Lessons from the Big Apple
It's been over a month since I've made the move to New York and it's beginning to feel like home. I've spent the first month exploring different parts of the city, doing the usual tourist things and trying to see a few things not on the trip advisor lists. Between my colleagues at work who have been incredibly welcoming and new people I have met in the city, I have managed to travel to a few different areas and see a few different things.
I've also taken long walks on my own to orientate myself in the city. I did a 15 mile walk one weekend and close to a 10 mile walk on another weekend and I feel like I finally have my bearings. I've only been to Brooklyn a couple of times and Harlem once and I'm yet to see any American sports. As I'm roughly 6/7 weeks into my stay, I'll probably update this list a couple of times as I see new things and explore new places.
What's it like for Sikhs?
Its not that bad at all...so far at least. Colleagues and other locals I meet do tend to ask me if I've had any trouble and sometimes seem quite surprised when I say no. Perhaps its the post Trump coming together that I've seen in New York but the locals are very welcoming. I didn't have any trouble coming into the airport from London, but I'll reserve judgement on that until I've flown a couple of times. Anytime that I meet up with new people, they are curious and open-minded, they ask questions about my long hair, and almost always seem surprised and pleased with the answer. People just generally seem to be very respectful.
There aren't as many Singh's walking around Manhattan as you'd see in central London and no where near as many as the Midlands but I've seen one or two. Surprisingly, it doesnt look like the Singh head nod has reached New York yet. Only a matter of time.
10. The weather is unpredictable (even for someone from England)
I arrived in New York in the middle of winter and everyone warned me about the bitterly cold New York weather at the turn of the year. When I touched down it actually wasn't that bad. Colleagues at work told me it was an unseasonably warm winter and I thought I had it easy. In fact it started getting warmer and at the beginning of February temperatures were in the high teens. And then a blizzard hit the city. Ice cold winds, an outside temperature of -7 degrees celsius. As I walked to work in snow that was higher than my ankles, I was glad to have brought some bigger shoes. The strong winds meant that the snow felt like shards of glass hitting my face whenever I walked into the wind. For two days the snow fell and the temperature plummeted and then within days it was back into the high teens again.
At this point, even my phone gave up trying to tell me what the weather was going to be like, changing its forecast pretty much every hour. The temperature continued to rise and by the end of February it was t shirt weather as the temperature jumped over 20 degrees celsius and remained that hot over a couple of nights. People were wearing t shirts walking the streets at night and I figured this was the start of spring and then one day I woke up and it was -7 again. I've been told the summers get uncomfortably hot, so I have some more crazy weather to look forward to I'm sure.
9. It's hard to get lost
Its very easy to find your way around New York. Unlike London, the streets in Manhattan are designed in a numbered grid system. The roads start from 1st Avenue on the east of Manhattan and go west all the way to the 13th Avenue. On the south they start north at Houston on 1st Street and cross into Harlem and Queens in the north ending on 271st Street. What makes things even easier is the fact that everything east of 5th Avenue is defined as east (i.e. East 15th Street) and everything west of 5th Avenue is defined as west (so West 15th Street). This combined with the fact everything is separated into blocks along straight roads means its difficult to actually get lost.
Now all of New York isn't quite so straightforward. Everything south of Houston isn't numbered and as you get deeper into the financial district it becomes more like a European city with narrow winding streets, in fact, with the tall buildings densely built next to each other, its actually fairly easy to get lost in that area but the rest of New York is the easiest city to get around.
8. Cashpoints are rare and expensive
This is one thing that makes no sense to me at all. Most cash machines seem to be inside banks and most banks close around 6pm, therefore after 6pm you have access to very few ATMs. It's caught me out when I've needed cash on a few occasions now. The few ATMs that are dotted around the city proudly advertise the fact that they are 24/7 which leads me to believe they are the exception rather than the rule.
It gets worse. When you do find a cash machine, they inevitably charge you for withdrawing cash. Now I know in England you have those ATMs that charge a small fee for withdrawing cash. They are usually found in shops or restaurants and it's daylight robbery. How is someone going to charge you for having access to your own cash?! Well in New York they almost all do, and not because I'm getting charged a non-sterling fee.
When I first moved over I opened an account with the Bank of America. In order to withdraw cash for free, I can only use a Bank of America cash machine, if I use any other ATM, I get charged a fee. Imagine you bank with Barclays and you get charged every time you use a Natwest ATM, you'd be pretty annoyed right? Here its accepted as the norm.
I'm not sure how this practise has been allowed to continue. Not only are they charging people for taking out their own money, but they are also harming competition by creating high barriers to entry. If customers want to get their money for free, they will want banks to have locations all over the city and that pretty much means unless they have a lot of capital, new banks won't be able to successfully compete in the market.
7. The food is amazing
The thing is, I'm not even a fussy eater and I'm definitely not a 'foodie'. Expensive restaurants are pretty much lost on my uncultured palette but even I know the food is good here.
