Immigrants

 

 

Travelling up the east coast of the United States, David Whitley encounters a few people who tell the tale of modern day immigration.

 

Past and present

The days of open door immigration in the United States, as told so profoundly at the old registration centre at Ellis Island, are long gone. These days, emigrating to the United States is a tough, ruthlessly controlled process, and most of the millions that came in the past would stand no chance now. But while Ellis Island tells the story of America’s past, it also provides dark hints about America’s present. One of the key things learned on that island is that it is always easy to blame immigrants for everything. It’s something that is seen across the world – they come to our country, take our jobs, commit all the crime and insist on keeping their own culture rather than learning to assimilate with ours.

 

 

There are few parts of the world where this isn’t the tale. Britain shrieks about Pakistani immigrants, Australia frets about the Lebanese, South Africa worries about the Nigerians and Zimbabweans, Germany thinks it’s overrun by Turks, France wants to chuck out the Roma, Italy thinks its drowning in a flood of Africans and Albanians and the suspicion about the Somalis, Afghans and Iraqis is almost global.

 

Immigration in the US

The US – a country, remember, that is almost entirely founded on immigration, is one of the worst culprits for such scare stories. Illegal immigration is a massive issue here, and whilst some call for an amnesty that would allow for those who have overstayed their visas to stay in the country, the Send Them Home crowd is far more vocal. A sizable percentage of US citizens would probably prefer it if no-one was allowed at all and that all jobs were kept for good, patriotic Americans.

 

If only it was that simple. Travelling up America’s east coast, I keep encountering admissions that put multi-cultural America into perspective. In Washington, for example, I had an excellent meal that I later discovered was cooked by a chef from El Salvador. The joint’s owner told me: “America’s great restaurants would collapse without Central American labour. Pretty much every single one of them is reliant on it, and a lot of it’s not legal.�?

 

This is America’s dirty secret; the low paid immigrant workers (legal or otherwise) are what keeps the wheels turning. This story was replicated in Pennsylvania’s idyllic countryside. My uncle told me about the attitude of many locals to the Mexican workers who were doing all the donkeywork on the local farms. “People say they are taking American jobs, but they’re not – they’re doing the jobs that Americans don’t want to do. Stop Mexicans working on the farms, then send the illegal workers home, and the agriculture industry will be in a horrible mess.�?

 

An enlightening taxi ride

That’s the tale from those who are prepared to admit what’s happening. But what about from the horse’s mouth? Well, in New York, I hopped in a cab that I suspect wasn’t entirely legitimate. It wasn’t yellow, there was no meter in sight and the driver was a Nigerian chap. He was friendly, articulate and pretty open, so I ended up chatting with him all the way back to my hotel. His tale was sobering, and somewhat heartbreaking.

 

He had come to New York 20 years ago, and has been living in the city ever since. He sends the majority of what he earns back to Nigeria, to a wife and three children he hasn’t seen in two decades. This is despite facing New York living costs that most New Yorkers will whinge leaves them scrabbling around the poverty line. Yet my cabbie still seemed grateful for the opportunity to be here; happier to hold forth about Africa’s problems than those in his adopted nation. This man, America, represents the vast majority of the people your more lunatic fringes like to demonise.

 

America’s amazing diversity

One of the things I have enjoyed so much about being in the States is the diverse communities that make up little exclaves. I love that Washington DC has loads of Ethiopian restaurants, and streets that may as well be El Salvador. I love that almost as many (if not more) Puerto Ricans live in New York than Puerto Rico and that Staten Island has the largest Liberian population outside of Liberia. The distinct Chinatowns, Little Italy’s and Ukrainian villages are the prominent manifestations of something far more impressive. You can find the world in the United States; that’s what makes it great. For a country that has historically accepted the world in its embrace, to start rejecting it would be an almighty shame.

 

Read Ellis Island – where the United States begins - Part 1here

 

High Heels

 

 

I am a practical traveller. I own Gore-Tex and wind fleece, those ugly zip-off convertible pants and I always leave my hotel wearing comfy shoes. I layer my clothes and carry a backpack instead of a handbag, as I know it will distribute the weight more evenly across my back. It is rare you’ll find make up in my bag, and you sure won’t find jewellery. I rarely even brush my hair when I travel.

 

And yet there is one city where my sensible shoes, baggage allowance and comfort-first mantra goes straight out the window. A city where you need to own it. New York city is one of those cities. Years of diligent chic-flick and chic lit had slowly ingrained in my female psyche the need to look good in New York. The Devil Wears Prada, Cruel Intentions, Sex & the City and Gossip Girl all had their part to play in my decision: if I was going to do New York for the first time, I was going to live the fantasy and do it in style.

