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New York State of Mine

Fed up with hipsters fawning over New York, I decided to take my own bite out of the Big Apple… without leaving Melbourne. This feature appeared in jmag issue 37, March 2010. You can follow my epic journey here.

Cultural cringe is the belief that what’s happening where you live is inferior to the vastly more exciting stuff happening elsewhere. In the 1950s, Australian intellectuals and creative types felt they had to go to London to be taken seriously. But these days, our cultural cringe is all about New York.

Hundreds of iconic books, movies and TV series have cast a sentimental glow over Gotham, the Big Apple, the City That Never Sleeps. With its colourful districts, its famous architecture, its smart, vociferous media and even its takeaway coffees in those blue, Greek-themed paper cups, New York seems impossibly glamorous.

People in Melbourne, where I live, tend to treat New York artists, writers, musicians and designers with awestruck respect. Then they book a plane ticket and head over there so they can pepper their conversation with phrases like, “When I was in New York…” “I wish I was back in New York…” and “Oh, this? I got it in New York.”

I’m jack of it. I don’t care how huge the sandwiches are in the delis, how awesome the street art is, and how cool the warehouse gigs and vintage stores are. I mean, we’ve already got overpriced frocks, graffiti and crappy garage bands. How unique could New York possibly be?

So I decided to prove two things. One: as Judy Garland once said, there’s no place like home. And two: you don’t need to shell out thousands to get that authentic New York experience. I was going to make a pilgrimage to New York… without leaving Melbourne.

First stop: Brooklyn, 3012. My friends have rambled on endlessly about this epicentre of alternative culture, and Jay-Z and Santigold assure me that in Brooklyn, “we go hard, we go hard.” With my ironic T-shirt illustrating a well-known internet video of a cat pretending to play the keyboard, I feel sure I’ll fit in.

Brooklyn has a laid-back, industrial chic. I’ve read it had lots of derelict spaces that hipsters have turned into apartment lofts and party venues. I can definitely see lots of run-down warehouses and shipping containers, but without local knowledge, I’m not sure which ones host acoustronic chillcore gigs and pop-up bars, and which ones just contain highly flammable children’s toys made in China.

Melbourne likes to boast about its cool bars hidden in laneways, but Brooklyn really ups the ante. Instead of negotiating alleys filled with stinking garbage, I actually dodge trucks filled with stinking garbage, heading to the local tip. Perhaps the local hipsters are still crashed out from their previous night’s partying, since the place is deserted except for the constant procession of garbage trucks. As the sun beats pitilessly down on the concrete and chain-link fences, I feel like I’m in the Spike Lee joint Do The Right Thing. Wish I had a boombox to play ‘Fight The Power’.

I cross the (West Gate) bridge to cosmopolitan Chelsea, 3196, the hub of New York’s contemporary art scene. I can’t wait to check out some galleries, and I’m also keen to sample food from the local delis and ethnic eateries.

There are lots of intriguing clothes and craft shops but the art, I’m sorry to say, is a bit of a bust. Maybe I’m just a philistine, but the best of a bad lot is a picture of a purple Buddha that has been turned into a wall clock. Was it meant to meditate on the passage of time?

Never mind – time to get some grub. There are probably more cake shops than galleries in Chelsea, tantalising my tastebuds with such exotic fare as vanilla slice, gingerbread and lamingtons. I’m tempted by various unfamiliar treats, but I decide to really challenge myself: I purchase a chicken kebab… during the day… while stone cold sober. And the weirdest thing? A real Chelsea kebab tastes much like the Melbourne kebabs I’ve gnawed on. I can’t wait to tell my friends this in a thoughtful, worldly voice.

Madison Avenue (Dandenong North), 3175 is my next stop. “Mad Ave”, as it was known in its glamorous mid-20th-century heyday, is the hub of the New York advertising and design industries. Every creative person worth their salt dreams of pounding this pavement! I’m wearing retro glasses, so I’m looking forward to some nods of recognition from my peeps.

But I have to admit it’s more sedate than I imagined. The ad agencies are set back off the street and look more like ordinary houses than the shimmering modernist skyscrapers I’d imagined. The signage is pretty poor, too, so I’m not even sure which agency is which. I’m afraid to buzz for entry in case they mistake me for a door-to-door salesperson and tell me to get lost. Which is ironic, I think you’ll agree.

So far New York isn’t living up to my expectations. But things look up once I hit the beach in the Hamptons, 3188. Known as a playground for the rich and famous, seaside villages Hampton and East Hampton are full of artisan bakeries, gourmet provedores and designer boutiques aimed at women of a certain age. I’m secretly hoping I’ll spot hip-hop mogul P Diddy popping in for pastizzi, so I can score an invite to one of the legendary “white parties” the area’s real-life Gatsby hosts every year. But I guess he’s back at his estate.

The sea is twinkling in the late afternoon sun. Little sailboats scud past on the horizon, and sweat gleams on the bare shoulders of the joggers grimly negotiating the steep beach steps. I stroll the beach, sand in my toes. This is the life! I only wish I were wearing a floaty white linen outfit like Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give.

And then I spot it! The mysterious dead creature that was found on the beach here… the Montauk Monster! Good lord! Of course, internet pundits say it’s nothing but a jellyfish, but I know it washed up from the shadowy biological research facility on nearby Plum Island.

Refreshed, I return to Manhattan to visit Carnegie Hall, 3163. My guidebook says this hallowed concert venue was built by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1891, but the Carnegie Library and Community Centre looks much newer than that. A plaque in the foyer tells me it was renovated in 2006. Ah, that explains it.

When I climb upstairs to the hall itself, I can’t believe how small it is. No wonder the New York Philharmonic moved to Lincoln Center in 1962. A gaggle of old men are playing cards in the corner. I wonder if they’re musos or roadies, but it seems rude to interrupt them.

By now the light has turned golden, and what better place to watch a New York sunset than the city’s iconic green playground, Central Park (Malvern East), 3145? I sit on the grass watching dogs frolic and joggers trot past, although I guess the chess players have packed up for the day. It’s really peaceful: an oasis of calm in the hectic city. I could really go a hot dog right about now, but there isn’t a stand in sight.

Dusk is heavy in the sky by the time I reach Broadway (Camberwell), 3124. They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway, but this is patently untrue: beneath the leafy canopy of oak trees I can barely make out my own jazz hands. I have been hoping to see Cats… and here come a few now!

The singing’s not what I hoped for – more like ear-piercing yowling and hissing – but at least you can say it’s authentic. That’s the satisfaction I take with me as I reluctantly head home. Now, when people have obnoxious conversations about how awesome New York is, I’ll be able to chime in. I’ll know what I’m talking about. I’ve been there.