The New Yorkers
By Addie Walker
I’m a Texas girl: I was born in Galveston in ’98 and bred in (and around) Dallas for most of my life. However, I’ve never been considered to have a Southern twang, let alone a thick Texas accent, and I was never a fan of country music (until I fell in love with Scotty Mccreery on, arguably, the last relevant season of American Idol). I despise cowboy boots, and Tex-Mex seems, to me, better without the ‘Tex’. Essentially, not much gives away my Southern origins, aside from a deep fanaticism with the Texas State Fair and the ability to recite my state’s Pledge of Allegiance. I could be the girl from anywhere, and I used to pride myself on this fact, until I encountered vex in the City.
My first trip to New York occurred the summer before fifth grade. Each break my grandparents, Charlie, a Harlem native, and Anne, a small-town Milwaukee-turned-big-city girl, would open their quaint apartment to the prying hands of their three grandchildren. It was during these early summers that my disenchantment with the sleepless city began: noise pollution rang as foul as the hot garbage brewing in every other alleyway and street corner, visits to Time Square left me battered and bruised, and the authenticity of Dallas BBQ remained questionable at best. To make matters worse, the energy of my surrounding environment, while not raving, was still brimming with an implacable urgency that I struggled to keep pace with. I didn’t understand the outside world’s fascination with the concrete jungle nor my own place within it. Nevertheless, year after year I took the annual plane ride to my summer residence, always with the unrelenting determination to discover just what it was about this grandiose city that made it such.
This determination led to trips to the Cloisters and purchased books from the Strand, but most importantly I received invaluable tales of childhood and history from my grandfather along with the ever-important gift of time. I became enamored by the culture of my grandpa’s youth and the venerable spirit flowing throughout the city’s streets, a spirit generated by the people of the city alone, the real New Yorkers— young, old, and passed. New York’s saving grace, for me, was its people and the culture subsequently produced as a byproduct. Having found my passion for New York, my objective became to understand what distinguished a mere city resident from a true, authentic New Yorker and how was one to become such a person. I set off to determine just that.
I returned to the genesis of my New York journey. Occupying a seat across from my grandmother and grandfather, I sat at the dining room table of their 50 year-old apartment. It is a handsome room, brimming with books. Between dusty collections of my grands’ most treasured sci-fi novels and an assortment of cookbooks, live memorabilia in all shapes and sizes, documenting decades of New Yorkers- grandparents, brother’s, daughters’ daughters, and friends. When I asked my grandfather about what made these people in the photos New Yorkers, he replied, “They all had little things that brought them together.” What he meant was that they were a part of “the neighborhood.”
While detailing his childhood in Harlem, my grandfather repeatedly came back to the concept of the neighborhood, the immediate community that a New York resident belonged to, smaller than their borough, and in the case of my grandfather, specific to your street corner. New York was made of and, arguably, to this day still consists of cultural pockets— Spanish Harlem, Chinatown, Little Italy, the list goes on. These neighborhoods are a testament to the fact that while many people are not New York natives, they come to this city of promise and create a space within it that, while influenced by their original background, is every bit as authentically New York. In this way, migrants make the city their own and ultimately, by embedding their culture into the city, become encompassed as legitimate New Yorkers. Hence, community is a big deal. Every authentic New Yorker has a neighborhood, a community, in which the surrounding environment and the people within it just fit. Whether the common bond is their language, ethnicity, or the rent, real New Yorkers emerge when an attachment to their neighboring community is evident. They are first and foremost members of their neighborhood, more likely to name their borough or block than New York City itself when asked where they are from. Now, I was left wondering how boroughs (and their smaller inner-neighborhoods) so different in culture, customs, and auras ultimately come together to form the cohesive whole that is the city of New York? What was it that made the people a part of these authentic and distinct neighborhoods, authentic and distinct New Yorkers? For my grandparents, the answer is: character.
Both spoke in length about the determination and ambition that characterizes a real New Yorker. “New Yorkers are very hardy,” said my grandmother, “they do things that no one would ever think about doing.” She then told me of the numerous occasions when she had seen random people around the city lugging the most impossible of items (couches, dressers, etc.) on shopping carts and small dollies. Indeed, while a comical anecdote, it is also an indication of the bricoleur within every New Yorker. When they have a goal, no matter how daunting it may seem, they find a way to conquer it, by whatever means possible, tradition and normalcy being of little regard. In the words of my grandma, “They are a people that will survive. They are sturdy, they are ingenious, and they will always make a way.” They always make a way. Not only for themselves, but in regard to others.
It may come as a shock to many outsiders, but New Yorkers are some of the most helpful people you will ever meet. This is less surprising, however, when you remember how important community is for these people. Whether it’s assisting a pedestrian with directions or helping jump-start the career of a young professional, New Yorkers have their fellow city dwellers’ backs. “Most New Yorkers are not crabs in a barrel,” my grandfather explained. “They're not pulling down the other person so that they can get out. They like it when somebody succeeds, especially when it’s somebody from your own block.”
The concrete-jungle is made out of the dreams of many, and often, it is the people of New York that a person has to thank for their success. Contrary to the Wall Street narrative constantly portrayed in movies and TV, the ambitious New Yorkers know that the strength of their city relies on the strength and unification of its people. Thus, as Grandpa describes, real New Yorkers are “people who realize that you’re working as hard at what you're trying to do as they are at what they're trying to do,” and still support you’re all the same.
This diverse community, composed of fiercely determined thinkers, makers, and doers is one of a kind. Their strengths lay not only in their numbers, but also their character. They are your neighbors, your professors, your bus driver, and your dog walker. And hopefully, given enough time and a bit of luck, they will be you and me.
Originally published 03/09/18