"Us" or "them"?

New York is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world; it's also one of the most segregated. To explore the divide, we sent five reporters of various ethnic backgrounds to visit neighborhoods they'd otherwise never go to.

Race & Culture
Katonah Pizza and Pasta

Photo: Michael Kirby

An Arab-American in Irish Woodlawn

“You look lost,” an older woman says to me in a watered-down Irish accent at the bus stop at Woodlawn station—the last on the uptown 4.

“I’m heading to Katonah Avenue,” I say.

“I’ll get you there,” she offers. “Where are you from?” I consider explaining that I’m American by birth, Palestinian by origin, Kuwaiti by childhood, Egyptian by upbringing and Austrian by adolescence, but I decide to do us both a favor and give her the abbreviated version—Arab-American.

In any case, the concept of being “from” somewhere is foreign to me—as unfamiliar as this north Bronx neighborhood. The only semiconcrete association I have with the borough is that “Jenny from the block” is from a street somewhere around here. Woodlawn, for its part, is white. The original Irish immigrants settled here because of the low rents; today the neighborhood is filled with illegals who’ve overstayed their tourist visas. The empty streets are lined with trees, and low rooftops are dotted with American and Irish flags. Passersby make small talk, and the locals’ brogue emanates from some two dozen bars.

As I inch closer to talk to my new friend, a voice interjects. “Do you know this man?” demands a petite woman to her left. “And you! Why did you start talking to this lady?” Neither of us respond.

“Please identify yourself!” she barks, insisting I show her a badge, and then warning the other woman, “Be careful, don’t take chances.”

Ignoring her advice, my guide motions me toward the approaching Bx34 bus. Badge Lady follows. Once we all board, the stalker comments, “That’s a good American accent. My cousin is an FBI agent. You have a Middle Eastern name, but a good American accent.”

Race & Culture

Photo: Michael Kirby

Her fascination with my patois makes me suspicious of her intentions, so I ask to see her badge. Dalva Coimbra. That is definitely not an Irish name; maybe it’s Brazilian. Some gall.

Exiting the bus, I walk toward the first place I see: Katonah Pizza and Pasta (4307 Katonah Ave at 237th St, 718-994-8337). As I reach for the door, Badge Lady pops out. “People get suspicious around here,” she growls. “You can’t just approach people. I work for Bloomberg.”

A young man leaving the pizza shop interrupts: “Leave him alone. He can do whatever he wants here. It’s a free country.” As she walks away, I feel my shoulders loosen. “She was saying inside, ‘Watch out, some Arabic guy speaks very good English and is trying to start trouble,’ ” Nickolas Gelai, a 17-year-old Albanian dressed in baggy jeans, tells me.

Gelai too asks me why I am here. I explain that TONY sent me to write about the neighborhood as a cultural outsider. His eyes light up. “If you want to write about something, write about the gang fights, man,” he says. A few weeks ago, five kids from Woodlawn took on a small army from Yonkers, in an apparent fight over someone’s girlfriend. Nearby Yonkers is notorious for street gangs, including the Latin Kings. “We got a crazy nightlife,” he says. “I know some guys who got their heads clipped.”

Seeking a bar, I bid Gelai adieu and make my way across the street to The Rambling House (4292 Katonah Ave at 236th St, 718-798-4510), one of several Irish pubs in the area. Outside, an old man leans on a bench, smoking.

“Hi, there,” I say, apprehensively.

Michael Cooney, 68, who came to America in 1960, takes me in with open arms. There is something comforting about Dr. Mike (as the locals call him) and his ramblings. His frequent repetition of phrases like “I won’t defraud you, my boy,” and “Oh, I’m old, boss” makes me instantly trust him.

Dr. Mike has a son stationed in Afghanistan. “My son is a linguist,” he says. “He knows your language, boss.” I ask if he is proud of his son. He pauses, and then throws out his cigarette. “Wouldn’t you be? He used to fly down during the first Gulf War.”

I tell Dr. Mike that I lived in Kuwait, and that my grandparents are still there. Pulling a fresh cigarette out of his pocket, he adds, “As long as people are good people, I don’t care, boss.”

On my walk back to the bus stop, I check out Greenland Deli (4313 Katonah Ave between 237th and 238th Sts, 718-324-3533), whose aisles are stacked with Irish products. An older woman pretends to hide her catnip from the store clerk, who grins back and says in jest, “What are you trying to do? I see you!” As I pay for my water, I overhear the same clerk say in Arabic to his friend, “Go wash the car. Here is $5.”