 

I’d sourced my outfit from a vintage store in New Orleans. A Mad Men-esque 1950s twin-set pinched at the waist and topped with a thick woollen cape. Four-inch high heels and fishnet hose and my hair flicked up in a French roll with giant oversized sunglasses. A retro bowling bag style handbag covered in Vang Gogh’s cherry blossoms that matched the colours on my coat finished the look.

 

I only had 24 hours in New York, and I knew I couldn’t do it all, so I decided to do very little-wondering the streets to take it all in. I set off from my hotel on Broadway at Midday in the vague direction of Central Park, my map tucked away in my bag.  It was 6 degrees and it was chilly, but the park was stunning under clear blue skies, showing off what is one of the concrete jungle’s greatest beauties. Despite feeling overdressed at first, my confidence had been boosted by the once-overs and nods from passing fashionistas I’d been given, a few clicks of the camera from tourists and one fashionable gentleman had told me “Honey, you got it, you got it” as he passed me by.

 

But when I exited the Park near Central Park Zoo I realised my heels had magically clicked together and brought me to the shopping girl’s spiritual home: Fifth Avenue, home to FAO Schwarz and Saks, Bergdorf’s and Barney’s and of course, Tiffany’s.  There are few women who don’t understand the significance and power of the little blue box. Their trinkets and diamond rings and bracelets and necklaces are the souvenir of choice for most friends I know who have been to New York City.

 

It’s all Audrey Hepburn’s fault, swanning about in front of Tiffany’s in a ball gown at dawn, coffee in hand, her face hidden behind sunglasses and her hair swept in a glamorous up-do in the iconic film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  She represented the outsider looking in, desperate to get a taste of that world where she didn’t belong. Looking in through the window where she stood in the film, I had to laugh at my own reflection. Just like her character Holly Golightly, I was playing dress ups, too. And I was having a lot of fun doing it.

 

My feet were hurting a little by the time I kicked them off in my hotel room. But I realised I was comfortable in a different way. Dressed as I was, I felt like I belonged to the city, and that made walking over fifty blocks in high heels worthwhile.

 

 

Disclosure: The writer stayed as a guest of the Hotel Beacon New York: www.beaconhotel.com

 

Queens

 

 

"So which of you chose this place?" asked one of New York City's most revered food critics, beady of eye and round of tummy.

 

"Me!" My friend Aileen raised her hand, excited to welcome such a gastronomic luminary to our lunchtime plans, anxious as to hear whether her choice would receive his approval.

 

The critic grinned. "Well done for picking the weirdest restaurant in New York!"

 

The setting could easily have been plucked out of downtown Shanghai; garish signs promoted a confusion of Asian script; food carts and holes-in-the-wall served up fish balls and chicken gizzards. Crowded streets, exotic music, languages spoke in a dozen tongues. In fact we were in Flushing, Queens, a far-flung neighbourhood east of Manhattan that few outsiders ever stray into. Ever heard the often-quoted factoid about Manhattan's Chinatown being the largest Chinese population outside Asia? Flushing rivals it in terms of culture and political power, and is regarded as the most ethnically and religiously diverse community in the world.

 

We mooched outside the Minzhongle restaurant and waited for others to arrive. "I haven't eaten here," admitted the critic, "but I know somebody that has. Great reviews. They specialise in cuisine from the north-east border provinces of China."

 

Noting the sign on the door, Minzhongle also appeared to specialise in watch and cell phone repairs. In fact there was a small, living room-sized mall comprising of three other businesses inside; a repair stall, a booth selling assorted lingerie and adult products and a derelict takeaway closed down by city health inspectors. Fortunately the restaurant hadn't suffered any such fate; it was plain enough, clean, that timeless Chinese restaurant style that style passed by. Nine of us crammed round a Lazy Susan and perused the menus while Aileen's friend Ning dusted off his Mandarin to guide us through the dishes.

 

Several of the guests, myself included, were having seconds thoughts about Sunday lunch. We'd originally arranged to sample the best Dim Sum that Flushing had to offer. Then a friend of Aileen's connected her with the NYC food critic, and the bar had been raised accordingly. There were organs on the menu. Lots of organs. I couldn't stomach steak and kidney pie, and the texture of liver made me heave.

 

Ning and our special guest deliberated over the menu and and minutes later the plates arrived; lamb in cumin, blood sausage, tripe, sheep's testicles and fried bull's penis, 12 pieces for just ten dollars. At least I was spared the steamed pig elbows and "sheep muscle", whichever muscle that happened to be.

