Written by Kieron Lee
There are many misconceptions and worn out stereotypes of New York. For some it conjures up visions of horse faced women nattering on about their sex lives, while others envision the fight to survive, gang on even more ludicrously dressed gangs battling it out for some completely irrelevant reason or another a la Warriors. Or maybe it’s the find love, lost love, find it again blah blah blah all under the skyline of Manhattan. But the reality of New York living is that maybe it’s not so shallow or hostile and can be quite, well, pleasant (if you have money of course).
After going through my mandatory day two homesickness and ‘why the fuck am I here’ mindset, lost somewhere in the Bronx, inappropriately overdressed on one of the hottest days of the year, my initial view on New York was that it was well, big and err…hot. But then I needed breakfast and rolled into a cafe, and the power of the Pound/Euro worked it’s magic over an ‘only in America’ combination of what resembled a rolled omelette, presumably from an ostrich’s egg by the size of it, and a stack of pancakes covered in blueberries and cream. Coupled with my astonishment at a perpetually refilled iced tea, all for under $10. Why haven’t I been getting my breakfast in New York all these years? Big and brash, bigger is better, more is more and you’re getting more for your buck. So what if having an omelette on the same plate as a blueberry pancake would make a Michelin chef retch, my breakfast was huge, delicious in a satisfying kind of sense and cheaper than anything I’d get over the Atlantic ocean for the same price.
Suddenly it started to make sense as to why so many people love New York and America, along with the endless streams of beautiful women roaming the world famous streets. It’s a hard life.
So it doesn’t have the sophistication or architecture of Europe and could be called the land that fashion forgot. Baseball cap anyone? But it does have breathtaking modern buildings downtown and a sense of community and identity that is second to none. No matter what cultural background they have come from, lifer or maybe a little fresher to the city, perhaps even the country, everyone seems to firmly identify themselves as a New Yorker and their cross cultural interpersonal relationships and unconsciousness about it all perhaps lacking from modern European multiculturalism which leads me to the question, if New York is an example of how immigration can work, why has Europe got it so wrong? Perhaps it’s the more equal measures of different backgrounds, all Americans are immigrants to some extent excluding the (sorry) ‘Native’ American, and though people come from different countries, parts of the country, racial, social and cultural backgrounds, it seems like a second thought to New Yorkers. The Multiculturalism that is preached by the liberal minded diet-philosopher in Europe actually seems to work in New York, though I imagine it is not perfect and though people integrate effortlessly, I get the sense that race plays a huge part in how people identify themselves in New York and perhaps America as a whole, be it American, African American, Jewish American, Chinese American, American Chinese, American African and so on and so on. I’m not breaking any new ground here I know, but this history and make up has had an influence on the cities famous culture.
Something quite fascinating about the city is the amount of creative output and influence that it has had and in-turn had over music, art, film and creative culture in general. Culture is arguably New York’s greatest export. Hip Hop started here and it’s not hard to see its influence on a day to day level, be it more casual and less aggressive than people might imagine. It’s not uncommon for a ‘thug’ with tattoos, beard and backwards baseball cap (think 50 Cent not Williamsburg) working a job where he’d find it hard to get an interview in any other city. Young self titled artists flock from all over into overpriced gentrified neighbourhoods they would have a rough time walking through 20 years ago, producing a culture in itself where old clothes are selling for more than new ones in opportunistic vintage stores. People are shunning the once looked up to and high end Manhattan properties for a ‘more authentic experience’. In turn low earning New Yorkers are being forced elsewhere by rising rent prices. On the one hand gentrification is improving the standard of living, safety and property value of areas and at the same time creating a nomadic existence for the poor, ironically adopting many parts of the working class culture it is inadvertently pushing out. Culture is or has certainly changed in modern New York, at least in the sense of what it is famous for and how it actually is.
I’ve seen more ‘Street Art’ in galleries and sold as consumer products than I have on the streets themselves, perhaps more in part to the zero tolerance attitude of law informant implemented during Mayor Giuliani’s reign, or maybe the quick fix sticker and tagger culture is all thats truly left. I even at one point saw a paid job post looking for ‘Tagger Ninjas’ willing to take part in a guerilla advertising campaign. Stores filled to the brim with OBEY t-shirts sold for a premium. I saw a nice Keith Haring book, hat and hoodie respectively in an Urban Outfitters again tied in to the OBEY clothing line. I’m a big fan of Shepard Fairey myself and was lucky enough to have met him just before UK release of Beautiful Losers movie as my work as an artist was influenced by his. But even as a huge fan I was less affected when I finally did see a huge intricate OBEY symbol stencilled onto a New York building. Was it nothing more than another advert now? Is everything advertising here? Is anything not ultimately for sale? 99% or 99% off?
If you stroll around Union Square, famous for its ’99%’ protests you’ll see a very shiny statue of the much loved Andy Warhol holding a Bloomingdale’s bag no less, the great celebrator of the of paper thin feelings of consumerism, embracing it and at the same time manipulating and highlighting the endless replication and celebrity as a new religion along with the ‘all that matters is money’ mentality, all with a nudge and a wink. Hey it’s not real and we know it, but who cares?