a bagel with cream cheese.
Arabic food is easy to find in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn
Sometimes this city stuns you. I’ll never forget when I first set foot in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Suddenly I saw a boy wearing a little hat, with a shaved head and two long curls on both sides of his face. I thought to myself “Wow, that kid’s parents have a strange sense of humor.” I walked on and began to see adults in clothes that looked like they belonged to a different century. “Right, I think these are Amish people…” Finally I saw a school bus with Hebrew text, and realized I was in a Hasidic Jewish area. Oh! Fresh from Scandinavia, I’d never seen anything like it.
Times Square deserves about three minutes of your time, unless you’re picking up a ticket for a Broadway show (TOTALLY worth your money and time). Instead, take the subway down to Union Square, and spend a couple of hours. It’s a hub for street performers and musicians, activists, craft and bake sales, and the occasional Hare Krishna gathering, especially in the summer. (Also the homeless and the crazies – New York has lots of them – but they’re usually harmless.) Speaking of performers, take kindly to those athletic young men who barge into a subway car and yell “It’s showtime!”, proceeding to blast music and do acrobatics on the aisle. Give them a dollar and a smile. They’re good kids.
I’m still a New Yorker at heart, although I don’t spend much time here. It’s my safe place, where everything makes sense. I can have a chat with virtually anyone I come across during my day – people are eager to go off script and share a laugh with a stranger. I feel completely free. I can wear anything, look people in the eye, and cross the street when I want. There have been times when I arrive a little worse for wear, licking some battle wound, but there’s nothing that can’t be talked out and made better over coffee or sushi. I turn to my friends, and I decompress.
Back to that stoop in Sunset Park. I didn’t sit there for long. A girl came to open the door for me. She said the intercom wasn’t working. I followed her to the apartment, and into my tiny little room. And from that moment on, I was home.