What makes New York City unique? Distilling the essence of New Yorks cultural complexity, summing up its vitality, richness, and energy is a daunting assignmentone that calls for a good deal of hubris, or, in the local parlance, chutzpah. But the New York I experience daily as a folklorist and as a New York resident, a livable metropolis of discrete neighborhoods and overlapping communities, is rarely the one I see portrayed by the media, read about in novels, or hear spoken of by tourists.
The 2001 Smithsonian Folklife Festival [gave] me and some of my fellow New Yorkers a chance to describe how we see our city, to demonstrate its traditions and trades, and to explain how New York can be simultaneously both a global capital and a hometown. It provide[d] a national platform to refute the tourists refrain "I love to visit New York, but I couldnt live there." Like me, millions of New Yorkers wouldnt think of living anywhere else.
A championship stickball game is played on a city street in East Harlem. Photo: Nancy Groce, ©Smithsonian Institution
At first, it might seem like an oxymoron to talk about the "folklore" or "folklife" of one of the worlds most modern cities, but daily life in New York would be impossible without this body of shared urban traditions, of collective community knowledge, customs, historical memories, and cultural understandings. It provides the basic ground rules that shape how New Yorkers interact with their families, their colleagues, and their fellow New Yorkers. From subway etiquette to local street food to stickball games, these traditions give New York City its unique sense of place.
In addition to a shared urban culture, most New Yorkers also have one or more reservoirs of specialized traditional knowledge, which they have acquired from their ethnic and/or religious upbringing, working in a particular occupation, or living in a specific area of the city. The innumerable, multifaceted ways in which these factors interact are what make New York and New Yorkers so fascinating. Of course, it would be impossible to cover all aspects of New Yorks culture in a single event, but by approaching city culture thematically, and by carefully selecting examples that highlight different aspects of work, life, and leisure in New York, New York City at the Smithsonian hope[d] to acquaint Festival visitors with both the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of life in Gotham.
A Community of Communities
What gives New York a sense of being different is not merely the myriad ethnic and interest groups that are found in the city, but the complex ways in which they overlap and interact. The physical landscape of New Yorkthe lack of space, the reliance on mass transit by people of vastly differing backgrounds, neighborhoods which are home to both the very rich and the extremely poormakes it impossible for New Yorkers to ignore the influence of "others." From kosher Chinese restaurants to Irish hip-hop groups to Mexican pizzas, cultures from all corners of the globe have influenced one another in New York, in part because of their physical proximity.
...The sheer size of New York allows residents the freedom and, if they wish, the anonymity to re-create themselves endlessly. This vast social and cultural smorgasbord contributes to the allure of, but also creates apprehension about, the city.
...From the time of Thomas Jefferson and other early framers of our Republic, through nineteenth-century reformers, to the rush to modern suburban housing developments, ownership of land and renouncing foreign ties to become "fully" American have always been the national ideal. Renting apartments, remaining in ethnic enclaves, and using mass transit have not. And if cities were inherently evil and filled with recently arrived "foreigners," no American city was more evil or more foreign than New York.
New Yorkers rarely step back to think of their city as a whole; rather, they mentally compartmentalize the city into a series of more than 400 neighborhoods that function almost as adjoining villages, each with a distinctive look, history, and character of its own. To residents of New York, the cafes of Manhattans Greenwich Village or the tree-lined streets of Brooklyns Park Slope are light years away from the pandemonium of Times Square, the suburban calm of Queens Forest Hills, or the small-town feel of Staten Islands Tottenville...By cognitively mapping out New York in this way, as a series of intellectually manageable neighborhoods, New Yorkers make their city more comfortable, less overwhelming.
The New Yorkers
So who is a New Yorker? ... Perhaps because it has been decidedly multicultural from its earliest days, both twelfth-generation descendants of founding Dutch merchants and newly arrived Asian immigrants can call themselves New Yorkers with equal validity. (Personally, I think you become a New Yorker as soon as you can name the important stops on your subway line.)
New York is experiencing a wave of immigration unparalleled since the 1890s. According to the Department of City Planning, 794,400 official immigrants settled in New York City between 1990 and 1996. That works out to fifteen people per hour and doesnt take into account perhaps as many as 500,000 others who have settled in New York without documentation. Another recent study found that fifty-two percent of newborns in the city had at least one foreign-born parent. In the late 1990s, the leading homelands of New Yorks newest residents were, in descending order, the Dominican Republic (400,000 current residents were born there); the former Soviet Union (240,000); China (200,000); as well as Jamaica, Mexico, Guyana, Ecuador, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago. There are enough Maltese, Estonian, and Cuban-Chinese New Yorkers to support their own social clubs and trade associations....
