A New York Love Affair

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When the most famous cities in the world – London, Paris and New York – are strung together in any given context, I’ll take New York. I’ve been lucky enough to visit all three, but it’s New York that takes my breath away, sweeps me off my feet and leaves me in a cold sweat of day dreams of what would life be like if I had the balls to move there.

I can’t recall the first time New York and I crossed paths. But I was very smitten with her from an early age. She was my first city crush – the only city in the world I would move to in a heartbeat without knowing a single soul or having ever set foot there. She brushed against my heart strings from every angle of pop culture – the scene stealer in a movie, the back drop on my favourite TV show and the glorious line in a song caressing my ear.

The 87.5 square kilometre island of Manhattan home to countless art galleries and museums is not short of being an artwork itself. The contours of the famous skyline glean even on a rainy day. A smoky haziness soften the outlines and create an atmospheric effect. Sfumato. The technique Leonardo Da Vinci used to paint the Mona Lisa. In New York this is created by crowds of people moving at a blurred pace, the pollution and traffic, the noise and the density, the garbage strewn over the cramped concrete slabs of carpet laid out as endless streets and avenues littered with stark yellow gypsy cabs that strain inches in traffic hollering at any vehicle or pedestrians that got in their way. The grey mist is also from the limitless buildings stretching toward the Heavens. Iron-clad walls erected allure and intimidate at the same time, invite me to enter its doors climb to its peak dare me to marvel at the great city then whisper, “Can you see what I see? Look beyond the surface because underneath pulsates the possibility of having a dream a come true.”

Like with any work of art, some will get it and others won’t. But if others can’t see this in this great city, they’ve missed the whole point of New York.

Customary in the art world, the first thing to do when looking at a piece of art is to acknowledge the artist’s name. The artists who created New York were immigrants from all corners of the world who built the city on the sweat of hard work, perseverance and clamouring to the heights of a better life.

Between 1880 and 1930 people from the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Southern and Eastern Europe came through Ellis Island as their first port of call before setting foot in the New World. At one point, every ethnic representation could be found in one neighbourhood in lower New York. Diverse in background but collective in effort to make a decent living, they brought the best of themselves, their culture and the masterful skills New York’s prosperity is built on.

Take for example New York’s famed garment industry. Malcolm Gladwell brilliantly gives an in-depth account in his book Outliers. Prior to the First World War, the Eastern European Jews came to New York with valuable skills overwhelmingly in tailoring, sewing and dressmaking. Between the late 19th century and mid 20th century, clothes manufacturing was the most vibrant industry in the city employing more people than any other industry and manufacturing more clothes than any other city in the world. The Jewish immigrants took advantage of the opportunities in the New World and worked like madmen. In 1888, 234 of New York City’s 241 clothing factories were owned by Jews.

Jewish immigrants such as Regina and Louis Borgenicht worked day and night manufacturing aprons in their tiny home. Despite long hours and hard labour, the Borgenichts were fulfilled by their work which eventually diversified into dresses, petticoats and children’s clothing.

“Starting from scratch in a strange land,” Louis recalled, “I had established a new line which in 20 years developed into a significant industry. The concept was overwhelming to a man who had come to the U.S. with bare hands.”

How many people make a pilgrimage to New York empty-handed but full of dreams with only the possibility of having it come true? The “to make something out of nothing culture” from hard but meaningful work is a legacy from the early New Yorkers like the Borgenichts passed down not only to Americans, but to the outside world curious over a piece the New York pie.

Yes, Mr. Sinatra, I do want to be a part of it.

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