I assumed he was from Yemen judging by his accent, but his American lilt was just as good as mine. I ask for his name.

“Younis,” he says. “Younis Ali Ahmad.”

Heh. So even in Irish Woodlawn you can find someone like yourself, someone with “a Middle Eastern name but a good American accent.”—Ahmed Shihab-Eldin

60 % of Woodlawn’s 7,741 residents are of Irish descent

Race & Culture
Rincó Criollo

Photo: Michael Kirby

An Asian-American in the Latino Bronx

“So you’re on urban safari, huh?” says Carlos “Tato” Torres, executive director of Bronx nonprofit Rincón Criollo. I had just explained to him the premise of my assignment: to immerse myself in the Bronx’s Latin community. The borough has the largest number (644,705) and highest percentage (48 percent) of Latinos in New York. He was right to call me out: I’m a Korean-American West Coast transplant living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and I’d set foot in the Bronx only once before—last year.

During that trip, a 12-year-old black girl scolded me for walking in a dodgy area near Arthur Avenue in broad daylight and told me to take the bus; another time, my white roommate was called a “snowflake” by a passerby. Venturing beyond my Brooklyn-Manhattan circuit was exotic for me, but not one of the Puerto Rico–born locals batted an eye when I breezed into Rincón Criollo (Brook Ave at 157th St, myspace.com/rinconcriollo), a tiny neon-green shack in a former dilapidated South Bronx lot off the 2 line. “Everyone is welcome here,” explains Torres, a 32-year-old former resident of Ponce, Puerto Rico, and member of old-school Latin band Yerba Buena. He was first attracted to the spot’s impromptu jam sessions, held on weekends in its lush garden. “Our founder, Jose ‘Chema’ Soto, is very fond of music,” he adds. “We play bomba and plena—they’re both styles associated with people of color, the working class, those who are marginalized.” The neighborhood also shares a history of institutional neglect: During the ’70s, the Bronx resembled a rubble-strewn war zone. Soto reclaimed a burned-down lot after his basement club went up in flames, recruiting friends, their furniture and donations to build this casita—or social club, named for a type of house in the Puerto Rican countryside—which is among hundreds of similar structures dotting the borough.

Race & Culture
52 People for Progress

Photo: Michael Kirby

“You want some food?” asks Kenneth, a 28-year-old volunteer who’s here, along with four others. He opens up a massive pot of arroz con patitas y habichuelas, rice with pig trotters and beans.

Back on the 2 train, I head to another nearby organization, 52 People for Progress, which holds free Wednesday-night concerts in amphitheater El Teatro Miranda (Kelly St between Ave St. John and Leggett Ave). “Man, this is where salsa was born,” says cofounder and promoter Al Quinones. Across the street is Middle School 302, formerly P.S. 52, which el cantante Héctor Lavoe attended.

According to Quinones, the 27-year-old organization, which charges $1 admission to benefit local cultural programs, is “empowered by the people—not the Parks Department.” The crowd—mostly Puerto Ricans tonight—reflects Quinones’s zeal for salsa with dancing couples, and a few folks providing accompaniment via maracas, a cowbell and a whistle. “Man, people come from all over here because they like to swing! We don’t punk out even if there’s rain.”

Race & Culture
South Bronx

Photo: Michael Kirby

I end my day with Adaina Vélez, a media buyer for a Manhattan ad agency who has offered to sit with me on her stoop in Allerton, a nabe in the northeastern part of the Bronx. It ends up being too chilly (“Most people hang out there when it’s really hot,” she explains), so we move, oddly enough, to Team USA Martial Arts Fitness Center (2704 White Plains Rd at Allerton Ave, 718-994-4300), a tae kwon do studio where Vélez volunteers. We chat about my day and my concern that I would be called yellow snow. “Yeah, a lot of people typecast the Bronx that it’s so ghetto,” she laughs. “And it really isn’t.” I also realize that the Bronx isn’t all that foreign to me, either: The sight of teenagers kicking to a pumping merengue soundtrack recalls my childhood karate lessons. “I know how to count to ten in Korean,” says Vélez. “Plus, I’ve learned all about discipline, character and respect.” Sadly, I hardly speak a word of Spanish.—Helen Yun

48%of the Bronx is Latino

Race & Culture
The Islamic Society of Bay Ridge

Photo: Lisa Vosper

A white guy in Muslim Bay Ridge

It’s just about 1pm, time for the second prayer of the day here at The Islamic Society of Bay Ridge (6807 Fifth Ave at 68th St, 718-680-0121). My Chucks are on a shelf in the entranceway along with everybody else’s footwear—no shoes are allowed in the mosque. I stand barefoot in the adjacent office, sipping juice provided by Murad Mohammad, a mosque volunteer who has agreed to host this scraggly white boy.

