New York, my first trip across the atlantic, to the most continental of all cities in the United States. The melting pot of everything European, African, American and Asian. Even though it has been the backdrop for many television series and movies I did not really know what to expect. And still it was a bit of a culture shock.
Of course everything is one size up compared to the meandering cityscapes I’m used to. Where the city easily matches its continental counterparts is in its wealth of culture and design. There is an abundance of contemporary art exhibitions and between upscale warehouses, Harlem streetmarkets and exclusive Meat Packing District design shops, every visitor will find something to spend their money on.
Public space – No man’s land
But the thing that struck me most was how run down the city really is. There seems to be not one sidewalk without cracked and uneven surface and the same thing goes for the streets. Public transport is particularly dirty, running relics from halfway the last century. Going up the last pair of stairs in the Empire State Building is like walking through a building nominated for destruction. It is all so obviously underfunded, so loveless, so devoid of pride that it does not feel like a modern city at all.
This is a country where nobody feels responsible for the public space. Cross a doorstep and everything might be different. Musea are just as minimalistic and clean as everywhere around the world. Shops and homes are taken care of. The inside of America might be nice and clean, but its arse is on the outside.
Something similar is going on with New York people. Like in Europe, America’s big city people are positively rude, until you step into private space. Walk into a shop and smiles are everywhere.
The contrast is so vast that it does not work at all. It feels like being deceived. Fake friendliness feels worse than rude honesty.
So this happened. Having bought public transport access for the week, in order to get around town quickly, one of the teens in our party got stuck in the turnstiles of some subway station that probably had not seen maintenance for a year or more. Luckily a woman passed by pushing her baby through the extra wide doors, leaving room for him to enter the station with us. After standing on the platform for five minutes, security arrived, walking straight up to the teen and cornering him in a rather menacing way.
As there was a good explanation for the creative entrance to the station, I stepped up to explain the situation, only to be barked back by one of the guards STAND BACK SIR! KEEP YOUR DISTANCE! STAND BACK! For a full fifteen minutes no communication whatsoever was possible. Not once was the teen asked to show his valid ticket, which would have cleared up the situation in a matter of seconds. Instead, every identification was taken in and the poor kid had to explain what the hell he thought he was doing and did he carry any weapons.
Had it been me standing there being shouted at in stead of being offered apologies for the lack of service on a paid and valid ticket, I would have talked back. The kid stayed calm and never addressed the stupidity of the situation, which in hindsight was probably the only thing that kept him from being arrested.
After that scene, for the first time in my life, I felt like a target. This could happen to me any time. I was suddenly very aware of the fact that I did not have a lot of money for legal representation in a society where you can be guilty until you can afford innocence.
where | New York