In the most exciting city on earth, with its shows and shopping and attractions of all kinds, our simple plan was just to find some cheap Chinese food and walk around a bit, and the freshmen chose to come with us. They had other options. Some from our group were going to Broadway and some to Times Square, but these three freshmen (freshwomen?) chose to hang out with us - a couple of introverts at least as old as their parents. I feared they would be bored - that they would feel like they wasted an opportunity for a good time.
My wife and I had hooked ourselves up with a campus ministry from our local university because we like the work they do and this trip to New York City sounded interesting. There’d be some volunteer work at a food pantry, a tour of the UN, and a couple of days of seminars on issues of diversity. Our evenings were unscheduled and we’d be free to explore.
What makes a city interesting to me is not the curated museums or the theatrics created for visitors. Instead, I want the boots-on-the-ground viewpoint of how a place works. That was the idea behind tonight’s exploration: to go into someone else’s neighborhood and see what it looks like, to see the people and eat their food. New York City has hundreds of neighborhoods to choose from, and we chose Chinatown.
There’s always a moment of, “OK, now what?” when you come up to the street level from an unfamiliar subway station. I pull out my map and squint at the street signs to get my bearings. MSL stands patiently as she always does - the freshmen are like puppies squirming on their leashes, ready to go in any direction. We’re headed for Vanessa’s Dumpling House (on Eldredge).
Chinatown seems to have a much more approachable scale than midtown or the financial district. Instead of skyscrapers, it’s four-story walkups. Instead of hurried professionals wearing power-color accents on their black suits, it’s sweatshirts and uniforms of the physical trades. The sidewalks are narrow and uneven. Small shops of all kinds occupy the storefronts. Rusty fire escapes hang overhead. It feels old, slightly seedy, but not unsafe. The freshmen don’t miss anything, and they’re one step ahead of me, beside me and behind me, swirling around reading signs, looking in windows, and spotting the characters on the street.
Vanessa’s is exactly what I had hoped it would be: a skinny storefront, dark and noisy, crowded with people eating good, cheap food. You don’t come here for the hygiene or the ambiance, you come for the dumplings and the noodles. There’s about a million BTUs of fryers, steamers and a gigantic wok behind the counter and they’re making dumplings as fast as they can … or as fast as they want to. Locals probably know what they want before they get to the counter, but we clog up the line studying the tiny print on the menu. I order food for MSL and me: three orders of dumplings, a noodle dish, a sesame pancake thing, spicy cucumber salad, and two bottles of water for less than twenty bucks. The freshmen ordered dumplings and soups and we tasted each other’s food at it was all fantastic and cheap and satisfying. I was afraid the freshmen would be put off by the darkness and the foreignness and the sticky chairs, but they seemed to embrace the adventure as much as I did.
Fully fed, it was time to walk. A warm and breezy evening, it would have been a shame to spend it indoors. We found ourselves in Sara Roosevelt Park which stretches several blocks through the lower east side. The park has handball courts, basketball courts, children’s playgrounds, soccer pitches, shady squares and the place was alive. Parents watched kids on the monkey bars and pushed them on swings. Tweens served volleyballs to each other. A team of Chinese played soccer against another group that looked very Eastern European, or maybe West Asian. Every bench was occupied by old Chinese couples and black grammas watching the action from the sidelines. The freshmen turned out to be sports fans when theirs eyes caught some shirtless, muscular, and tattooed guys engaged in a raging game of handball. We stopped to watch for a bit. As a pack of skateboarders passed behind us, causing a bit of chaos on the sidewalk, I overheard one say, “everyone is so happy tonight.”
It’s impossible to discern the ethnic dynamics from one walk through a neighborhood. I didn’t interview anyone, as a good journalist would have. There are probably prejudices and suspicions and maybe even tensions because that’s how people are. But on the surface, the park had black people, brown people, yellowish people and white people, speaking Mandarin, Spanish, English, and Whateverish and they all seemed to be getting along. The park was the front yard and back yard that none of these city dwellers had, and they had to share it. Maybe there were official rules of accommodation from the Park Board, or maybe there was a neighborhood tradition for how to use the park, or maybe what we saw was just an example of people understanding that when you share a neighborhood, life is better when you share it amicably. After two days of seminars on diversity and discussions of inclusion, here it was going on right in front of us, in what appeared to be an organic way.
There are so many examples of conflict around the world - conflict based on race, economics, and simply the traditions of hate - that when you see something like Sara Roosevelt Park, it stands out as exceptional, and that’s a shame.
We found a subway station and I was surprised that the freshmen were genuinely excited about taking the train across the Manhattan Bridge. I was excited too, but then I’m kind of a nerd about heavy infrastructure. We gaped and pointed at the boats and the buildings and the train went back underground on the Brooklyn side. We got off at the first station and went through the “where are we, now” routine at the top of the stairs.
It was a half hour stroll to the east end of the Brooklyn bridge, where we’d cross the river again. Late afternoon was becoming evening. This little corner of Brooklyn felt less congested than Manhattan and I liked it. I’d like to spend more time there.
You could walk the Brooklyn Bridge in about ten minutes if you wanted to. It took us a lot longer than that. There’s a nice breeze from the water and the pedestrian walkway is above the traffic lanes so there’s a lot of noise, too. The ped path is shared by tourists visiting an icon, wedding photographers with their brides and grooms, and walkers and cyclists just trying to get to the other side.
The view changed a bit with every step, so in our best Midwestern mosey, we’d stop and linger from time to time - content to lean on the railing, and take it all in. Sceneries and selfies were shot. The sun was setting behind Manhattan and the lights were coming on. One of the freshmen marveled at the lights and pointed out that every one of them was an individual’s intention to illuminate and there’s a story for each one. I was thinking the same thing, but she said it first.
Ahead was Manhattan, behind was Brooklyn, below was the East River and waaay out in the harbor, a tiny Miss Liberty floated on her island. When the tourists spotted her and realized what they were looking at, they’d stop and point and talk to each other in German, Hindi, Korean and Arabic. It’s a poignant moment when you see people of other nationalities react that way - a reminder of what our nation has meant to the world, and despite current politics, still means. It makes me grateful to have been born American, it makes me proud, and it makes me want to share it. Watching the other nationalities represented on the Brooklyn Bridge, I realize the American dream is everyone’s dream - we just managed to build a country around the pursuit of it.
By the time we returned to the hotel, we had eaten some great food, inserted ourselves into real life at street level, observed how a multi-ethnic neighborhood functioned, got some exercise, visited an iconic landmark, and watched as the city transformed from day to night without missing a beat. Embedded in the evening were lessons of diversity and peaceful coexistence.
I’m sure if I had read the police report of the same evening, or checked out the international news, or just waited until noon the next day when a crazed man ran his car through the crowds in Times Square, I wouldn’t have been filled with the same sense of brotherhood toward everyone.
But I didn’t check the police report or the news, and there will always be belligerent jerks who screw life up for others. In our real, on-the-street experience, what we saw were people figuring out how to bridge their differences and come together over what was common: a shared adventure, dumplings, soccer, a statue. Nobody was over-intellectualizing what it took to get along … people were just doing it. Not giving up who they were, not expecting anyone else to, taking others at face value and treating them with respect. People can be really cool that way.
In the end - at our debriefing sessions, the three freshmen mentioned the night as a highlight of the trip, and it was for me, too.