I consider myself culturally curious—a delusional side effect of possessing a liberal-arts degree and having lived in South Philly, a ’hood filled with Italians, Vietnamese, Mexicans and twentysomething bohemian wanna-bes.

Mohammad steps back into the office. “It’s okay,” he says, motioning for me to sit on a folding chair. “We will pray. You can watch here.”

Race & Culture
Balady Fresh Halal Meats

Photo: Lisa Vosper

He flips on a color TV monitor and Sheikh Adel Eita fills the frame with his white robe. Eita is an imam, and he conducts prayer service five times a day, at 5am, 1pm, 5pm, 8:20pm and 9:45pm. On Fridays, he delivers the jum’ah, a lecture that usually advises listeners on raising a family according to Islamic tradition. As the imam leads, Mohammad moves his lips in prayer while stooping, on his knees or kneeling with his head to the ground. Peering through the office’s two-way mirror, I notice there are no women or children in the room. They’re relegated to the basement, where they too watch Eita on a TV monitor. As soon as the prayer finishes, Mohammad snaps up. “Let’s go.”

Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, is a neighborhood brimming with Arab businesses. Attorneys and accountants cram into offices above cafés and Laundromats. There’s a halal butcher on every block: Inside Balady Fresh Halal Meats (7128 Fifth Ave at 72nd St, 718-567-2252), cold cases are filled with skinned, severed animal heads. Men in jeans and work boots haul boxes of fruit up cellar stairs, and women wearing varying degrees of hijab direct flocks of children like shepherds. Mohammad says most Muslims travel to their home countries in summer; business picks up in September during Ramadan.

So where’s the fun? The next day, I hook up with more contacts, whom I discovered through an Arabic-language Meetup group—three of the ten Aboushi siblings: Diane, 29, Salha, 20, and Haytham, 14. They show me how the residents of Bay Ridge party. We begin at Meena House Café (476 Bay Ridge Ave between Fourth and Fifth Aves, 718-238-3274). Diane and Salha wait outside (women who frequent hookah bars carry a stigma), but Haytham shows me inside. Men smoke hookahs and watch soccer on the big screen or play backgammon. This is definitely a boys’ club: dark and smoky. I get strange looks as I riffle through my notebooks. For a moment, I think they suspect me of government surveillance, which has plagued the café and the neighborhood since 9/11. “People are just cautious and careful,” says Diane, who doesn’t say much more. “People want to continue living their life.”

Race & Culture

Photo: Lisa Vosper

Soon, the four of us make our way to Princess Music and Wireless (6919 Fifth Ave at 69th St, 718-238-3274). In addition to cell phones, Princess has all the big hits from all the stars I’ve never heard of, like Nawal Al-Zoghbi, who I’m told can’t really sing, but men love her anyway. I can see why—in her formfitting sequined dress, she looks like a slinky Vanna White.

On any given Sunday, there is a wedding somewhere in Bay Ridge. This means there are always women getting their hair done. To my surprise, the women in Alex’s Salon (7923 Fifth Ave at 79th St, 718-833-4382) are not wearing hijab, but rather layers of makeup and elaborate hairdos. Alex’s is the exact opposite of Meena: Light fills the room from all sides, a fog of perfume hangs in the air, and there’s a talk show blaring from atop a small TV stand. No boys are allowed here.

So far, I haven’t seen a suitable place for men and women to meet up for a date; public spots are either segregated or family oriented.

“Everything’s done in the context of marriage,” says Diane. “People don’t date for the hell of it.”

Race & Culture

Photo: Lisa Vosper

After a marriage is arranged, plans are made for a big ol’ party. If the couple is lucky, it’ll be booked at Widdi Hall (5602 Sixth Ave at 56th St, 718-439-8621), a space with a storied Brooklyn history. Diane says that Muslim weddings are similar to American weddings, except for the music and, in some cases, gender segregation.

“I like the separate weddings,” she says. “You’re more at liberty to dance the way you want.”

