Where you from?

No sleep ’til Brooklyn – regardless of neighborhood

Fashion Night Out. For most New Yorkers, the Thursday on which it falls each year tends to be an occasion to go door-to-door in the Meatpacking or Madison Ave. shopping districts and take a look at the latest styles fresh off of the runway. Two years ago, it fell on my birthday but last year, it was the first major test that didn’t fall on a weekend for yours truly. Saturday night ended up with its own rhythm and cadence, as crushloads of tourists and nightcrawlers made their way out each week until the wee hours of the morning. The second Thursday in September was a different beast though, as throngs of drunken, overdressed, and uninhibited New Yorkers made their way out, clogging certain parts of town without a care in the world. Unfortunately, I still had a job to do, and I sure got anything I had coming to me that night.

One fare wanted to go to the heart of the Upper East Side, right through where Tiffany’s and Cartier call home in the Big Apple. Another one dragged me from Pastis all the way down to Battery Park City, only to realize that she forgot her iphone and *had* to get back uptown for it, freaking out the whole way. I have no idea why the bitch just left my cab on 14 St, only to stick four rumpled $1’s in my hand because “that’s all I have”, as I sat in traffic helplessly wondering why she couldn’t pony up the other $12 and change that I was owed. The area of 6 Ave. in front of Radio City Music Hall was down to one lane because of roadwork and crosstown traffic blocking the street, leading the cop directing traffic to yell “Move the fuck out” when it was my turn to go. All of that paled in comparison to what happened in front of Penn Station.

I dropped a fare off there so he could catch his train back home in the suburbs. Sure enough, the dispatcher in front of the line was out there late that night but with all the horns blaring and people out and about, I wanted to get out of the area ASAP. Sure enough, a red light ensured that that wasn’t the case. As I sat there, he walked over:

“You didn’t hear me”

“I didn’t hear a lot of things, it’s busy out here tonight.”

“Well, I whistled you over and you didn’t come. Are you deaf?”

“I’m listening to you aren’t I?”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m writing you a ticket for refusing to enter the dispatch line. Where you from?”

“What? That doesn’t even matter. I’m from New Jersey for your information.”

By now, the couple that had entered my cab and requested to go downtown got a big kick out of this but I sure as hell wasn’t laughing. This wasn’t the NYPD that I was talking to and anyone wearing brown was not on the same level in my book.

“You’re supposed to enter the line and now you’ll be getting a ticket from me.”

Sure enough, he walked right around the cab and entered the medallion number down.

“Great, I’ll know that for next time.”

“You should have known that for this time. Where you from again?”

“What the hell does it matter? It’s New Jersey, alright! I grew up around here and I don’t know what  your problem is with that. I didn’t ask you where you’re from.”

“It doesn’t matter. Have a nice day.”

“You too.”

With that, I went through the light and was on my way to my passenger’s destination.

If there’s one thing that defines New Yorkers more than what they do for a living, it’s where they’re from and just as importantly, where they call home in the five boroughs.

No one would argue that America deserves the moniker of “Melting Pot’ when assigning nicknames and identities to the nations of the world. Ever since the days of the Pilgrims, Vikings, Chinese, or whoever got here first, migrants from faraway lands have come to the shores of America, seeking a better life. Where they ended up became the real crux of the story, as neighborhoods of tightly-bound ethnic and socioeconomic groups formed in New York, only to dissolve upon the inhabitants ascendance up the economic ladder, or voluntary removal upon arrival of a different group.

Little Italy? It may have been home to the Gangs of New York that were so brutally depicted in Scorsese’s film of the same name but now, you’re more likely to find buildings with Mandarin on the signs than anything Italian once you’re away from Mulberry Street. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum calls Orchard Street home but the blue-collar Jews that lived in the squalid conditions shown there are long gone; their slow migration starting as soon as the Williamsburg Bridge opened in 1903. Across the island, it was the same story. Hell’s Kitchen was once deserving of that moniker as most people would dare not trek west of 8 Ave. unless they had to. Much of the manufacturing and activities on the docks were performed by the Irish, their gangs having been called the Westies. Ultimately, the fate of the West Side was tied in redevelopment of blocks that had become slums, with the nadir of the rebirth having been depicted via musical numbers in West Side Story. Behind the Rumble and the Dance was the undeniable truth that the Puerto Ricans were moving into areas long outside of their Spanish Harlem mainstay, as their numbers swelled in the 1950’s. LBJ’s Immigration Rights Act was signed not too long afterwards, paving the way the “browning of America” that still continues on to this day.

