Thursday, October 20, 2011

Culture Share: USA (NY) - A Walk to the Subway in Brooklyn, NY, USA

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Nicole Lisa discusses her home of Brooklyn, New York.

A Walk to the Subway in Brooklyn, NY, USA

by Nicole Lisa

The New York City of television and movies is cleaned up or dirtied down or filmed somewhere else entirely, and doesn't much look or feel like the city I know and live in. Walking to the subway—something I do almost every day—reminds me of all the things I love about living here.

Brooklyn, one of the boroughs of New York City, is known for its culturally diverse neighborhoods, like Chinatown in Sunset Park, or Italian Bensonhurst. But in some areas, diversity happens on a micro scale—by block, building or even inside each building.

Before I leave my apartment building, I say good bye to my husband in Spanish (actually “ciao,” borrowed from Italian by some South Americans), hear the video game sounds of Russian television programming at full blast and pass brass or plastic mezuzahs on doorframes (small rectangular cases with a Jewish prayer inside).

During the week, on my 15-minute walk to the subway I dodge groups of teenagers chattering loudly in English, get distracted by a mom urging her son to walk faster in Mexican Spanish (“OrĂ¡le, hijo”) and glance at a group of men sitting on their heels against the stucco wall of a deli, speaking quietly in Tibetan.

On the weekend, on this same walk, when the sidewalks are full of women, I might be one of the few with her head not covered. Hasidic Jews, dressed in black with their elbows and knees covered by long sleeves and long skirts, cover their hair, either with perfectly styled wigs or snoods that gather their hair at the nape of their necks. They tow large families of kids identically clad in home-made clothes. South Asian women, some Muslim, some not, wear bright butterfly-colored salwar kameez (a tunic and loose trousers) that cover most everything, or saris, that may leave arms bare, but cover knees and chests. Their heads are draped casually with a dupatta (a long scarf), more carefully with a pinned hajib, or even more carefully with a black niqab (a head covering with a veil). Fewer children accompany them, maybe only one or two, dressed in a mix of Western and Asian clothing. On summer days, I often wonder what the women think of me, with my uncovered head and knees and tank top.

Off the main commercial street, the buildings change from small free-standing homes mixed with large brick apartment buildings to mansions built at the turn of the Nineteenth Century. They’re really in a motley of styles, from an English cottage covered in roses, to actual Victorian mansions with wide porches and colorful gingerbread moldings...

to a Swiss chalet–Japanese temple hybrid in green and orange.

Flocks of chickens strut in a few driveways and eye passersby suspiciously. Chickens are popular again in Brooklyn, and people raise them in their backyards or in community gardens. Twenty years ago, mostly recent immigrants, or transplants from rural areas, kept chickens. Now many people who’ve never seen a farm keep them (and bees, since the city just reversed the ordinance making beehives illegal).

In other parts of Brooklyn, the row houses seen on TV are the norm: two- or three-story buildings with facades of brown or white stone, connected all down the block by shared walls, with high stoops leading to the entrance on the parlor floor—the main living area of the house if it's a one-family, or one of several apartments if it’s been divided up. Nineteenth Century cast iron fences with pineapple or urn-like finials enclose the front yards and under-stairs entrances to the ground floors—nowadays the coveted garden apartment with access to the backyard. The iron has to be repainted every five years or so to prevent thick orange rust. And there are specialists who replace the stone facades if they’ve become too damaged by pollution or lack of upkeep.

On Sundays, there’s a greenmarket in front of the library on my way to the subway. Farmers from New York State and nearby New Jersey and Pennsylvania set up tents and sell their bread, dairy, produce, sometimes fish, beef or chicken, and local honey directly to customers. On a fall day, you’d see baguettes and pumpkin pies, pears and apples, winter squash, carrots and potatoes, fresh yogurt and milk (sometimes the illegal unpasteurized kind), and hot apple cider and cider doughnuts. The doughnuts come with or without granulated sugar sprinkled on top. Past the greenmarket is the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) pick-up spot. If you join a CSA, you buy a share, or subscription, of produce for the growing season, and each week you pick up a box of whatever the farmer is growing and lug it home on foot.

Finally, I reach the subway. The whole system is old, dug or raised, and cobbled together over more than 100 years and it looks it: metal wheels squeal against metal tracks, the I-beams are exposed and often unpainted, nascent stalactites and stalagmites grow where mineral-heavy water drips through ceilings and walls year after year, and the big brown rats are bold enough to scamper across the platform while you stand there late at night. It’s dirty in a way that surprises Americans from other parts of the country and visitors from all over the world, but it takes us where we need to go (mostly), and makes New York City unique in the US, a place where a car is a liability, not a necessity.

My stop is outside, looking more like a suburban train station than a tourist's idea of the New York City subway. Sub means below or under, and my stop is below street level in a cut out, but it’s not under anything. Once, we had an out-of-town visitor decide he was lost when he got there. He returned to our apartment rather than risk getting on a strange train going who knows where. To make it more confusing, New Yorkers use “subway” and “train” kind of interchangeably. Subway is the system, but train is what you get on. Which isn’t that much of a problem, but we don’t always distinguish in speech between the subway (a purely intra-city system) and the trains on one of the five rail systems that will take you out of the city.

The suburban train feel is accentuated by the station house. In Manhattan, many subway entrances are simply stairs descending to toll stiles. But many, especially in the other boroughs, have actual station houses. This one, built in 1907 for the street-level, then-privately owned Brighton line (named for the beach/neighborhood of the same name at the last stop) hangs suspended above the tracks.

The other subway option in the neighborhood is this one’s opposite in every way; it’s an elevated train that runs three stories above the street on a wooden platform that feels like it’s been there since the original station opened in 1919 (although I don’t know if that’s true) and yet feels temporary too. The whole structure sways when trains pull in or grind away, and the whole world moves—a mini, localized earthquake. If you look down on the tracks, you can see bits of street, vertiginously. And if you drop your cell phone, fuhgeddaboutit (forget about it), as we really do say in Brooklyn. Maybe just not as often as in the movies.

Nicole Lisa is a Brooklynite by adoption. She writes YA and fantasy and is currently struggling with how to conduct research for her work in progress. She loves to geek out on language discussions, eat and travel. She has lived in Mexico, Nicaragua and several different states in the US and speaks Spanish and first generation Spanglish at home with her Chilean-born husband. She can be found at her blog Reading, Writing and the ‘Rhythmatic of Life and on twitter.


  1. I visited Manhattan last summer and I absolutely loved seeing the local colour. I definitely got the impression that the mix of cultures, and the mix of old and new, is what gives the city such character. So it's great to hear more detail from someone who actually lives in NYC! I wasn't brave enough to try the subway system by myself.

  2. Juliette, thanks for inviting me to post. It was hard to limit myself to just a few aspects of life here in Brooklyn, but so much fun.

    Heidi, yes, exactly!

  3. Thanks for your comment, Heidi, and N. Lisa, thanks again for a great article. I love how you managed to give us a little slice of life and make it very personal.

  4. If I didn't already live here I would want to come visit!

  5. What a great piece, Nicole. It actually made me think of growing up in the Bronx. Margie G.