There Goes The Neighbourhood

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?

Kieron Lee
About author:
Kieron Lee
Kieron Lee is a London based artist, writer & photographer who runs contemporary DIY music label and arts events under the Wolf Tapes moniker. Kieron completed his BA in Drama and Performance Arts specialising in writing and sound design where he developed his own interest for experimentation and composition and later went on to exhibit in soni... Read further >
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