Sunday, 28 March 2010

#4 Mad men.

British advertising just isn't as good as Madison Avenue's finest. Often it is the charming bluntness, like the huge billboards for '$399 DIVORCE'. It is advertising unfettered by British reserve.

The Staten Island ferry, my commuter vehicle de rigeur, is festooned with ads for the Staten Island Radiology Oncology Center, the main selling point being that they are based on the island you're heading to. Why travel for an hour or two to get your potentially fatal illness treated, when you can hop straight off the ferry into a clinic? 'Why' indeed.

Of course, the Staten Island Radiology Oncology Center are wasting half their money, since the afflicted travelling towards Manhattan also see the ads. Presumably they walk right into the convenient, welcoming arms of Manhattan's oncology doctors. And die.

Often the highlight is just the phone number. A low-budget criminal defense firm currently advertises on the Subway. Anyone who has ever watched any American TV knows you have the right to one phone call upon arrest. Shouldn't yours be to 1-800-INNOCENT?

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

#3 Bagel bagel bagel, I made you out of bread.

In the last post on diversity, I plain overlooked some two million - a quarter - of New York's inhabitants. The city houses by far the largest Jewish population outside Israel. (In fact, it isn't far off Tel Aviv, with 2.6 million Jews.)

Walking around most New York neighborhoods, this figure seems incredible. Of course, not every Jew wears a bekishe cloak and sideburns, but still. The reason is, of course, that much of the Jewish population is poor and slum-bound.

I went to Brooklyn for the first time today. To the west of Manhattan, Brooklyn is what many consider 'pure New York', with an incredibly rich cultural heritage. Bedford-Stuyvesant is the cradle of East Coast African-American culture - such luminaries at Jay-Z and the late Notorious B.I.G. have called it home. North Williamsburg is home to New York's richest art and music scene, following the gentrification of south Manhattan (though it is going the same way). And South Williamsburg, to go back to my original point, is home to a massive community of hasidic Jews.

I took a long walk through these neighborhoods this morning. For maybe half an hour I didn't see another pedestrian, delivery boys and postal workers excepted, who wasn't wearing hasidic clothing. I found it slightly disconcerting. No where else have I been confronted with such uniformity - or such ambivalence. Not one of the hundreds of people I walked past met my eye. The racial uniformity is also striking; the ambiguity in English between the Jewish faith and the Jewish race is telling.

Hasidic Judaism is an ultra-orthodox sect, and will, like all orthodox religion, seem hostile to outsiders. I am not trying to make a point here. But it is fascinating that such a massive community of such distinctive people can be so invisible.

I might be moving to North Williamsburg soon, incidentally; watch this space. Before I left, I picked up a bag of my absolute favourite Jewish things: BAGELS!

Photo is from The Gothamist, just to illustrate hasidic dress.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

#2 The melting pot.

It's easy to forget quite how diverse America is. Sure, there are black sports and music stars, but we have those in Britain, too - and we're still over 90% white European. Black people are just better at music and sports. By contrast, a third of Americans are non-white - mostly black (12%) and Latino (15%). There are nearly as many Latino Americans as Britons, total.

Nowhere is this diversity more evident than in Queens, one of New York's five boroughs. Nearly half the population was born beyond these fare shores, and over 200 nationalities are represented. It is the most diverse urban area in the world.

America's attitudes towards race are confused. Historically, this country has been exceptionally welcoming to pretty much anybody. Europeans of all nationalities and ethnicities arrived in their millions at East Coast immigration centres - most famously Ellis Island, New York - in the early 20th Century, and barring major sickness piled in. African Americans, of course, arrived initially against their will, but have since made this country their own.

Mexicans were sent as cheap labour with the complicity of their government from 1907 onwards, following the cessation of Japanese immigration which till then had fulfilled a similar purpose. (The end of Japanese immigration, incidentally, was brought by Californian nativism - so later clampdowns on Mexicans moving into the state is just history repeating itself.)

Throughout all of this, middle America has rumbled with strong nationalist overtones, waxing and waning according to economic circumstance and unemployment rates. So it is in any country. But, of course, this is a nation borne of immigrants, Native Americans excepted. It has coaxed and cajoled foreigners repeatedly, and benefited hugely from their cheap labour. Its constitution is uncompromisingly liberal and secular. Nothing is expected of or promised to anyone, except freedom.

I would be setting up a false dichotomy, if different people had these different attitudes. No nation can be expected to sing as one, nor should it. But this pride in America and all that it supposedly represents - the republican ideals of 'liberté' and 'égalité', if not 'fraternité' - is held by the very same souls who decry the influx of undesirable foreigners. Again, this hypocrisy is not uniquely American - just especially acute here.

Walking around this city, then, and reeling from its diversity, brings high-minded musings about why this country is as it is. I wrote before I left about the the adult American dream is over. Well, maybe for a cynic like me, but not for most. Not for the millions who have come, and will continue to come, to fill Queens, Brooklyn, and the already-brimming melting pot.

