“The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds aloft,
The winter snows, the sleigh-bells, the broken ice in the river,
passing along up or down with the flood-tide or ebb-tide,
The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d,
beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes,
Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway, the women, the shops and shows,
A million people–manners free and superb–open voices–hospitality–
the most courageous and friendly young men,
City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts!
City nested in bays! my city!”
– Walt Whitman, Mannahatta
Manhattan is a melting pot of peoples – these tribes from all over the world, that have come here on this small island to make a new home and a new life for themselves. Everyday, as I walk its city streets, I find myself amazed at the many different races and colours I see. In a sense, every single chapter and street so far has been a variation of this one – an expression of just how multi-cultural and diverse New York City, and Manhattan truly is.
But to get a sense of the island’s cultural diversity at its very essence, the best place to go to, is Grand Street. Here, in one of the oldest streets in the city, history itself was made and continues to be made. Here we find evidence of many of the founding fathers and ethnicities of the city – the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs), the Italians, the Chinese, the Jewish – all inhabiting their own largely well-defined lands within the same expanse.
Our walk starts on the far western end of the street, where there is a sort of in-between place – a “Nowhere in Manhattan” that is, ironically, well and truly American. Here the Stars and Stripes flies proudly, and from here, one can get a great view of the new World Trade Center tower that was still being finished when I went on this shoot, but by now, would have been completed.
Past nowhere, Soho begins proper – an ode to New York’s mercantile past. Here sit some of the most beautiful and evocative tenements in the city, once warehouses or homes to the poorest immigrants to arrive on Manhattan’s shores. Today, they are home to the most hip, urban, young and affluent of the city’s denizens – these designers, artists, models, fashionistas, and general wannabe types that have colonised Soho and transformed it completely into THE place to be, for anyone wishing to get a leg up into the glamour of Manhattan.
If Soho is the creative brain of Grand Street, the next segment of the street is its beating heart. These are the enclaves of Little Italy, and Chinatown, the later engulfing but never overwhelming the former within its midst. Here, one experiences the kinds of authentic traditions, foods and speak that these old-world tribes brought with them from across oceans, and here, allowed to sink deep roots and flourish. More than a century after these enclaves were established, they still look pretty much the same, nourished no doubt, by new immigrants that continue to arrive in the small island and make these enclaves their first stop homes.
Past Chinatown, there is a brief couple of blocks where there is some degree of deprivation, an obvious sign of which are a sudden appearance of 99 cent stores. This part of Grand Street underscores just how much Manhattan, despite its glitz, glamour and affluence, still plays host to a startling number of pockets of middling to crushing poverty. It’s an unequal world here, as a walk down any of Manhattan’s streets will demonstrate clearly.
As we approach the Eastern shore, one tribes lands bleeds into another. Here we find a colony of Jews, many of whom escaped the Holocaust back in the old lands of Germany and Eastern Europe, and came with their families and what they could muster to make a new life here – at the southern end of the island, on the edge of FDR Drive. I myself once called this home, when I briefly with a member of the tribe here.
Finally, at the edge of the street, an immense bridge links Manhattan with its hinterland, Brooklyn. Specifically Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the swiftly gentrifying lands of the Hipster and the Yuppie. A place I myself call Home in the city. Indeed, just across the water, from where Grand Street ends sits my actual physical home; my apartment – separated by the narrowest body of water.
This chapter celebrates people; and the home away from home that the island and the city became for so many peoples, including myself, for that very brief period of time.