Little Town, Big City
Living in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn isn’t so different from living in my hometown of Lancaster, PA after all. Both offer a small-town feel, an easy commute to the “big city”, and historical landmarks a-plenty. The cost of living is slightly better in Lancaster, but is indeed difficult to find good bagels and pizza there. Among the many wondrous sights around Lancaster County is the intriguing combination of Chasidic Jews making their way down the Kosher Highway between New York and Baltimore and the Amish doing their thing, in the same place.
A walk down 5th Avenue in Bay Ridge feels like a walk down Main Street U.S.A: people from all corners of the world trying to make a new start in America and trying to fit in. Sure, the famously Italian neighborhood now shares its brownstones and storefronts with a United Nations of different ethnicities and you’ll hear a Babel of Spanish, Creole, Farsi, Arabic, Chinese, and Turkish while walking over to Century 21 on 86th Street; still, people are generally open, helpful and friendly. Can you imagine? The guy at the pizza place, the guys at the bagel place, the girl at Rite Aid, and the clerks at NYSC all know me and are super friendly, every time I go.
How can this be? We’re still in New York City, after all, where tourists are mowed over for gawking too long on the sidewalk. Where everyone is on the take and only the strong survive. Where good manners are seen as a weakness in character and ambition trumps the Golden Rule. Everyone’s a critic, a cynic, a therapy-dependent depressive. All treatable afflictions, helped immeasurably by putting someone else ahead of oneself, even if it’s so small you don’t even break your stride.
Brooklyn is hardly alone in retaining small-town values; I’ve seen similar acts of blatant kindness and goodwill in all five boroughs, and yes–that includes Manhattan. Little things like giving up cabs in the rain to the elderly or infirm; holding the door for a harried mama with kids and shopping bags in tow; or helping a lost tourist find 42nd Street. These are small things that literally anyone can (and should) do to make our fair city a livable place.
So you can’t afford monetary contributions to charity, and you don’t have time to volunteer somewhere; you can still foster a sense of community all by yourself by supporting local businesses. Easy choices like local movie stores instead of Netflix, corner coffee shops instead of Starbucks, mom and pop bookstores instead of huge chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble, and intriguing choices like the Turkish deli or Mexican taqueria instead of the usual pizza or Chinese take-out. All of those choices are opportunities to get to know people in your community and even if someone ends up being unreceptive to your efforts, they’ll remember you the next time and probably afford you a second chance. You can always strike up a conversation with someone in your apartment building at the mailboxes–you’ll both wonder if the other is an axe-murderer, but that idea can be quickly overcome.
Many times in Brooklyn and Manhattan, I have been absolutely shocked by ill-mannered people: I’m not talking as Miss Manners here, I’m talking about a lack of basic manners, i.e. Don’t bulldoze a five-year old child out of your way to get to the public restroom, or Don’t carry on excruciatingly intimate conversations at top volume on your cell phone in a crowded public place. I’m not sure who thinks this kind of behavior is cute and/or acceptable, but ye gods. These particular instances point to deeper issues within those people’s families, not with the greater populace of New York City. Not that I buy the idea poverty, race, or ethnicity excuses a person from acting right. However, politely asking someone to reconsider their behavior in any way will likely get you pummeled, or, at the very least, screamed at. Probably too late for many in the City, but not you: whether you have current or future children, you are and will be the Manners Role Model. They watch everything you do and say, and make mental notes about your behavior. If you “please” and “thank you” and are generally gracious and kind, you’ll turn out polite kids. If you drop the f-bomb every third word or so, share your personal life and your every thought with the world at large at the top of your cell phone volume, and generally feel you are entitled to all the world has to offer without having to bother with “nice”, well, you get what you pay for.
In Lancaster, people who act like this are called “tourists”; in Bay Ridge, they are called, “neighbors”. I find they are tolerated in either place, and everyone else just goes about their merry way, working and pursuing their dreams, raising their families, and having fun. There’s room for everybody in New York City, even a polite kid from Lancaster, PA (No, I am not Amish). What will preserve the small-town feel of Bay Ridge will probably improve the quality of life for everyone in New York City: Community. Oh, and some improved manners wouldn’t hurt, either.