One of my perks of my job is that I get to see many parts of the city that I rarely made it too when my preferred mode of transportation was by foot or subway. Both of those can get you far, but certainly not quickly or to underserved areas like Eastern Queens or Alphabet City. Having a set of wheels opened up a lot of new frontiers to me, in a different way then the frontiers of a new neighborhood are opened up for those who sail past the Statue of Liberty and wish to call New York home. Astoria may still have some of the best Greek restaurants and diners in the city but it’s also home to a burgeoning Egyptian population as well now. Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst was the home of Saturday Night Fever but in the 21st Century, you’re much more likely to find Halal food there than someone walking down the street in a Leisure Suit or praying to a statue of the Virgin Mary.The area has changed so much so that I recently had this discussion with one of the senior players with the La Boule New York:

“So how’s work?”

“It’s good. Been at it for over 6 months now. I get to see the city and the money isn’t bad. You’re still in Sunset Park, right?”

“Indeed. Been there a long time too.”

“I drop people off now and then there. Isn’t that area mostly Polish and Hispanic?”

“Used to be. Now, it’s lots of Chinese and the Arabs are coming up from Bay Ridge.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Things change quick in New York.”

And so it goes.

Even Harlem, which has a name of Dutch origin and was once Manhattan’s traditional seat of black culture, is starting to see the minority community there becoming a minority. It hasn’t happened yet, but other ethnic groups searching for cheaper rent, decent subway access, and proximity to Central and Morningside Parks, are moving into the area. Those who have been entrenched are now being forced out, victims of an internal migration from other parts of the city.

And so it goes, again.

Cities, by nature, must be dynamic places in order to survive. When they stagnate, as was the case in the 1960’s, and 1970’s, the spiral of urban decay and decreasing property values takes hold and with it, the loss of the tax base. What New York is going through now is the opposite, as huge areas have become renewed in the last 20 years both by newcomers from areas not traditionally represented in the city’s ethnic composition and from those looking to move away from the suburbs and back to an urban lifestyle that their forefathers had perhaps enjoyed in a previous century. This constant change makes New York unique in the pantheon of America’s urban cores, as many cities are struggling to find prosperity after the collapse of housing prices and loss of a manufacturing base that has decimated population centers from coast to coast in the last few decades.

Thankfully, that’s not the case in Gotham. What was recognizable to me in the 1980’s has become totally different now and will also be the case when future generations return to familiar areas of New York; only to find that the cycle of change has repeated itself once again. It should come as no surprise that the United Nations, formed after the deadliest conflict of the 20th century, was placed in New York after a extensive search for a permanent home. The flags that fly in front of it represent nearly every nation on Earth, as much as the city that surrounds the General Assembly and Secretariat Buildings (the UN is international property and therefore, is not technically considered part of New York City) is also home to immigrants from nearly every corner of the globe. Just as it has been the case since the founding of New Amsterdam, how those groups migrate and settle forms the basis for much of the drama that plays itself out every day across the Big Apple.

A few months ago, I ended up pulling into the driveway of a hotel in Times Square that shall remain nameless. Of course, I was looking for a fare and came across yet another, friendly dispatcher:

“Did I tell you to come in here?”

“No, but I figured that looking for a fare here wouldn’t hurt.”

“I didn’t whistle you in and unless you have someone, don’t drive through here. Where you from?”

“New Jersey. Why do you have to look in my trunk, there’s nothing in there but my bag…”

I popped the trunk and let him have his look, waiting for the relief on his face when he would realize that I didn’t have a bomb with me.

“Well, be on your way and don’t come in here again unless you have someone or one of us calls you in.”

“Duly noted.”

With that, I took a deep breath and was on my way back onto the streets, hoping that my next fare would give me a better insight to the ever-changing mosaic that still characterizes New York.

Rockefeller Center flags