It is possible in some of our larger cities to approximate international travel without the need to purchase expensive (and environmentally unfriendly!) airline tickets. And I am not talking Disney-style simulacra, but more of the real thing, or as close to the real thing as possible in a world that increasingly looks to blur the distinction between the real and the hyper-real.
New York is one such city. I travel in and out of the New York area a lot for a couple of nights at a time. I enjoy travel but I am not partial to hotels all that much. In the old days of the 1980s or 1990s that might mean B&Bs. Now it increasingly means outfits like Airbnb. Sure, Airbnb has its risks but the structure of the site does a good job at managing the killer risks, like killer or otherwise reprobate hosts and guests. Generally speaking the worst that is likely to happen is that a place will be less clean than the pictures indicated or that the host is slipshod in getting you the key. To me those are OK trade-offs for meeting new people and seeing parts of the metropolitan area up-close, as a short-term resident.
So recently I decided to use my New York trips to visit Portugal and China, using Airbnb to penetrate neighborhoods short on other kinds of accomodations. The stand-ins for these international locales were, respectively, the Ironbound district of Newark, New Jersey and Flushing, Queens.
Ironbound first. The Ironbound is a roughly four square mile district in Newark, New Jersey. It’s a quick PATH train ride from Manhattan.
I’d always heard its name derives from the fact that it is set apart from, or “bound” into, the rest of Newark by iron railroad tracks on several sides. Wikipedia says the name may also come from the district’s blue-collar, iron-producing past. Whatever the origin, the area is in fact “bound”, as the map below shows. Between the river, highways and train tracks, there are not that may ways in or out.
For Newark, this is not a bad thing. Newark has its share of mean streets, but they tend not to be in the Ironbound. Mostly, that’s because of the culture of the dominant group, which is Portuguese.
Starting in the early 20th century, the area became home to a substantial number of Portuguese immigrants, with the flow from Portugal supplemented later by other Portuguese-speaking immigrants from Brazil and Cape Verde.
The Portuguese seem well-suited to a bound-off area like the Ironbound. My experience of Poruguese-Americans (I used to live in Rhode Island where almost 10% of the the population is of Portuguese descent) is that they are warm, friendly, intensely family-oriented–and insular. They are seemingly quite happy being set apart, and not just from the rest of Newark. It’s a front-porch type culture, and the Ironbound is front-porch type place, with kids out in the street playing and adults shmoozing, if that’s the right word, on the steps.
The area is not much to look at, admittedly. The area’s working class background left it with housing stock that was not much to begin with.
But it is a lively place overall–vibrant, in a good way, to use that much-abused term.
In fact, this is the kind of the place that reminds you that strictly speaking you don’t really need the New Urbanism since the Old Urbanism has not totally gone away. OK, it probably helps to be working class and Portuguese to make the Ironbound work for you as a neighborhood in which to live. But it does have the essential qualities. And in a way better yet that its housing stock was not of the first caliber when built. White professionals are more likely to check out the more interesting buildings in the rest of Newark, and to gentrify those neighborhoods first. . . .
. . . in the meantime letting the Ironbound be the Ironbound.
But soaking up an authentic urban culture is not the only reason to visit the Ironbound. Did I mention the food?
Ferry Street, the main drag, is chock-a-block with bars and restaurants, typically Portuguese or Brazilian, with the former emphasizing seafood and the latter grilled meats.
I haven’t had a bad meal here. It helps to like Portuguese cuisine, which tends to come to the table looking more like this:
It is slightly disloyal to the traditional Portuguese crowd to say so, but my favorite place in the Ironbound is a Basque place called Casa Vasca.
A hole in the wall, and a kind of Basque version of the German place my grandfather had in Brooklyn in the 30s and 40s. When I go I sit at the bar. . . .
. . . where I order off the blackboard. Tripe and beans, pork shank, clams and so forth. You don’t bother asking for a starter. When you sit down the bartender brings you a basket of bread and a seriously large bowl of the soup of the day, on the house. That’s usually something pretty substantial with chunks of meat, beans and veggies.
I then order a vino verde, the light and slightly effervescent Portuguese white wine. The barkeep fills the glass to the brim, in the ethnic fashion, and smiles, indicating that through my choice of wine I am showing that I am wise in the ways of the world. Or at least it seems to be the case that he is happy with my residency at the bar: the last several times I have been there, he has sidled over in my direction while I am working my way though the main course and has refilled my glass without my asking, without bothering to make eye contact for implied permission, and without charging for the refill.
I sometimes think I was Portuguese in a different life. I love the sound of the language when spoken or sung. I love their love of family, and how restaurant staff and waiters, strangers to us, always fussed over our kids whenever we went as a family to a Portuguese restaurant in Providence or Fall River or New Bedford. And the food, of course.
But I don’t really believe in past lives. This one will have to do, and when I am in Casa Vasca it is a kind of heaven.
And then on to Flushing.
According to Wikipedia, Flushing’s Chinatown will soon outstrip Manhattan’s Chinatown in size, if it has not already. So when you are on the main drag in Flushing, it is seriously Asian.
In some ways, Flushing is even more like visiting Asia than is Manhattan’s Chinatown. Manhattan’s Chinatown is plenty ethnic, and does not go overboard in its concesssions to tourists or non-Asians. But it is easy to remember you are in the US when there. There are always a fair number of non-Asians on the streets and in the eateries. Over there you may see an ultra-hip ramen place with Western staff and customers. Over there you may see a Baskin-Robbins on the corner. And the housing stock screams Lower East Side.
By contrast, Flushing’s Chinatown looks more like . . . well, a city in China. It’s got wide streets like many modern Chinese cities . . .
. . . whereas Manhattan’s Chinatown is a bit more dense and hutong-like, and hutongs are an endangered species in China.
Add to that the relative lack of “foreigners” (e.g., white Americans) in Flushing. On my 10 minute walk from my Airbnb accomodations to the subway in the morning, I passed literally hundreds of people on the street. Exactly two were not Asian, two Orthodox Jews coming out of a coffee house.
And did I mention the food?