In that context, here's an interesting fact: an African American male in the United States is more likely to end up in prison than college.

Cartoon from Punch magazine

Saturday, 20 March 2010

#1 Double Dutch.

In 1664, the minor Dutch colony of New Amsterdam was given to the British, in return for a far more valuable, if less accessible, prize: the Banda Islands, a small archipelago of ten islands, 2,000km east of Java.

The Banda Islands - and most famously Run - were the only place in the world where the nutmeg tree grew. In the 17th Century, nutmeg was the most valuable commodity in the world. Two nuts would secure a man's fortune for life on the London markets. A ship at Run could quite quickly fill its hull with tonnes of the stuff; the problem was getting it back.

Besides the general perils of early navigation - storms, scurvy and tropical diseases - the East India Companies of Western Europe fought bloody battles along their trade routes. Boats were ransacked, scuttled and stolen. The bitterest rivalry of the 17th Century was that between the British and the Dutch...but I digress. It's a fascinating story, laid out in gory and jingoistic detail in 'Nathaniel's Nutmeg'; that rarest of books on colonial history, in that the Brits end up looking like the good guys.

Run fell into obscurity with the cultivation of nutmeg elsewhere during the Napoleonic Wars, but New Amsterdam - renamed New York - did not.

I was put in mind of all this by my transfer at Amsterdam en route to New York two days ago. So, I'm finally here! Over the previous weeks and months I had poured over books and websites, planning - accommodation, transport, visas, how on earth I was going to meet people, how on earth I was going to understand people, what on earth I was going to do without my dog, and so on. I have a new-found respect for people who do three-year degrees abroad. How the hell do you manage?

I'm still pretty discombobulated. I'm living on Staten Island, as mentioned, but it's a hella long way out, and my new boss has already said to me I should try and find somewhere more accessible. I went into my first department store today - sweet Jesus they are terrifying. I got a US phone, which doesn't seem to work properly. Ho hum.

The studio is in SoHo - 'South of Houston Street', part of New York's wonderful literal geographical naming system. Many neighborhoods follow a similar pattern: TriBeCa is 'Triangle Below Canal Street', NoLita 'North of Little Italy', and so forth. Coupled with the regular grid road system (with road signs at every block), it all seems almost German in its calming order and logic.

It breaks down below ground. The Subway was designed by someone who, here's hoping, is suffering in hell. Lines are sort-of colour-coded, but in groups which branch into the outer boroughs and neighborhoods. Rather than distinctive names or colours, they have line letters or numbers (1,2,3,J,W,etc.), which are easily confusable with station and street names. There are express trains and local trains, and no one seems to know which is which. The announcements are made, not by a clear pre-recorded voice, but by a hassled driver, so finding your way depends critically on where he hails from, and how strong his accent is. (Mercifully, there is one driver who, if he isn't from Manchester, watches too much Corrie. But my chances of always getting him seem slim.) Oh, finally, there are no maps anywhere in the stations - only on the train.

The whole system makes sense, no doubt, for commuters, who are making regular, long journeys from the suburbs downtown on converging trajectories, and know exactly where to go. For tourists, it is hilariously bad. In London, it probably wouldn't matter - above ground the city is awful for tourists too, with few road signs, confusing tangles of streets, and constant traffic jams. It would fit right in. In New York, a city in so many other ways made for tourists, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

#0 The American dream.

I first went to America when I was seven. Modern media may have eroded the adult American Dream, but for a seven-year-old it is alive and well - Disney World, impossibly large milkshakes, bright colours and loud noises.

The attraction this time round is pretty much the same, to be honest, though I've replaced Disney World with SoHo, New York's artistic quarter. I will be working for a year at the Schatz-Ornstein Studio, owned by Howard Schatz, one of America's most eminent fine art photographers. I will be drinking impossibly large milkshakes. And I will be living in the Ganas Community on Staten Island, in an attempt to experience a qualitatively different way of life. Well, honestly, it's more because the rents are lower than Fergie's Apple Bottoms, but hopefully it will broaden my narrow Cantabrigian horizons a little, too.

Because I like sharing these things, and have taken a shine to journalism recently, I will be documenting my experiences here as 'Lettuce From America', a none-too-subtle homage to that great transatlantic correspondent, Alastair Cooke. Lettuce From America will include all manner of inane prattle and media content, like all the best blogs.

I shan't lie, I'm scared. First there was the revelation that Americans don't drink tea; then the bombshell that they don't own electric kettles. If that weren't enough, I've just been told their light switches are the other way up. Clearly these are a people I will have to be very cautious of.

In spite of my reservations, I will be leaving in a week.


P.S. For those of you who don't know me, I'm a 21-year-old would-be photographer from Manchester, England. Other interests include psychology (my degree subject), politics (I post on The Guardian's 'Comment is Free' site as samuelpalin, if you're ever over that way), and many other far less cerebral things.

Images are © Howard Schatz