Fred Ferretti's USA: New York New York
My father's father, a Ferretti, came down a ship's gangway to Ellis Island, a
long way from Firenze, then through to New York, and became a New Yorker. My
mother's father, a Rossi, from Milano, followed and became a New Yorker. They
married as New Yorkers, their children were born New Yorkers, and their
grandchildren, of which I am one, are New Yorkers.
I like being a New Yorker. there is a certain conceit in being one, and I am
quick to tell people that although I have been sleeping nights in New Jersey for
some time, I am a New Yorker. For this city along the Hudson River surely is a
state of mind as well as a definable place. We New Yorkers are often brassy.
What we have within our borders, we believe, is the best, the biggest, the only.
We boast. We speak with many accents, often too loudly. We are occasionally
Perversely, we are as proud of our attitudes as we are that most of the
aspects of America's performance culture, from Broadway to baton, rest within our
limits. While most of us are removed to different degrees from New York's
incessant commerce it is another aspect of our pride to know that the world's
markets either come to us or emulate us.
Our museums are repositories for all that is best in the arts and traditions of
the world. And we glory, truly, in our ethnic tapestry, in all of our colors and
stripes, in our many customs, our many differences, our immigrant layers, a
marvel of a mix that makes us unique.
Nowhere else in the United States is there a blend such as that in New York
City. Our heritages are Italian, Polish, Irish, English and Scandinavian; Chinese,
Japanese, French and Spanish; Haitian, German, Dominican and Cambodian;
Indian, Pakistani, Israeli and Turkish; Greek, Moroccan, Egyptian and Scottish.
We revel in our pasts as well as in the New York tradition that encourages us to
retain the custom and characteristics, the nostalgia and cookery of the lands
from which our ancestors came, while simultaneously weaving us into its quilt.
Most of America's immigrants have come through the gateway that is New
York, settling first into enclaves made secure because these newcomers were
surrounded by others like them. It is why we have ecoles and escuelas as well as
schools. It is only in subsequent generations that these hyphenated Americans
moved out of these enclaves to suburbs, to other neighborhoods not too distant,
there to continue to blend into America, but the city remains rich, richer, for them
having been there.
New York's diversity, its continuing welcome to newer immigrants, is its glory.
It is what I preach, what I urge them to seek out when friends come to visit from
other parts of America and from other countries. Of course they wish to look down
at the cityscape from the Empire State Building, to walk and shop Fifth and
Madison Avenues, these days as Italian as the Via Veneto. They wish to be
carried by sightseeing buses, to have seats for a Broadway show, to watch the
Rockettes high-kick at Radio City Music Hall, to stand amid the lights of the
Times Square crossroads, to cruise the city's waterfront and walk in the world's
best-known urban space, Central Park. Of course they do.
Yet I urge them, always, to immerse themselves in New York's variety, into
what New York is historically and traditionally, to go beyond the guided tours.
Walk along Orchard Street, or Ludlow, on the Lower East Side, once the city's
immigrant Jewish ghetto, a true shtetl. The tenements are still there, those
walkups that were the first homes in America for successive waves of German,
Irish, Italian, Asian and Caribbean immigrants. This lot of Lower Manhattan
remains a living, ever fertile repository of America's past.
Along East Broadway and in the narrow streets radiating from Chatham
Square spreads Chinatown, possibly the largest settlement of Chinese in the
United States, changing, becoming richer as an influx of Thais, Vietnamese and
Cambodians edges in among earlier Asian settlers. The lunar New Year, with its
drum beats and lion dancers is the most important holiday of the year in
Chinatown, and these days so is Tet. Cross Canal Street and you will find yourself
in what New Yorkers like to call Little Italy, where the old men still sit in the
summer sun in the caffes, sipping their espressos, allowing the flow of festivals
to saints from Salerno and Palermo to course about them. They could as easily
be in Naples.
It is an evocative walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, itself an architectural
monument to New York's, and America's, growth, into downtown Brooklyn's
Atlantic Avenue, the city's souk. Atlantic Avenue is Syrian and Lebanese, Egyptian
and Afghani, Turkish and Armenian, and its food shops are aromatic with the
smells of baklava, of roasting sesame seeds, baked pitas and spinach pies.
Further into Brooklyn, a walk along Bay Ridge's Fifth Avenue becomes a stroll
through Little Scandinavia, which each year has its own parade remembering its
Danish, Swedish and Norwegian heritage. A parade quite like the marches of
Brooklyn's West Indians and the Manhattan parades to Christopher Columbus,
Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Baron von Steuben.
Borough Park in Brooklyn is home to immigrant Israelis and to Roumanians,
and over near the waters off Coney Island, the neighborhood under the Brighton
Beach elevated train tracks has become Little Odessa, the center for Russian
immigrants to begin their assimilation. Its shops, its food smells, its speech are
Russian. Back over the East River into Queens, an area of Astoria smells and
tastes like Athens. We New Yorkers call it not Astoria, but Greek Astoria, and I
commend it always to my friends to visit at Easter, Greek Orthodox Easter, when
its streets are overladen with the scents of rosemary-flavored roasted lamb.
We, all of us in New York take particular pride in our Metropolitan Museum of
Art, our Museum of Modern Art and our Museum of Natural History, each a mecca
for the world's artistic communities. But ask other New Yorkers and we will tell you
that as satisfying would be visits to El Museo del Barrio, our treasure house of
things latino, and harlem's Studio Museum, which traces the black African
experience from enslavement to emancipation, and beyond. Far north of the
Metropolitan, in the shrubbery overlooking the Hudson River is another of our
jewels, the 12th Century chapel that is the heart of The Cloisters. Further south
lie the more current Fire Department Museum and the Police Academy Museum.
Over Giovanni da Verrazano's Bridge lies Staten Island. Why should a visitor
searching for New York's mixed essence travel there? For that island's Center for
Tibetan Art, a temple of Buddhism that has welcomed travelers for years.
There is a joke, a New York wisecracking joke, in which a traveler to the city,
a tourist, asks a New Yorker how to get to Carnegie Hall. The New Yorker stops,
thinks, then answers, "Practice! Practice!" Well, surely that is one way, a career
path, and this historic, preserved concert hall is sufficient reason to visit the city.
But a seeker might enjoy the Balalaika Symphony Orchestra as well, or the
Amato Opera Theater, not the Metropolitan to be sure, but as earnest. Or the
Country Dance and Song Society, which opened its doors in 1915, simply because
it was felt that New York needed a space in which to perform the dances of rural
Rustic English dance; the lute of Renaissance minstrels; the driving beat of
steel bands on street corners; an impromptu violin recital on a subway platform.
All of it is our music. Listen to it is what I urge upon my friends who visit New
York. Listen to our symphony of many voices, many traditions, many languages
and many customs. If you would know what immigrant America is you must hear
the songs of the united states of New York.
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