 

I tackled the bull's penis first. Each piece was a circular slice of brown gristle girdled by lighter fat, the size of a large coin, several pieces per skewer. Dipped in an accompanying spicy sauce (I didn't ask) I placed a piece in my mouth and hoped the best. "There's no muscle to speak of in the penis," explained the critic, "it's a purely hydraulic action. This is just cartilage." To be fair to the bull it was reasonably tasty cartilage, a meaty chew, like well-cooked beef fat . It looked far more appealing than the tripe, which was a piled-up mess of red guts and peppers, as if a plate had been slid underneath a freshly disemboweled cow. I also passed on the sheep's testicle since it was of a size and shape identical to my own. The surprise dish was the taro, a common Asian plant stem, fried and dressed with caramelised sugar. It had the look and texture of tofu pieces, the crucial difference been that it also had taste.

 

In the mood to celebrate not being sick in my own lap, we took to Main Street and lost ourselves in the crowds. A fog of aroma hugged the sidewalks, street food boiled and fried everywhere, a hatch on the corner served up steamed pork buns - four for a buck twenty five. Down a flight of stairs we went, into the Golden Mall, a Blade Runner-ensue vision of vendors crowded into booths beneath sterile lighting. Workers cast noodles into their mouths at speed, piles of fried duck heads caught the eye of unsuspecting passersby.

 

Across Kissena Boulevard, we stopped by an Irish bar to check on the Knicks score. Save for the barmaid, every face was Asian, every one of them hollering at both the basketball and a single screen showing horseracing results. At the far end of the finger-thin premises, a throng of customers exchanged money with one another. A door marked PRIVATE opened and a dozen men shuffled out, more disappeared inside. The door marked PRIVATE swung shut.

 

Eating organs and stumbling upon gambling dens isn't everyone's idea of a Sunday afternoon well spent, but my trip to Flushing was the embodiment of everything I adore about New York. There are so many faces to the city, such a cauldron of culture and language, architecture and tastes. Whatever your personal comfort zone, there's a New York City waiting for you, but be brave and you'll find a place like no other on Earth.

 

   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.

MOMA & The Met

 

 

 

You won’t find many guide books or articles that don’t include a visit to the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art) as a highlight of a visit to New York. Between them these two museums are considered to hold some of the world’s greatest art collections and are frequently touted as a ‘can’t miss’ attraction, even for those who prefer to consume their culture with a spoon from a yoghurt pot.

 

I have to admit to being one of these uncivilised folks. Long ago I accepted that I was born bereft of the art appreciation gene, although I’ve learned recently that many others suffer from the same affliction. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a nice painting (one that represents something I vaguely recognise). My struggle, and that of others, is that I find it hard to interpret what the creators of abstract work are trying communicate and too often it leaves me cold and disinterested.

 

 

Having been many times to New York and always found other things to do that kept me from these two star attractions, this time I was determined to find out for myself what all the fuss is about.

 

 

The Met

 

The exhibits of the Met span different eras from the Greeks and Egyptians through to modern times and cover an enormous geographical spread. But for me the greatest work of art in the Met is the building itself. The museum has been created in such a way that the design of each room reflects the art that is contained within. Roman statues sit in a bright and spacious atrium; religious art is found in a room that looks and feels like a Latin American church; the modern American collection meanwhile is housed within a large space that includes a façade of a traditional American bank.

 

 

The Met appears to be designed with the uncommitted visitor in mind (all too often an oversight in museums) and once the grand designs draw you into another section of the enormous building, you’re bound to linger on some of the displayed artefacts. A genuine surprise and I only wish I’d allowed more time to see more.

 

 

MoMA

 

While the Met may have done a great job in accommodating people from the full art loving spectrum, MoMA is not a place to waste your energy if you’re missing that magic gene. For those who can interpret and appreciate a blank white square or a large red rectangle with a few vertical lines, MoMA will hold hours of fun and intellectual stimulation. For me however walking through the many halls was akin to watching a slow-moving film in a foreign language without subtitles. Even the building, a clean minimalist open-plan construction, could not hold my attention for long.

 

 

 

No-one of course should feel pressured into visiting anything that doesn’t appeal, but if you’re thinking of visiting one of ‘the Big Two’ on your next New York visit I’d recommend you turn your attention to the Met – unless of course you like looking at the type of art that would have had Picasso scratching his head in bewilderment.