I don't know what I've been eating at home, but after eating pizza in New York, the cardboard with cheese on top tasting food back home should not be called pizza. It's not that England doesn't have any good pizza places, but even the average late night shop here sells amazing pizza. It's the same with burgers. Almost every burger place has amazing tasting burgers and don't even get me started on the cheesecake.
The food here is generally cheaper, tastier and much more accessible. Now all this means people should be generally larger, but they don't seem to be, at least not in NYC. There is a huge organic fad in New York at the moment. From organic burgers, to organic fried chicken (seriously!). Whole Foods, which is like an upscale organic equivalent of Tesco is dotted around Manhattan and its TriBeCa branch is where I tend to do my weekly shop.
Next to Singapore, this is probably the city with the best food I've been to. It has food from all over the world, but it actually tastes authentic, from Chinese, to Italian, Vietnamese,Thai, you name it, they have it, the food here is incredible! Now, if only they could get a Nando's.
6. Central Park is another world
About 20 minutes into a walk in Central Park and you completely forget you are in one of the largest cities in the world.
At 843 acres, the park covers most of the northern part of Manhattan. look at any map and its just a huge rectangle of green. The park was built in the late 1800s to give the city some green space, but by the 1980s it was considered one of the most dangerous places in Manhattan. As with the rest of the city, crime rates have fallen rapidly over the past 25 years and other than a few incidents its generally considered a fairly safe place.
I took a walk through the park on a particularly cold day so it wasn't very busy but I was surprised at just how far from the noise and bustle of the city you can get. The park has a number of landmarks within it; restaurants, performers, pop up stands, a 'castle', a large lake with pedalo's and even a zoo. The narrow maze-like paths wind their way through the park criss crossing from east to west and on a couple of occasions I found myself coming back on myself but it was fun seeing different parts. It's odd when you get to a clearing and see the skyscrapers of the city but the foreground is either greenery or water. As with Battery Park, there were a lot of runners and cyclists and there are cycle paths marked throughout the park, however unlike Battery Park, the squirrels here are one mutation away from taking over the earth - they are huge!
It took about 45 minutes of fairly slow walking to get from one side to near the top (I turned west when I reached the lake) but I definitely need to go back when the weather gets a little warmer.
5. Transport and infrastructure are falling apart...but you can walk everywhere
I've never seen so much scaffolding in one city and the people that I've met have told me that its a city where buildings are constantly going up and being torn down. The city has a very strange feel, a lot of it feels dated, but somehow thats what makes it beautiful. Don't get me wrong, the newly built area around the Freedom Tower is very modern as is the area around South Street Seaport. Midtown has a fair few modern buildings but theres also a lot in between that isn't old enough to be considered period buildings or new enough to be considered modern. But that doesn't matter. It all seems to tell the story about the city.
What doesn't work is the public transport. Buses are few and far between and the underground is old, a little smelly and almost never on time. Trains come around infrequently and on weekends whole lines can be shut - on a much larger scale than anything I've seen in London. The stations are dark and unclean, some of them leak quite badly when it rains and the platforms in some of the stations are very narrow. The trains look devoid of creative design and the seating is very oddly laid out, there are some seats that are impossible to fit into due to their positioning. However, the wifi is much more widespread than the one in London but almost everything else lags behind. The one saving grace is that its cheaper than in London, both buses and the underground.
Its not all bad though. The area between Central Park and the tip of Manhattan isn't actually that big so its easy to walk around from area to area, infact I prefer walking around because the city is so interesting, its difficult to walk even a block without seeing something different and unique. The area's within New York are also so different; when you're in Chinatown you know you're in Chinatown, same with the Financial District, East Village, Greenwich and I could go on and seeing the character of the different areas is something you can't do underground.
4. Chinatown is a city within a city
The Chinese population of New York is said the be the largest outside of Asia and its centred on three Chinatowns; in Queens, Brooklyn and the oldest one in Manhattan. Chinese immigration to America began in the early 1800's, gathering pace later in the century when the Chinese faced exclusion on the West Coast in particular.
Most of the early settlers were primarily Cantonese speaking from Hong Kong but in the 1980s there has been an increasing number of Fuzhou immigrants from the mainland who primarily speak Mandarin. It was with the second wave of immigrants that the epicentre of Chinese speaking people moved north to Queens and east to Brooklyn. However, despite there being a higher total number of Chinese immigrants in the other areas, the Manhattan Chinatown remains the most densely populated, with close to 100,000 residents in a small area bordering the Civic Centre, Little Italy, Financial District, Lower East Side and SoHo.
The area of Chinatown grew around Bowery but quickly expanded and subsumed large tracts of Little Italy. Today Little Italy is significantly smaller than it was a century ago whilst Chinatown has seen large growth,
Honestly, walking down the streets you completely forget you are in New York. The area is incredibly crowded and the only European people I see here seem to be tourists. As its located a short walk from my offices, I have eaten there on a few occasions and the food is not only very good but also reasonably priced. Back in the Midlands, the Chinatown area is incredibly small and even in London, the Chinatown isn't bigger than a few streets, but in New York it really does feel like a city within a city. All the signs (including some of the streets) are in (primarily) Cantonese whilst some are in Mandarin. The streets are filled with vendors selling fruit and vegetables and at night there is even a night market such as those found in Asia selling everything from food and drink to clothes.