Later that night, I try to sit in on a wedding, but the father of the bride says I have no business being there and insists I leave. Outside, a trio of preteen loiterers regale me with yo-mama jokes. Their fathers stare, and I know it’s time to go home.

Like most of the people I’ve met in Bay Ridge, the fathers would rather keep to themselves. And I no longer want to be the outsider I fear they think I am: some perv with a camera or a surveillance satellite, or worse, a representative from the shock-driven media. It’s exhausting. I’m out.—Sam Tremble

200 the number of mosques in NYC

Race & Culture

Photo: Michael Kirby

A black woman in Asian Flushing

I’m sitting at a round table at dim sum restaurant Ocean Jewels in Flushing, Queens (133-30 39th Ave between College Point Blvd and Prince St, 718-359-8600), surrounded by a mix of East Asian–Americans speaking a variety of unfamiliar languages while ordering various dishes from the countless carts wheeled around by mom-aged women in pink polo shirts and cranberry-colored aprons. The food is not even close to familiar. Well, I do recognize one or two things: steamed shrimp dumplings and chicken feet. For the rest, I have to rely on my guide and translator, Amanda Heng. I tell her that I don’t eat chicken or beef, and definitely not pork. She smiles and says: “This should be interesting.”

When I was planning this trip to the heart of Asian culture in New York—imagine whatever block you live on, except every sign is in Chinese or Korean—I wondered if the long-held, often dramatized tension between Asian-Americans and African-Americans (’sup, Spike Lee; hey, Dave Chappelle) would manifest itself in any way. Even though I was born and raised in Canada and grew up embracing multiculturalism, I was apprehensive. After all, I am not just a journalist, I am a black journalist.

Race & Culture
Sago Tea Café

Photo: Michael Kirby

We share our table with a middle-aged couple, who say little to each other and nothing to us as they push plates around in front of them. I persuade Amanda, the manager of communications and external affairs for Chinatown’s Museum of Chinese in the Americas, to ask them a few questions. The wife doesn’t hesitate to answer and even smiles my way while Amanda tells me that their names are Mr. and Mrs. Zhang, they are originally from Hong Kong and they’ve been living in Queens for 13 years. The four of us don’t speak much after that.

“Food is a big social activity with Asian people in Flushing,” Amanda says later, waving off the umpteenth dish offered to us by the dim sum–cart ladies. It was cow’s stomach lining, she tells me once the cart pushes off. “An acquired taste,” she adds.

We settle our bill (only $18.49, pretip) and cross the street to the Flushing Mall (133-31 39th Ave between College Point Blvd and Prince St, 718-888-1980). It’s more marketplace than a traditional Starbucks-and–American Eagle Outfitters megamall; there’s a colorful grocery store that sells delicacies from Hong Kong and Taiwan. On the second floor, we come across young girls learning to play the Chinese harp, smiling and chatting with each other. It reminds me of my piano lessons back in the day, except that I didn’t laugh so much.

In a nondescript room next to the harp class, a man paces up and down, all while gesturing energetically at two young boys sitting before him. He’s teaching them the art of xiangqi, a.k.a. Chinese chess—it’s similar to Western chess, but quicker, and the pieces are small discs of wood or plastic, with Chinese ideograms on top. The boys look bored. Their mother sits at the corner of the table taking notes, as their father nods at the coach’s instructions.

Race & Culture

Photo: Michael Kirby

Amanda has to leave, and I’m on my own—awkward, and the only non-Asian person in this place. I walk into Pharaohdise Collectibles (718-359-2220), a sports and gaming cards and collectibles store. Amanda had mentioned that it’s a big teen-boy haunt. (If anyone knows about feeling awkward, it’s nerdy teenage boys.) There are three 12-year-old kids playing Yu-Gi-Oh!, a popular Japanese anime trading-card game (also familiar to viewers of the Cartoon Network). They try to explain the rules to me, but cut to the chase with this: “You win by kicking their ass.” Good enough. Later, as I chat with the store owner, one of the 12-year-olds interrupts to let me know that they are not losers. “We have lives,” he says, and asks me to be sure to “write that down.” Done.

I make my way to highly recommended Sago Tea Café (39-02 Main St at 39th Ave, 718-353-2899), a bubble-tea joint that sits on a bustling corner. On weekends it’s open until 2am, and it’s a prime hang for young people returning from movies and clubs in Manhattan. Today, it’s buzzing with Asian-American families, teen girls and couples. I ask the pair seated next to me what brought them to the café. “We’re here for the food!” says the wife in flawless English.

