A young man runs down a dark alley. The air is cold and choked with smog, the tense rhythm of footsteps banging on rain-soaked pavement broken only by the distant wail of police sirens. He glances fearfully over his shoulder once, twice, then again, to check if the three burly men are still in pursuit of his coat, his cash – probably his life. Although he no longer sees them, adrenaline pushes him on. As he runs through the streets of New York, he sees prostitutes leaning against a graffiti-splattered wall. Somewhere in a corner, four women in their Manolo Blancs are sipping martinis and laughing, oblivious to the fact that a teenager is being mugged right next to them.
Panting, sweaty, and with legs cramping, the young man stops. In a matter of seconds, a much older man steps out of the dark, whips out a gun and presses the trigger several times. The young man slams face first into the pavement in a puddle of blood. The assailant melts into the night.
This is not New York City.
Perhaps that particular scene would be from a movie, a television show, a radio show, a painting, or any other medium out there that depicts New York City as two things: a glamorous, high-end party and a daily, deadly fight to stay alive as soon as you step outside your apartment.
Living in New York for ten days is not the same as living in New York for ten years. After all, it is said that it takes ten years to make a New Yorker, not ten days. However, I felt that those ten days were all I needed to see New York as itself: not through the stereotypes that people have so blatantly (and falsely) associated it with. I saw New York not for what it was, but for who it was.
From Prostitutes to Poppins
For starters, the city is not dangerous and tough, with muggers, thugs, and prostitutes lurking at every corner. It was once this way, but as soon as Rudy Giuliani was elected as mayor, he got the NYPD cops out of the doughnut shops and onto the streets of New York to actually do their job and patrol their city. And look at what’s happened. 42nd street, which was notorious for its drug dealers and hookers, is now home to one of the most beloved and critically acclaimed Broadway productions of Disney’s Mary Poppins.
Because of Giuliani, the crime rate has dropped by 57%, and the city, which was infamous for drug busts, rape cases, robberies and murder charges, became—and still is—one of the safest cities in America to live in. When I bumped into several New Yorkers, I quickly learned that you have a higher chance of getting discounted tickets for a Broadway show than being held up.
The Real Show in NYC:
New Yorkers mind their own business, especially when walking up and down the streets. This leads outsiders to think and believe that all New Yorkers are snobby, stuck-up people who couldn’t care less about the world. Whoever tells you that New Yorkers are all of these things has either the worst sense of humor, or has probably never been to New York and is only pretending to have done so.
Some of the kindest and friendliest people live in New York City and I feel lucky enough to have bumped (and I do say so literally) into a handful of them. Do not be intimidated by the sky-high heels, the crisp Kenneth Cole suits, the hipster scarves, and the turquoise hair. Yes, New Yorkers mind their own business, but when you need help, they’ll most certainly give it to you—and with a smile, at that.
Since it was my first time in New York, I wasn’t as familiar with the subway system, and found myself boarding the wrong train several times. Throughout the ten days, I must have stopped at least five people to ask for directions. Each of them willingly, patiently and nicely explained which train to take to get to the West Village. One of them even boarded the train with me and pointed out the exact stop.
There are no words descriptive or strong enough to describe the wonder I had while watching New Yorkers perform small acts of kindness on a day-to-day basis. Forget Broadway; to me, this was the real show. Whether it was giving up one’s seat on a subway for an elderly woman, holding the door open for those trying to enter, or even helping a tourist with a map or informing you that your wallet was sticking out of your backpack, I reveled in these small actions. The man who had given up his seat for the elderly woman explained to my mom and I that he did it just to make a difference in someone’s day, even if it was small and went unnoticed by all (or so he thought).
The City That Never Sleeps
If there is one thing that the media has gotten right is that New York is beautiful. It’s more than beautiful, actually; it has character. From the overly-crowded, bright and flashing lights of Times Square, to the quiet and laid-back feel of SoHo, to the parks which are all predominantly populated by pigeons, New York was something I had properly envisioned in spite of all the television shows, photographs and books.
Some, if not most, of the city’s beauty can be attributed to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She didn’t reconstruct the city; she preserved it through an Act she and her friends had passed to keep the old buildings and landmarks from being demolished. And to this day, many of these buildings are still standing, the architecture and designs so rich and authentic, many tourists’ cameras having nearly overheated while their fingers clicked away.
The city isn’t intimidating; it’s just very much alive. I felt that anyone from anywhere could find anything to do in the city. You would never be bored. New York practically has almost everything. From Broadway to cathedrals, architectural heaven to food paradise, walking into the public library and staying there all day long, to joining a free yoga class in the middle of Bryant Park.
I had a Carrie Bradshaw moment in which I was in New York, seated in front of my laptop, with a question that I ended up typing and explaining all at the same time. What exactly is the point of wasting all that money on traveling if we end up stereotyping and judging the city and its citizens? There’s no fun in traveling when you arrive at your destination with nothing but expectations about the people and the place. I personally find that the main purpose of traveling isn’t for pleasure or for business. It’s for learning.
Apart from school, traveling is probably one of the best (and most expensive) educators the world has to offer, whether it’s about the city, the citizens, yourself or even a random trivia about the building right next to you.
We forget to keep an open mind when we travel. Yes, we may have heard what other people have said about a certain area but let’s not forget that it was their experience. Not yours. There’s no fun in living in someone else’s experience. It’s more exhilarating to create your own experience, your own memories.
So if you ever decide step into the crazy world that is New York City to see if those “big lights will inspire you”, my only advice would be to wear very comfortable shoes and have fun walking around. Try to see for yourself exactly what Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelley meant when they sang the original lyrics, “New York, New York, it’s a hell of a town!”