The World in a City: Trav­el­ing the Globe Through the Neigh­bor­hoods of the New New York

  • Review
By – November 11, 2011

If not the most impor­tant of the great cities of the world, New York is cer­tain­ly the one which is per­haps the most rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Amer­i­ca, hav­ing giv­en rise to a host of famil­iar metaphors: the city that nev­er sleeps”; streets that are paved with gold”; cap­i­tal of the world.” To mil­lions around the globe, New York IS what Amer­i­ca looks like. It is the image of what it means to be free, to be suc­cess­ful, to be cre­ative and resource­ful and imag­i­na­tive, and yes, con­spic­u­ous and waste­ful. Emma Lazarus’ words at the base of the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty wel­comed mul­ti­tudes to America’s shores. Their spir­i­tu­al heirs con­tin­ue to arrive in Amer­i­ca seek­ing refuge and opportunity. 

While the cur­rent pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cam­paign plays out against an impor­tant debate about immi­gra­tion, New York serves as a mod­el for a chang­ing Amer­i­ca. Immi­grants are no longer lim­it­ed to the east and west coasts; instead, the face of all Amer­i­ca has become increas­ing­ly poly­chro­mat­ic. Mir­ror­ing New York, in the past thir­ty years Amer­i­ca has become more lin­guis­ti­cal­ly and eth­ni­cal­ly diverse. Joseph Berger’s book, there­fore, is a par­tic­u­lar­ly time­ly reflec­tion of how New York and Amer­i­ca have changed. Berg­er observes the new Amer­i­ca in places like Block Island — Here were Peru­vians play­ing Israeli music at an Ital­ian restau­rant in a bas­tion of Yan­kee tra­di­tion­al­ism”— but his beat is unique­ly New York. 

Berg­er, a long-time reporter at The New York Times, describes twen­ty-three dis­tinct New York City neigh­bor­hoods. He is a good enough reporter to slip beneath each community’s cara­pace, thanks to a series of cicerones who help him to under­stand the unique­ness of life with­in the area. The World in a City: Trav­el­ing the Globe Through the Neigh­bor­hoods of the New New York takes us from Asto­ria to Red Hook, from the Grand Con­course to Chi­na­town, from Brighton Beach to East Harlem. At each stop we meet the human face of change. We learn that there may be a price exact­ed even when a neigh­bor­hood becomes more afflu­ent, as when Berg­er writes that Clau­dio Capon­i­gro, who might have once wor­ried about los­ing his (barber)shop to the waves of sur­round­ing pover­ty should (now) prob­a­bly be wor­ried about los­ing his shop to devel­op­ers.” He shares insights with the read­er, as when he describes the painful loss of tra­di­tion: “…assim­i­la­tion can be a Tro­jan horse, a gift full of dangers…Many of the neighborhood’s Egyp­tians and oth­er younger Mid­dle East­ern­ers are mar­ry­ing non-Mid­dle East­ern­ers.” And he describes how tech­nol­o­gy is chang­ing the immi­grant expe­ri­ence thanks to video con­fer­enc­ing, which con­nects them to the Old Coun­try in ways that would be unimag­in­able to ear­li­er arrivals. 

Berg­er com­pletes his cul­tur­al guide with a list­ing of what to see” and where to go” for each neigh­bor­hood. The read­er will enjoy join­ing the debate about what else should have been includ­ed in this sec­tion since those who love New York City always have favorite restau­rants and haunts. It is in this spir­it, with enthu­si­asm for New York’s diver­si­ty and vital­i­ty, that Berger’s book will enthrall all who will imag­ine them­selves as a part of this unique metropolis. 

Noel Kriftch­er was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly served as Super­in­ten­dent of New York City’s Brook­lyn & Stat­en Island High Schools district.

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