Monday, January 23, 2012

GET LOST: A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York #1


This subheading may seem odd considering the title of these posts, but that will be explained later on. Back in the 1970s, before I got here, the city was a much different place. In the shadows of the two tallest buildings in the world--and probably two of the most expensive ever built at the time--lay a city crumbling into poverty and crime. Adding insult to injury, President Ford refused to help, as famously headlined by the Daily News: Drop Dead.

From most accounts I've heard, the city was mean and dangerous and, in a way, justifiably so. New Yorkers were pissed off, miserable, and struggling. This decade was also extremely culturally vibrant, perhaps ironically, perhaps not. It included the emergence and/or further development of Conceptual Art, Hip-Hop, Art Rock, Disco, Electronica, and House. But this was a city visitors needed bravery and a lot of street smarts to survive. Things are very different now, for better or for worse. New York has lost a lot of its creativity and individuality, but also a lot of its crime and bad attitude. When asking, "it's friendlier here than you were expecting, isn't it?" I have always gotten a "yes."

Only a day prior to this posting, without me even asking the question specifically, a visitor from London was telling me how surprised she'd been at how friendly a city this is. She and her companion would be studying their map, and people would go out of their way to approach and ask if they needed any help. I hardly think this is an isolated occurrence. I've done it myself.

These days, I'm always shocked to learn a visitor had a nasty experience with someone on the street who they presumed to be a native New Yorker. Shocked, that is, until I learn it was, say, around South Street Seaport. Very few of us were actually born and raised in Manhattan. Those who were are a somewhat quirky bunch in my experience. The people crowding the streets around South Street Seaport are not New Yorkers, unless they work in that area. You can usually tell the difference, or at least, I can.

Your experience asking someone for directions or advice would likely fall into one of three categories. Another tourist is unlikely to know the answer to your question, but should be relatively friendly about it. At most, they might be simply freaked out about a stranger in a strange land approaching them without warning. What may seem like rudeness may instead be caution. A real New Yorker, unless late for some important meeting, will very likely give you the twenty seconds to offer help with a smile.

The third person, who responds rudely to a polite, innocent question, would likely be from the surrounding suburbs. I don't mean to insult anyone from New York suburbs or imply that all or even most of them would behave this way, but allow me to explain. This person lives close enough to the city to know quite a bit about it. They want to appear native, and may actually think of themselves as New Yorkers. They may have lived here twenty-five years ago. They don't know enough about life here, though, to realize that nastiness is not a ubiquitous New York characteristic as perhaps it once was. On top of it all, being an outsider but only just barely, they have something to prove.

Just like any place, there are some people here who are dangerous or dishonest or both. Some are insane, others are just desperate and starving. The majority of people are none of the above. My advice is to be on your guard, but assume people have benign intentions unless they demonstrate otherwise. You'll know early enough if they're trying to get something from you that you don't want to give up, be it time, money, or property.

You get out of a place what you put into it. If you're terrified that everyone here is going to mug you or treat you like dirt, you're going to have a miserable time. On the other hand, if you're willing to talk to people who live here and interact with them, your experience will have much more personality to it than just a lot of photos in a photo album.

Yes, there are a lot of people here, and some of them want to scam you. But it's important to remember that, up to a certain point, people = safety. Unless we're talking about a cattle-herd density crowd, the more people there are around you on the street, the less likely someone is going to risk grabbing your wallet or pocketbook. The chances are just too high that when you yell out, some Good Samaritan is going to tackle them as they try to escape. This doesn't mean that an empty street late at night is necessarily dangerous in contrast. In all cases you merely need to remain consciously aware of your surroundings.

If, despite all this, you do find yourself being mugged, just give the mugger your stuff. If this person is willing to commit a crime for it, obviously they need the money more than you do. And stuff can be replaced, your life cannot. A whole day wasted at your country's embassy or wherever to replace IDs and so on is a hell of a lot better than spending the rest of your trip in the hospital with a knife wound. Hand over your stuff, say "that's all I have," and get out of there.

©2012, Ryan Witte

2. Leave Your Attitude at Home

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