When I first decided to move to New York, I told everyone I’d be living in the hip, trendy, East Village area of Manhattan. Naturally, why wouldn’t I want to live there? After all, I had visited for two weeks and spent most of my free time sipping lattes at the quaint cafes, trying new cuisines at the French restaurants, shopping in the over-priced boutiques and took in as much Jazz as I could stomach while I got myself acquainted with what I thought would be my new neighborhood. Of course, since when does life ever go as we plan? After searching for apartments through Craigslist, with zero success, I finally decided on a temporary living arrangement with a girl I had previously met at a party in the Lower East Side. She said she had an apartment with a room available in East Williamsburg that I could rent until I found a place of my own. East Williamsburg sounded like a nice landing place to begin my New York life. I had visited the Greenpoint/Williamsburg areas before and really fell in love with the whole scene there. It was an extension of the Lower East Side, really. The vibe was artsy, young, raw, maybe a little rough-around-the-edges but a great place to start. Piece of cake!
I arrived at JFK and no sooner as I left the baggage claim was I approached by a man who asked me where I was going. “Brooklyn”, I said, to which he quickly replied, “Come wit me”. I was led through three lanes of passenger pick-up traffic to an incredibly large Puerto Rican man who looked like the Don of the Gypsy Cab Drivers. The Don, not making any eye contact, escorted me over to a enthusiastic man named Abasi in an older model Lincoln Towncar. He quickly grabbed my overstuffed suitcase and threw it in the trunk of the car. As I slipped into the backseat, I began to wonder if I had done the right thing. Thoughts of my unusual disappearance and the montage of my photos that would be used on the episode of Unsolved Mysteries quickly played in my head. My thoughts were soon drowned out by Abasi’s too fast and too furious driving techniques.
Almost to my destination, I realized I wasn’t going to be living in any such artsy, gentrified neighborhood with café’s lining the streets and young hipsters tugging at their vintage cardigans. I wouldn’t be in Williamsburg or even East Williamsburg, for there was no such thing as “East Williamsburg“. I felt like Jack on the Titanic when Cal finally confesses that there is no “arrangement” or boats on the other side to take the men to safety. The car pulled up to a litter-lined street flooded with Salsa music. And here I was: The blonde, white girl from Texas and the new, temporary resident of Bushwick Brooklyn. “Bushwick“, I said to myself. The name even sounded dirty rolling off the end of my tongue. ‘Bushwick’ is a word that even the residents are afraid to mouth. “Where do you live?” “You know, that slum area of Brooklyn; That which shall not be named”.
After two weeks, the only word I could use to summarize my life was “tired”. Bushwick lived up to it’s reputation. It was a less than classy area, with Latino grocery markets serving up old produce, 7 stops away from Manhattan. It was a series of sleepless nights and a never-ending bus, train, “just a few more blocks to go“ adventure. Everything from making a simple deposit at the bank to shopping at the market, was an event that required methodical planning, walking a mile or two and making sure I had a book and my iPod to keep me company for a 45-minute train ride. What used to take 5 minutes, now required me to shower, get dressed for the day (make-up optional but highly discouraged. It‘s best to look as bad as possible), studying a subway map to figure out which train(s) to take, a 30-minute train ride, a mile walk and a “god, grant me serenity!” Who would have thought that living in New York City would have been such hard work? Performing simple tasks was no longer mindless and my sense of surroundings and awareness became as keen as a fox. I found myself rethinking this entire arrangement and wondering how much of it was really worth the privilege of being able to say “I live in New York”. But there were also many moments when I realized how phenomenal the city was for it’s art, history, music, cultures, entertainment, fashion, food. And it was true, this city is not for everyone, especially the lazy, faint of heart.
The railroad style apartment that I shared with my room mate was modernly updated, clean, cutely furnished in 21st century IKEA with the residue of 75 years of former residents. And the kitchen came fully integrated with it’s own family of roaches that we had both waged war against in the form of powders, sprays and bombs.
This was the only place I’d ever lived where the bathroom offered multi-tasking capabilities. I could take a piss, wash my hands and give myself a foot soak in the bathtub-all at the same time! The view from the front and the back of this dwelling was stellar, if you didn’t mind looking onto ghetto-style American graffiti and urban poverty. And the back end of the fire escape was fully barred off to deter thieves from breaking in (again) to steal valuable items like laptops, TVs and, I don’t know, expensive French panties?
