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Fred Ferretti's USA: New York New York

My father's father, a Ferretti, came down a ship's gangway to Ellis Island, a long way from Firenze, then through to New York, and became a New Yorker. My mother's father, a Rossi, from Milano, followed and became a New Yorker. They married as New Yorkers, their children were born New Yorkers, and their grandchildren, of which I am one, are New Yorkers.

I like being a New Yorker. there is a certain conceit in being one, and I am quick to tell people that although I have been sleeping nights in New Jersey for some time, I am a New Yorker. For this city along the Hudson River surely is a state of mind as well as a definable place. We New Yorkers are often brassy. What we have within our borders, we believe, is the best, the biggest, the only. We boast. We speak with many accents, often too loudly. We are occasionally pugnacious.

Perversely, we are as proud of our attitudes as we are that most of the aspects of America's performance culture, from Broadway to baton, rest within our limits. While most of us are removed to different degrees from New York's incessant commerce it is another aspect of our pride to know that the world's markets either come to us or emulate us.

Our museums are repositories for all that is best in the arts and traditions of the world. And we glory, truly, in our ethnic tapestry, in all of our colors and stripes, in our many customs, our many differences, our immigrant layers, a marvel of a mix that makes us unique.

Nowhere else in the United States is there a blend such as that in New York City. Our heritages are Italian, Polish, Irish, English and Scandinavian; Chinese, Japanese, French and Spanish; Haitian, German, Dominican and Cambodian; Indian, Pakistani, Israeli and Turkish; Greek, Moroccan, Egyptian and Scottish. We revel in our pasts as well as in the New York tradition that encourages us to retain the custom and characteristics, the nostalgia and cookery of the lands from which our ancestors came, while simultaneously weaving us into its quilt.

Most of America's immigrants have come through the gateway that is New York, settling first into enclaves made secure because these newcomers were surrounded by others like them. It is why we have ecoles and escuelas as well as schools. It is only in subsequent generations that these hyphenated Americans moved out of these enclaves to suburbs, to other neighborhoods not too distant, there to continue to blend into America, but the city remains rich, richer, for them having been there.

New York's diversity, its continuing welcome to newer immigrants, is its glory. It is what I preach, what I urge them to seek out when friends come to visit from other parts of America and from other countries. Of course they wish to look down at the cityscape from the Empire State Building, to walk and shop Fifth and Madison Avenues, these days as Italian as the Via Veneto. They wish to be carried by sightseeing buses, to have seats for a Broadway show, to watch the Rockettes high-kick at Radio City Music Hall, to stand amid the lights of the Times Square crossroads, to cruise the city's waterfront and walk in the world's best-known urban space, Central Park. Of course they do.

Yet I urge them, always, to immerse themselves in New York's variety, into what New York is historically and traditionally, to go beyond the guided tours. Walk along Orchard Street, or Ludlow, on the Lower East Side, once the city's immigrant Jewish ghetto, a true shtetl. The tenements are still there, those walkups that were the first homes in America for successive waves of German, Irish, Italian, Asian and Caribbean immigrants. This lot of Lower Manhattan remains a living, ever fertile repository of America's past.

Along East Broadway and in the narrow streets radiating from Chatham Square spreads Chinatown, possibly the largest settlement of Chinese in the United States, changing, becoming richer as an influx of Thais, Vietnamese and Cambodians edges in among earlier Asian settlers. The lunar New Year, with its drum beats and lion dancers is the most important holiday of the year in Chinatown, and these days so is Tet. Cross Canal Street and you will find yourself in what New Yorkers like to call Little Italy, where the old men still sit in the summer sun in the caffes, sipping their espressos, allowing the flow of festivals to saints from Salerno and Palermo to course about them. They could as easily be in Naples.

It is an evocative walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, itself an architectural monument to New York's, and America's, growth, into downtown Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue, the city's souk. Atlantic Avenue is Syrian and Lebanese, Egyptian and Afghani, Turkish and Armenian, and its food shops are aromatic with the smells of baklava, of roasting sesame seeds, baked pitas and spinach pies. Further into Brooklyn, a walk along Bay Ridge's Fifth Avenue becomes a stroll through Little Scandinavia, which each year has its own parade remembering its Danish, Swedish and Norwegian heritage. A parade quite like the marches of Brooklyn's West Indians and the Manhattan parades to Christopher Columbus, Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Baron von Steuben.

Borough Park in Brooklyn is home to immigrant Israelis and to Roumanians, and over near the waters off Coney Island, the neighborhood under the Brighton Beach elevated train tracks has become Little Odessa, the center for Russian immigrants to begin their assimilation. Its shops, its food smells, its speech are Russian. Back over the East River into Queens, an area of Astoria smells and tastes like Athens. We New Yorkers call it not Astoria, but Greek Astoria, and I commend it always to my friends to visit at Easter, Greek Orthodox Easter, when its streets are overladen with the scents of rosemary-flavored roasted lamb.

We, all of us in New York take particular pride in our Metropolitan Museum of Art, our Museum of Modern Art and our Museum of Natural History, each a mecca for the world's artistic communities. But ask other New Yorkers and we will tell you that as satisfying would be visits to El Museo del Barrio, our treasure house of things latino, and harlem's Studio Museum, which traces the black African experience from enslavement to emancipation, and beyond. Far north of the Metropolitan, in the shrubbery overlooking the Hudson River is another of our jewels, the 12th Century chapel that is the heart of The Cloisters. Further south lie the more current Fire Department Museum and the Police Academy Museum.

Over Giovanni da Verrazano's Bridge lies Staten Island. Why should a visitor searching for New York's mixed essence travel there? For that island's Center for Tibetan Art, a temple of Buddhism that has welcomed travelers for years.

There is a joke, a New York wisecracking joke, in which a traveler to the city, a tourist, asks a New Yorker how to get to Carnegie Hall. The New Yorker stops, thinks, then answers, "Practice! Practice!" Well, surely that is one way, a career path, and this historic, preserved concert hall is sufficient reason to visit the city. But a seeker might enjoy the Balalaika Symphony Orchestra as well, or the Amato Opera Theater, not the Metropolitan to be sure, but as earnest. Or the Country Dance and Song Society, which opened its doors in 1915, simply because it was felt that New York needed a space in which to perform the dances of rural England.

Rustic English dance; the lute of Renaissance minstrels; the driving beat of steel bands on street corners; an impromptu violin recital on a subway platform. All of it is our music. Listen to it is what I urge upon my friends who visit New York. Listen to our symphony of many voices, many traditions, many languages and many customs. If you would know what immigrant America is you must hear the songs of the united states of New York.


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