In addition to immigrants from other countries, the city has always been a magnet to other Americans who saw in New York opportunities, freedom, glamour, and excitement that were lacking in their hometowns. These "urbanites by choice" include several main groups: first among them are African Americans, mostly from the South; they were part of the "Great Migration" to New York in the early 1900s, drawn by job opportunities and hopes for greater personal freedom....
New Yorks vibrant ethnic communities are what many tourists find most striking, perhaps because its easier to notice the citys diversity than to appreciate it as a whole. New York has always been an immigrant city, but today, the very nature of immigration is changing....
Today, in the age of cheap and easy-to-use global communications and inexpensive international travel, does it still make sense to talk about immigrant groups being removed or culturally divorced from their homelands? Throughout New York, neighborhood bodegas (small convenience stores) sell cheap overseas phone cards, well-stocked newsstands carry the latest international papers and magazines, and ethnic bars and restaurants feature daily cable TV broadcasts from home. Modern technology allows contemporary immigrants to maintain a sense of connectedness to their places of origin undreamed of by previous generations. Have we, as some suggest, entered a "global" or "transnational" era in which peoples and cultures flow back and forth across real and/or virtual space in ways that make previous concepts about distance and borders meaningless? ...
When discussing the existence and transmission of traditional culture in New York, neither the time-worn metaphors of "melting pot" nor "salad bowl" really work. The city is more like a toaster oven: The central core of ethnic traditions remains relatively stable, but there is a good deal of melting and melding around the edges.
Traditional ethnic foods made according to traditional methods are a hallmark of life in New York. Here, bagels are made at Coney Island Bialy and Bagels in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Photo: Annie Hauck-Lawson, © Smithsonian Institution
New York is enriched by thousands of talented tradition-bearers who keep alive ancestral customs and ancient traditions both by practicing or performing them for their fellow immigrants, and by teaching them to American-born students...When an ethnic community accepts an outsider as a "master" artist and practitioner of its traditions, can we as outsiders dismiss that artist as being merely a "revivalist"? ...
Cross-cultural mixtures are an inherent part of the urban culture, especially in the arts. Impromptu mixing, in turn, can stimulate new styles of performance and, in some cases, lead to whole new artistic genres. For example, it was in 1940s New York dance clubs that Puerto Rican, Cuban, and African American musicians met and created Latin jazz, a style which later evolved into salsa....
...New York is the global capital of finance, the arts, fashion, diplomacy, and media. However, none of these trades are abstract, disembodied entities that exist without New Yorkers....Even in a city as large as New York, workers from each occupational community are bound together by folkloreshared customs, stories, and traditions specific to their jobs.
The garment trade is still the largest industry in New York City, and its size permits an incredible degree of specialization. Along Seventh Avenue in Manhattans "Garment District," small signs in second- and third-story windows advertise the presence of feather importers, button dyers, mannequin makers, trim emporiums, fur cutters, and shoulder-pad manufacturers. Many of these shops, which are open "to the trade only," have been in the same families for three or more generations. (The longevity of many family businesses in the city often surprises non-New Yorkers.) [These] traditional crafts sustain New York as the fashion capital of the world.
A costume maker at Barbara Materas shop puts final touches on a flying harness that will be worn by a dancer in The Lion King. Photo: Nancy Groce, © Smithsonian Institution.
What Keeps Gotham Going?
...in many ways, New York is a very old-fashioned city. Twentieth-century car-based culture has had less impact on New York than anywhere else in America. True, city streets are crowded, but much of the traffic is composed of trucks and taxis. Private car ownership is low, especially in Manhattan, where street parking is nonexistent and garages and parking lots often charge more than $300 per month. Many New Yorkers never learn how to drive.
The lack of cars combined with the citys long history of high rents for small living spaces are among the factors that fuel an active street life. New Yorkers walk, a lot. Whether to get somewhere, run an errand, or just to find a bit of privacy away from a small shared apartment, New Yorkers spend a huge amount of time walking around their city. Furthermore, since New York is, as one local shop claims, "open twenty-five hours a day," in most neighborhoods you will see people "hitting the bricks" both day and night. New Yorkers ability to weave their way through crowds of oncoming pedestrians, or jaywalk across a teeming avenue, is a local art form in itself.
The lack of private space encourages people to find public places to "hang out." In fact, hanging out is something of a New York specialty. Public parks are always crowded, but over the years, New York children have developed numerous games from stickball to stoop ball that are well adapted for narrow city streets and sidewalks. Another great local sport, pigeon flying, has always been especially popular in crowded, working-class immigrant neighborhoods. Perhaps setting "flights" of pigeons free from rooftop and backyard coops allows their "mumblers" (flyers) a vicarious taste of space and freedom they cannot find elsewhere in the congested city.