After two and a half weeks, I had not really had a good nights‘ rest. I was desperately sleep deprived, cranky and bloated from the MSG-laden food at the Latino markets. Between the Salsa music heard round the clock, the droning bass from my next door neighbors‘ surround sound, dogs barking, Polish women yelling obscenities out into the streets, ice cream trucks playing that repetitive nursery rhyme music, horns honking, buses driving by, tow trucks at 3 AM, the screeching, rusty M train running by every 15 minutes, police sirens, thugs yelling, “I’m fuckin' gangsta, bitch!“ while shooting their guns, I was ready to just pack up and head back west on the next thing smoking. And the rats. For as long as I live, I’ll never forget the behemoth rats that could be heard from two stories up, squealing and rustling around in the garbage bags. They’d come out at nightfall, ready to party in all of the Latino leftovers; and the fiesta wouldn’t end until 4 AM.
I missed my old, lumpy bed. I wanted to sleep in, just once, past 8 AM without being disturbed by the aforementioned neighborhood ruckus; I wanted to sleep without the use of earplugs or pills. Or wake up with the cool breeze of a fan blowing on my face on the mornings when it was already 80 degrees in the sweltering heat of an August in Brooklyn.
The neighborhood gentlemen, referred to us as “Blondie Blanco’s“. Translation: “The White Blondies”. We were anomalies in this neighborhood of black and chestnut colored hair. And although most of New York is considered gentrified, I still could'nt help but notice that this neighborhood, in particular, was fighting the currents on that gentrification movement.
Even through all of my experience, there were some good things about living in a Latin ghetto. For example, I had the luxury of listening to loud, energetic Salsa music while shopping at my neighborhood market for groceries. In fact, if I actually wanted to Salsa in the aisle with my loaf of bread, the store clerks wouldn’t have minded at all! There were many off-priced stores that offered household goods and expired but still useable shampoos for a dollar. I found a coffee maker there for $12. I nabbed a $4 dress in a thrift store that could be worn a hundred different ways. How's that for stretching your dollars and cents! There was a great bakery two blocks away that made a delicious carrot loaf cake. It paired very well with my coffee, made in my $12 coffee maker. My neighbors could cook an incredible pot of pinto beans and they’d always offer me a plate, with rice sur le côté, any chance they got. My Guatemalan neighbor, who used to make dentures and porcelain teeth for Dentists in Mexico, gladly offered to glue my crown in for me one afternoon when it suddenly came out as a result of too many Starburst fruit chews.
When the neighbors threw back-yard parties to celebrate a 5-year olds birthday, it would last until 5 AM and my room mate and I (the token white blondies) were always invited to partake in the festivities. There was usually a smorgasbord of food and fresh Pina Coladas. Everyone in the neighborhood was really nice, warm and welcoming. I learned that I truly love the Latin culture for this. They are incredibly loyal, family oriented, big hearted and full of pride, happiness and passion. I learned to Salsa, Merengue, speak a little more Spanish and not only observe but live the way another people in the city live. Even with language barriers, we are all able to come together, live harmoniously and really share and connect as humans. To me, Brooklyn is where life is real. There's no resemblance of HBO's Sex and the City. In the many different boroughs of Brooklyn is where you find authentic culture. I would have never known or experienced this had I not lived in this neighborhood. I have gained an appreciation for my neighbors in a way that I never thought I would. In fact, many interesting people have come from Brooklyn's Bushwick: Eddie Murphy, Mae West and Jackie Gleason, to name a few.
After reading about the history and statistics of Bushwick, I realized this place is quite interesting and not even as scary as one would assume by it's previous crime statistics in the 1980’s-90's. Bushwick experienced 0.0252 violent crimes per person in 2007, in line with the City's overall rate of 0.0250 violent crimes per person.
In the wake of lower crime rates citywide and a shortage of cheap housing in "hip" neighborhoods such as Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Gowanus, an influx of young professionals and artists moved into converted warehouse lofts, brownstones, limestone-brick townhouses and other renovated buildings. Bushwick's 83rd Precinct has a similar crime rate to neighboring Williamsburg's 90th Precinct.
In New York, everyone is here together: Whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Indians, mixed ethnicities, artists, musicians, aspiring rappers and mid-western “blondies” just trying to figure it all out. This is what makes my neighborhood and New York City so intriguing. And even a place like Bushwick would be, at first glance, not a borough you would want to venture into. But sometimes you have to break open the geode to find the beauty that exists inside. Even as I write this, I can't help but laugh to myself when I realize all of this is my life and it’s all true. I love the new experiences, the unexpected, the adventure of it all and being challenged and forced out of my comfort zone. I always want to see life from different perspectives and it looks like I have certainly done that here.