 

Andy visited the Met and MoMA using a New York CityPASS courtesy of NYC Go


 

You can get the USA included as a stopover in the Navigator RTW

New Jersey

 

 

 

"I dunno. I'll admit I'm no engineer, but I'd have second thoughts about building ships out of concrete."

 

It was difficult to disagree with my friend Perry as we plodded across Sunset Beach, the fine, airy sand spilling into our trainers. Concrete is hardly renowned for its buoyant qualities, a fact seemingly underlined by the sight of the SS Atlantus ahead of us, its broken grey hulk jutting from the choppy Atlantic waters. It was one of a dozen experimental vessels built of concrete due to a steel shortage during World War I. It didn't sink, however - the ship served to transport American troops back home from Europe and was to live on as a ferry before breaking its moorings during a storm and running aground off the coast.

 

Numerous attempts to refloat the Atlantus failed, and now the shattered, century-old hull is one of several curiosities and attractions found in the New Jersey resort of Cape May. Not all of the state is rusting industry and anonymous freeways, despite the sorry scenes that greet passengers at Newark International. Cape May City, some three hours' drive south of New York, is the USA's oldest seaside resort, a town with a population of barely 4,000 that swells by over 50,000 in the summer months.

 

The resort's reputation owes plenty to the buttercup-yellow Congress Hall, a 19th century hotel with two pillared wings of suites framing a palatial lawn that rolls out to the sea front. Before US presidents retreated to Camp David for rest and relaxation, they would reside at Congress Hall. President Benjamin Harrison lived at the hotel during the summer months and would conduct affairs of state from there.

 

Our day trip began with brunch at Congress Hall in the Blue Pig Tavern. Perry and his wife Devon regularly take road trips out of NYC and Cape May was a favourite destination. The tavern's sausage and biscuits in gravy, poached eggs and potatoes also came highly recommended by my two guides. We don't cherish gravy in the UK quite like our US brethren who'll willingly pour it on everything, and together with the rich sausage and the sweet biscuit, a little ketchup and a trickle of runny yolk, I felt a genuine pang of sadness when I realised there was only a mouthful left on my plate. The complimentary bowl of salt-water taffy, which originated further up the coast in Atlantic City, barely helped ease my pain.

 

Cape May offered plenty of opportunities to walk off the calories. The beaches are regularly voted among the best in the country and stretch for miles along and around the cape. We ploughed through the golden dunes to Cape May Point, our path eventually blocked by towers of grey-green concrete, abandoned and in disrepair, perilously close to the encroaching tide. The possibility of submarine attacks during the second world war led the United States Navy to establish a significant presence in Cape May. 

 

Their horseshoe-shaped bunker served as a gun emplacement to protect coastal shipping and originally stood nearly 300 metres from the sea-front, but Cape May has suffered coastal erosion like few other towns. Shifting sands and violent storms destroyed the township of South Cape May in the early 20th century - only a handful of homes were saved and moved elsewhere inland. The pilings that the bunker rests upon were only ever meant to stabilise the structure - how long before thousands of tons of concrete collapses into the sea?

 

The bunker is part of Cape May Point State Park, as is the nearby Cape May Lighthouse. We paid our $7 entry fee and a series of grey-haired volunteers pointed the way to the 199 steps up the spiral staircase, where we were greeted by the bearded lighthouse keeper, clad in stereotypical navy sweater and peaked cotton cap and looking not disimilar to a villain from Scooby Doo. In fact there's a reasonable chance he was; Cape May City is famous for its hauntings, and the nearby freshwater Lake Lilly is not only a renowned birdwatching spot, but in the 19th century was a meeting place for pirates. Local legend has it that the treasure of Captain Kidd remains hidden beneath the mud and silt.

 

A further walk along the shore and we arrived at Sunset Beach and caught sight of the SS Atlantus. There was a scattering of other visitors, all of them eager treasure hunters probing and scooping up sand. Some involved their children, others worked in pairs, some stared intensely into the beach as if possessing x-ray vision. The lost treasure of Captain Kidd was still lost, after all.

 

The Sunset Beach gift shop was deserted, as were the streets of Cape May City when we eventually limped back into town. All that will change once summer breaths warmth back into the sea breeze. The broad, flat beaches and low-rise skyline guarantee sunshine from dawn til dusk. The marina offers festivals and whale-watching tours. The centre of town is the stuff of picture postcards; colourful Victorian houses and quaint local stores, trolley rides, clean streets, friendly locals. It may be the butt of jokes across the nation but Cape May proves there's real beauty to be found in New Jersey, and plenty more besides.

 

 

   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.