I’m about to order when I see something even more familiar than shrimp dumplings come out from the kitchen. It’s a plate of french fries, and oddly—or maybe embarrassingly—I feel at ease. Throughout my visit, I realize now, I hadn’t felt fear or pride or Spike Lee–like fury—just homesickness.—Nicole Blades

55% of Flushing residents are Asian-American

Race & Culture

Photo: Lisa Vosper

A Latino in West Indian East Flatbush

“Care for some peanuts?” asks the pretty West Indian bartender. It’s her way of breaking the ice with a kid who is clearly out of his element. “You’re the only one here early enough to enjoy them.”

Apparently it’s my promptness—something I’m told is uncharacteristic of a Latino in his early twenties—that pegs me as an outsider at Sunsplash Sidewalk Cafe (1398 Nostrand Ave between Linden Blvd and Martense St, 718-462-2711). That and the fact that I am even at this lounge in East Flatbush, a slice of Brooklyn heavily populated by immigrants from the West Indies.

My hectic workdays are spent lampooning Hispanic stereotypes for Guanabee—a blog that’s kind of like the Latino Gawker—so I’m happy to be sipping rum and Coke to the sound of steel drums in an area I’d never visited before.

Race & Culture
Sunsplash Sidewalk Café

Photo: Lisa Vosper

My trip had started hours earlier with a stroll down Church and Nostrand Avenues, where big-name franchises are outnumbered by markets with names like Michael’s Prime Meats (1412 Nostrand Ave) and Peter’s Fish Market (1444 Nostrand Ave). The stores were teeming with ladies in braids and dudes in dreads who greeted each other as neighbors. Not quite a West Indian Pleasantville, but close.

Crossing the street, I was drawn by reggae blasting from an old-school speaker to Jamaican eatery KC Cuisine (1425 Nostrand Ave between Church Ave and Martense St, 718-826-0992). Inside, an illustration of Rastafarian leader Haile Selassie presides over the room, and the unfamiliar menu—items like cow’s foot, oxtail and five kinds of roti—left me perplexed. I’m a chicken-and-rice guy myself. Happily, Kirk, the 28-year-old server, suggested the curried goat. We bonded when I complimented the spicy, tender dish. Although I struggled to understand his thick patois, he taught me something about handshakes—our hands clasped with index fingers touching, forming a ring of brotherly love between a pair of complete strangers.

Race & Culture
Curried goat at KC Cuisine

Photo: Lisa Vosper

The warm feeling was short-lived, though: I soon bumped into three homeboys shooting the shit outside an auto shop around the corner. Cool in his Air Jordan basketball shorts and gray Phillies track jacket, their unofficial spokesman stepped forward to figure out what I was doing here. When I said I was just trying to find a club Kirk had recommended, Wayne, 24, chuckled and my anxiety melted. “Man, all you’re gonna find at Temptation is a bunch of knotty-headed Jamaicans!” he laughed. “But they won’t sweat a Hispanic dude going in there to make friends. Matter of fact, they’ll be like, ‘Damn,’ and give you credit for it.”

Yet I ended up in the low-key lounge at Sunsplash. On the way there, I noticed that at 11:17 on a Friday night, many more people were gathered in the avenue’s numerous barbershops and hair salons than were hanging out at the bars. Some were getting their hair touched up, while the rest sat cracking jokes and sharing gossip. Their forums are nothing like the binge-heavy, end-of-the-week release I’m used to having with my old college buddies at dives and sports bars in the city.

Race & Culture
East Flatbush

Photo: Lisa Vosper

Three Myers and Cokes later, the steel drums had given way to R&B and hip-hop, and the crowd had grown. I realize I’m swaying to the music, so comfortable and so sure of myself that when I see them grooving atop their stools, I could swear the others at the bar have followed my lead.

Further south is Lord’s Bakery (2135 Nostrand Ave at Flatbush Ave, 718-434-9551), a local institution that is open till midnight. Asked if gentrification is forcing out locals, longtime staffer Loukas Zannotoulous says: “Downtown prices don’t work in Flatbush.”

Near the subway, I pass a band of withered old men talking shop on the sidewalk; they sit on five-gallon buckets that gleam ultrawhite in the streetlights. Wayne had called these elders “fixtures that come with the land.” I definitely have the feeling they’ll be on that same corner the next time I visit Flatbush.—Carlos Nobleza Posas

Brooklyn’s black population decreased 1.8%in the past six years, despite the burgeoning West Indian community