3. Battery Park in the sun is incredible
Once known as Little Syria, the area around the south western tip of the Manhattan island was extended from land reclamation in the 1970's during the construction of the World Trade Centre and New York City Water Tunnel. It's an area of New York that I can see from my living room window so during on of the unseasonably warm days I decided to take a walk and have a look around.
The area begins from Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan. The 25 acre park and nearby pier directly face the Statue of Liberty and although its a little far, the view over the water is incredible. The area was given its name due to its strategic military location that meant it was used for fortifications. Artillery batteries were kept there since the time of the Dutch in the 1600's and the fort of west battery can still be seen, although now its called Castle Clinton. Castle Clinton was one of the first immigration processing centres in New York, and is currently used as a public monument. It's not particularly large and it sort of melts into the landscape so it can be easily missed, but gives the area a sense of history.
I began the walk north through the Battery Park City area. With the sun shining and not a cloud in the sky the area was very lively, filled with people in beer gardens or dining outside of restaurants. A beautiful promenade on the edge of the Hudson River was filled with runners and cyclists so I decided to walk north and just see how far I could go. Battery Park City has a number of smaller and less well known museums such as the Irish Famine Museum, the Jewish Heritage Museum and the Skyscraper Museum as well as open spaces such as Teardrop Park which was full of sunbathers.
Towards the north of the area there are a number of smaller parks and courts, some filled with people playing basketball or tennis and others filled with dogs. Seriously, theres a dog park and its very cool! I spent a good 10 minutes just watching dogs run around in circles. I ended up walking north for around an hour along the Hudson's edge, up past TriBeCa, West Village the Meatpacking District and eventually Chelsea to the Highline.
Looking back over Battery Park City as the sunset was pretty special. On one side you had a few skyscrapers in New Jersey, in the middle of the Hudson was the Statue of Liberty and looking over the promenade was the Manhattan skyline filled with the skyscrapers of the Financial District and the Freedom Tower.
2. New Yorkers are nice!
There's a stereotype that New Yorker's are rude. New Yorker's think they are rude. Now it's only been a month and a half, but I have found New Yorker's to be overwhelmingly friendly, open and approachable! Perhaps its the fact that I'm in Manhattan. I've met a lot of new people while I'm out here and a few have shared their not so positive experiences, including racism. Even my own colleagues seem surprised when I tell them I've had no negativity. Perhaps its the election of Trump that has brought New York together in a way that is welcoming of foreigners or those that look different. My colleagues at my work are the best example of friendly New Yorkers. They have all been incredibly welcoming down to a person, inviting me to their houses and other social gatherings. I was bought up under the idea that American's didn't understand sarcasm, nor did they have any banter. These guys dispelled those myths within days.
I've met a lot of people during my time here and there is a lot of curiosity about the way I look. However, instead of pretending there is nothing different they almost always ask why I have long hair and cover my head (and they always ask in a ridiculously polite way). There is an open mindedness and curiosity that isn't always apparent in other places.
New York seems to have a bit of a bell curve when it comes to its inhabitants. Whilst there is a perpetual grey mood in London, in New York people are either very friendly or very crazy and there are a lot of crazies. It's a word thats thrown around here, although I don't think its very fair. Most of these people have obvious mental health issues that are not addressed due to the lack of universal healthcare. Its hard to walk a block without coming across someone talking or sometimes shouting at themselves or random bystanders. So far I've had no issues but there is an inherent unpredictability in their behaviour which means its probably just a matter of time.
1. NYC has a lot of secrets
And I don't just mean the cool speakeasy's. The more I discover the more impressed I am. In some ways its exactly how I imagined it to be; tall skyscrapers, a lively energy and a liberal disposition but in other ways it has surprised me.
On the face of it, its a city covered in scaffolding, with roughly patched up pot holes, streets with a fair amount of litter and buildings that seem to be falling apart. But then you turn a corner and you see the kind of beauty you could only find in New York. Things like the Chrysler Building, the South Street Seaport, Battery Park City, the Highline, Little Italy & Chinatown, the courts in the Civic Centre, the markets in Chelsea - they are all impressive.
Even the main well trodden roads of Midtown have establishments or restaurants that have just opened or are only there for a season. Other times you could find yourself staring at a famous landmark and miss about 10 you have just walked past without noticing. I walked the streets of Broadway at least five times before I realised there were names on the floor. I walked past the Freedom Tower many times before seeing the beautiful St Paul's Chapel in the foreground. Or walking past the Woolworth Building for a good month before realising it was right infront of me during my morning commute.
And the thing is, every time I leave the apartment I see something else thats new, something else thats amazing and I'm always surprised. I'm looking forward to seeing some more of these secrets over the next few months.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.