If youre lucky, your apartment might also have a fire escape, or even better, a "tar beach" on its roof. Some tar beaches are actually roof gardens, complete with picnic benches, flower pots, and fully grown trees; but most are just roof, barren patches of very hot asphalt to which you bring your own beach chair. The saving grace of many tar beaches is the view: from "up on the roof," the citys magnificent skyline unfolds before youa constant magical reminder of why you live in New York...
...Department stores such as Macys, Lord & Taylor, and Saks Fifth Avenue originated and still thrive in the city, but daily shopping, especially for food, is done very much as it would have been done in the nineteenth century. Most New Yorkers still go to the bakery for bread, the spice shop for spices, the corner vegetable stand for produce, and the butcher for meat....
...and an endless diversity of eateries, from world-class gourmet palaces to hole-in-the-wall ethnic dives, tempt New Yorkers to eat out regularly...Although ethnic food shops are often gathering places for ethnic New Yorkers to post notices, get advice, and meet people who speak their language, they are open to all.
Transit: The Sixth Borough
Another prominent factor that shapes and ties New York together is its mass transit system. New York boasts the worlds largest subway system, with 714 miles of track along twenty separate lines, and 468 stations. The subway never closes, and it is supplemented by an extensive network of buses, ferries, and trams, which also operate twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year. Unlike other American cities in which members of the upper and middle classes commute in the isolation of their own cars, most New Yorkers use "the trains" at least twice a day.
On an average workday, the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) serves almost seven million riders. Mass transit is New Yorks sixth borough; but like all other aspects of city life, the subway could not operate without the skills and knowledge of thousands of transit workers. Listening to them talk about their jobs and documenting their experiences give us a better idea of how the city itself works and flourishes.
Speaking Nu Yawk
Language and how language is used also distinguish New York culture. There are numerous New York accents, and attentive listeners can often identify a persons neighborhood and ethnicity by her speech. The "tough-guy" Brooklyn accent is probably the best known of city accents, although new accents are always evolving....
As distinctive as accent is the way in which New Yorkers use language. Most New Yorkers are highly skilled in the verbal arts and will readily share their opinions on almost anything, whether or not theyre asked. In addition to speaking very fast, they often express their opinions in the form of wisecracks. Using humor and sarcasm to bridge the unknown ethnic, class, language, or social divides that might exist between you and, say, your fellow subway rider allows New Yorkers to initiate social interactions without too much risk of being snubbed or getting into an argument....
Finally, it should be noted that New Yorkers are great fans of public celebrations and parades. Much of the city life is street life, and every year, New Yorks streets host hundreds of parades, block parties, ethnic and religious festivals, and special events....
Parades, especially ethnic parades, provide New Yorkers with more than a chance to dress up and go for a stroll with friends. Parades are a way for groups to demonstrate their power, political strength, and numbers in a very public way. From the giant St. Patricks Day Parade and Caribbean Carnival (which draws more than a million people to the streets of Brooklyn every Labor Day) to the more modest Norwegian Independence Day Parade in Bay Ridge, the Ecuadorian Parade in Jackson Heights, or the Pakistan Day Parade on Madison Avenue, parades organized and presented by ethnic communities are an annual reminder of the size and diversity of the citys population. They also give all New Yorkers a chance to "check out" their fellow citizens, to find out more about the many cultures that have found a home in their global hometown.
The 2001 Smithsonian Folklife Festival celebrate[d] just a few of the innumerable manifestations of traditional culture in New York City. More importantly, fieldwork leading up to the Festival [allowed] the Smithsonian, working in close collaboration with city-based cultural organizations and ethnic and occupational communities, to document daily life in New York City at the turn of the millennium. Material collected during the course of this research, as well as information recorded during and after the Festival, [has] significantly enrich[ed] the Smithsonians archival holdings about New York City. A century from now, when scholars and writers want to know what it was like to live in New York in 2001, to work on Broadway, to drive a taxi, to trade stocks on Wall Street, or to teach English in a school filled with recent immigrants, they can turn to the documentation collected by this project. Like us, I believe they will be amazed by this amazing city.
Nancy Groce (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a curator at the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, D.C. A folklorist and ethnomusicologist, she explores four centuries of city history through song lyrics in her most recent book, New York: Songs of the City. She is currently researching the occupational culture and folklore of the Broadway theater. A fourth-generation New Yorker, she lives in Manhattan. This article is reprinted, with permission, from the 2001 Smithsonian Folklife Festival Program Book (©2001 by the Smithsonian Institution).
The sheer size of New York allows residents the freedom and, if they wish, the anonymity to re-create themselves endlessly. This vast social and cultural smorgasbord contributes to the allure of, but also creates apprehension about, the city.
The article, that we have excerpted here, appeared in Voices Vol. 30, Spring-Summer 2004. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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