I only know two people in New York and they are both called Karen S. Karen S1, because I met her first, lives in SoHo. Karen S2, because I met her second, lives in Greenwich Village. These are both suburbs in the lower part of Manhattan Island. SoHo is a small area of about six blocks squared (approximately 40 blocks in total) directly south of Houston St. The name stands for “South of Houston Street” and also refers to the area of Soho in central London. Greenwich Village is a larger area, directly to the north and west of SoHo. “Greenwich” is an anglicised version of a Dutch phrase meaning Pine District and the area is thought to have been named by a Dutch landowner in the late 1600s. It was once a distinct village and still has a village feel to it in some ways, despite having been swallowed, along with the rest of Manhattan island, by the sprawling city of New York.
Much of Manhattan is named in a criss-cross way with numbered streets going east-west across the island and numbered avenues going in a north-south direction. These numbers begin almost immediately north of Houston Street. The city of New York as we know it began on the southern tip of Manhattan and grew north. Only once the area north of Houston Street began to be urbanised, in the early 1800s, did this system take hold and so all streets south of here have names rather than numbers and are less gridlike in their directions and connection patterns.
Both SoHo and Greenwich Village were once farmland. Land in both areas was granted to freed African slaves in the 1700s and both neighbourhoods have transformed over recent generations from less salubrious reputations into swank neighbourhoods. Today they are both dotted with reminders of their historical pasts, such as cobblestone streets, cast iron buildings, preserved colonial style architecture and plaques on the walls of buildings denoting previous famous residents or events. Restaurants, cafes, boutique shops and art galleries take up most of the ground floor space in the buildings of both neighbourhoods, most of which rise to no more than six or seven storeys high, providing apartment style accommodation in the levels above.
Both Karens live above historical streets, in buildings which you enter from the street into a residents-only communal foyer with a staircase and elevator leading to homes on the upper levels. I have now stayed with them both and I can only describe it as a cinematic experience. So much about New York invokes movie scenes, most of all the upper level apartment living above Manhattan’s historic and busy city streets. The first time I came to New York, we left our hotel room the morning after a late-night arrival and asked the hotel concierge if he could recommend somewhere for breakfast. His reply elicited squeals of excitement as he pointed to a street a few corners away and identified it as Broadway! Such reactions from visitors who live on the other side of the world surely demonstrates the influence of both Hollywood and New York in global, or at least the developed world, consciousness.
My current SoHo digs are quintessential New York as viewed in countless television series and movies and I am beyond lucky to be experiencing this life. A converted warehouse with exposed brickwork, windows looking out onto steel staircases and into offices and apartments over back laneways, polished timber floors, open plan living space, the communal lift shared with our neighbours who we occasionally meet in the foyer areas. Today I met our next door neighbours in the lift. Karen tells me quite casually that this couple purchased the apartment next door and the apartment directly downstairs, stripped them, installed a staircase between the two floors and fully renovated the space at a cost of around US$4 million!
There is nowhere I could have travelled which could illustrate such a total reversal of financial fortune compared with the privations in the general population in Cambodia. Except, perhaps, behind the fences of the grandiose homes belonging to the politically powerful in Cambodia itself!
Yet Karen also talks of the issues she has experienced with some of her wealthy neighbours over the decade she has lived here, including alcoholism, domestic violence, aggressive threats relating to neighbourhood squabbles and some extreme snobbery. Clearly, privilege doesn’t necessarily accompany common decency or ethical behaviour, anymore than poverty represents individual or collective inadequacies. Both wealth and poverty are elements of a global economic system which we all belong to and which could do with some balancing-out somehow. Which is far easier said than done but in my opinion starts with a sense of justice and equity.