Last month I was fortunate enough to travel to New York as part of a family trip, simultaneously serving my bank balance (shout out to my mum!) and love of family time well. This trip was of extra importance to me as I have been toying with the idea of moving to another city for a long time. Having an American Father and consequently having an American Passport myself, it seems almost foolish to ignore the little niggle in the back of my mind telling me I really need to make the most of this advantage and spend some time in the U.S. Within the states, New York keeps coming up as the most viable option. Perhaps I have been indoctrinated by television shows such as Girls, Friends and How I Met Your Mother, shows which the protagonists all revel in their love of the city. Perhaps somewhere in my subconscious is the thought, “hey if its right for modern female characters along the (cough) ‘middle class’ social spectrum like Hannah Horvath and Rachel Green, why not for me!?”. I have always been a huge fan of large cities, buzzing social atmospheres and huge art and cultural scenes, so naturally New York City has always appeared to tick a lot of boxes for me. And, as a huge bonus (recalling tedious language classes at school..) I wouldn’t have to learn any new languages.
Excited for the trip, I called upon my previous memories of having visited the city when I was about eleven or twelve years old. Obviously, these memories would only serve me as a minimal reference considering my age and perspective as a pre-teen compared to mine now as a young adult, but still relevant. I was still me then (just a bit less tired and sarcastic than I am today…) I remembered a fair amount about the first trip but the first thing that came to mind was how amazed I was by the huge buildings standing in extremely close proximity. I vividly remember thinking how monumental they were, similar, but not the same as London. Arriving there last month, I could instantly see that my young observations were in fact correct. The city is tremendous. Now obviously the further you move out from the central areas the lower the buildings become and the more relaxed the atmosphere becomes, but it is still thriving and bustling all throughout the day. I actually am quite a fan of the feeling of being immersed in a city as I am a lover of architecture as a display of our human capabilities, so would enjoy travelling into the central parts of the city to work even if I decided to not live permanently amongst the hustle and bustle.
Personally, I felt more claustrophobic in the central parts of New York than I do in central parts of London. Perhaps this is partly to do with the weather in the US being so much hotter and more humid than in London, or perhaps indeed it is down to the sheer size and multitude of these sky rise buildings right next door to each other. Actually, as I’m writing this now, I am gazing across the skyline here in London, and it’s just undeniably different. A quick search on Wikipedia confirms my thoughts, New York has over six times the amount of sky rise buildings. You really feel it when walking around Manhattan, a feeling of being almost consumed by bricks and mortar. Suddenly Alicia Key’s singing ‘concrete jungle where dreams are made’ springs to mind….
The trip this time around, albeit quite short, involved a lot of walking around, visiting family friends who live across the city, sampling restaurants and bars and doing the obligatory (but rewarding) tourist things. From various different parts of Manhattan, to Brooklyn to Queens, there is undeniable proof that this place is bursting with life and opportunity…. and that I would need to come back for a longer and more in depth exploration before making a decision. The two areas which I have been recommended by friends, Williamsburg Brooklyn, and East Village Manhattan were the two areas I really tried to picture myself living in. Naturally, coming from London and surrounding areas I couldn’t help but compare at every opportunity. Gentrification appears to have swept across both these places and quirky little bars and record shops can be found everywhere. Has the same kind of feel as Shoreditch does today, somewhere I would think twice before living there due to expense and the presence of the ‘chic’ ‘hipster’ style social groups. Not really my style. I did not get a sense of the Urban culture of London, that raw and teenage hunger which still applies to me now, the atmosphere you feel when walking through areas such as Bethnal Green or Lewisham (although gentrification is spreading like wildfire in these parts too). Instead, it seemed quite appropriate for those coming from upper class families, perhaps artists and musicians, who although struggling for money still get an allowance each week from back home. You know the type, complaining about the prices of the city whilst drinking their morning gourmet expressos and drinking wine out of a vase in the afternoon or something. Again, I cant stress enough these are my first perceptions and I’m sure my opinions would change and develop after spending more time there.
It becomes abundantly clear when in the city just how similar London and New York are in terms of high fashion, shops, the types of business’s and westernised patterns of overall behaviour. Also, both have a madly diverse amalgamation of people from all over the world and undeniably have capitalism as the most commonplace religion (am I right?!) But despite these similarities, regardless of how much I tried, I just could not picture myself walking up and down those streets and calling them my home.
This got me thinking. Maybe I was feeling this way due to something more than the area itself. Maybe it had something to do with me, and my culture. This led me to reflect on my understandings and connections to my own personal identity. My identity, being a very proud Black British girl (my pride was knocked back a few pegs after Brexit I have to confess) is stabilised within my familiarity and love of English culture. And thus, my love and connection to London is intertwined with the ‘Englishness’ of it. We sneeze and say sorry, we subconsciously talk about the weather and are polite to the point of exhaustion. It is quirky, and can be extremely annoying, but I love it. There is no denying that the mannerisms and behaviours of those across the Atlantic are different to ours. Our attitudes, types of patriotism, our respective histories and our schooling systems etc etc are all quite different. Again, I have an American Father, so from birth I have been there to witness the undeniable cultural differences between him and my European Mother. Even the difference in accents is enough to reiterate to your subconscious that there are human differences between the two. I found this to be quite mentally confusing whilst being in New York, this is a country so far away yet with physical and societal similarities to home, but within the very same social atmosphere there are many things that are so different. Almost like being in a parallel universe, the likeness of that around you amongst the backdrop of unfamiliarity is enough to make you feel displaced. When describing this feeling to a friend I said to imagine waking up somewhere new, say a new house you haven’t been before, somewhere completely different but you recognise pretty much everything in it. That’s how I felt in the city. I’m still undecided whether this is a good thing or bad and what this would mean to my understanding of my identity if I moved there. Either or, living there would be an adjustment that would be interesting.
I also have to say that in other areas I felt a little unsafe at night. Especially walking though Queens, there appears to be so many back streets and one could get lost amongst the back allies and random road diversions. Feeling unsafe is something I can not remember the last time I felt in London. Now, it is a completely different place so I am not ignorant to the fact my lack of security could be to do with that was the place was unfamiliar to me and once the streets become home and familiar maybe this would change. In terms of me moving to NYC soon, for now I think I will give the decision some more thought and use it as an excellent excuse to make another trip, perhaps for a few months travelling around each place. I think coming from one global city and visiting another, is bound to make anyone make comparisons and view the things around them through their preconceptions. For me, I will always be a ‘London Gal’ at heart, and my initial observations of New York indisputably reflect this. Thanks for reading!