Jane Jacobs

Subway to Brooklyn

“Does this stop at Myrtle?”

I turned to my right where the voice came from then glanced across to check the board.

As an ethnic Chinese tourist in New York City, this unassuming question got me thinking. For all the times I’ve travelled, even in Asia, I have never once been identified as a local to get directions from. Yet here, halfway across the globe on a subway in Brooklyn, a caucasian woman felt confident enough to ask the Asian sitting next to her if the train she’d gotten on was a local or express. I belonged.

Split into five boroughs, New York City is arguably the most cosmopolitan area in the world - a melting pot of global cultures evident in the food options alone. Often romanticised in movies and on television shows such as Taxi Driver and Mad Men, it’s not hard to see why the metropolis is so attractive and so easy to become a citizen of.

With its population of 8.6 million, communities here have high amounts of differentiation that can cater to the multiplicity of identities, whether we ascribe to it ourselves or they are ascribed to us. Canadian-American journalist and activist Jane Jacob’s book The Life and Death of Great American Cities mentions that ‘cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,’ and I think that’s one of the reasons why NYC is so distinctive. The reason assimilating into the culture here is effortless is down to the diversity on offer such that people can constantly opt in and out of whichever community they feel like they belong to, and no one will bat an eyelid. It’s almost innate.

“Yeah, it’s two stops away. This train’s a local,” I replied. I’d only been in New York for ten days, but it felt like I’d lived here before.