Food, Music, Poetry & People – ‘Nothing Like Indianapolis’

Arriel Vinson in Times Square (Photo by Alex Ayala for Voices of NY)

Arriel Vinson in Times Square (Photo by Alex Ayala for Voices of NY)

[Editor’s note: Arriel Vinson, a senior at Indiana University Bloomington, just completed eight weeks in New York City as a participant the the Knight CUNY J Summer Internship program.  For seven of those weeks, she interned at Voices of NY, covering spot news and writing feature stories. In the following essay, she reflects on her experiences in the city.]

This place is nothing like Indianapolis, my hometown. We have 852,866 people compared to New York’s 8.406 million. And I will most likely never see everyone in Indianapolis because we don’t have stoops to sit on. We don’t have 843-acre parks to go to with our family and friends. And we certainly don’t have subway stations, performers and stores every which way. New York is nothing like my hometown. Each neighborhood has a different vibe, each person has a different destination they’re rushing to and each experience is nothing like the next.

After a few days in New York, I realized I hadn’t been living. I didn’t explore in my hometown, or college town for that matter, and allowed experiences to pass me by like a taxi in Times Square. For the summer, I lived in Harlem. People were always outside talking to each other like they had known each other for forever, and maybe they did. Corner delis served chopped cheese sandwiches and Black entrepreneurs sold their latest book, piece of clothing or African black soap on the sidewalks. It was a display of culture that needed to be embraced, and a history that needed to be acknowledged. I could still feel the beat of the Harlem Renaissance pulsing through the streets. I realized that the Harlem Renaissance never ended and Harlem was moving to a rhythm much the same as how it did in the ’20s. I yearned to experience this, as well as other parts of New York.

Before coming to New York, I made a (working) bucket list in my phone notes of the places I wanted to visit and the things I had to see. Once I got to New York, I figured out it wasn’t that easy. I didn’t always have the time or the money to go across town, to see a show or to try a new restaurant. I also didn’t always have people to join me. So I decided to enjoy a lot of sites alone. My phone GPS was my savior because I am horrible with directions. I would type in an address, check the transit routes, screenshot it and begin my day. I walked the streets of SoHo curiously, going in and out of stores. I explored different parks, my new DSLR camera and iPhone being my only company. Ultimately, in a city crowded with people, I had to learn how to enjoy my own company. And for the first time, I realized that others will not always be interested in what I like. But that’s not to say that they never were. I’ve also experienced so many things with other people in my Knight CUNY J cohort that wouldn’t have been fun without them.

Being a poetry lover, I began searching for a poetry spot right when I landed. I knew New York would have a place for spoken word artists, something Indiana doesn’t have much of. After doing some research, I came across Nuyorican Poets Café. It was far and shows started late, so I had no idea when I would make it. However, I ended up going on July 1 with two people from my fellowship cohort, Alex Ayala and Reece Williams, for slam poetry night. The competitors were amazing, speaking on the gentrification of Harlem, love and being Black and queer. After the competition, the show turned into an Open Mic, meaning anyone could perform. I decided to sign up and perform a poem I wrote the day before. I was sixth on the list, and as everyone before me performed, I was shaking and regretting my decision. Finally, I performed anyway, giving the crowd a poem, “The Black Girl,” about growing up as a Black woman. It was met with applause.

New York has helped me grow to understand so many different people and perspectives. The Knight CUNY J Summer program has a group of 20 fellows, including myself, and we’re all from different places. While that is something to get used to, it didn’t seem to take long to understand my cohort — at the surface level at least. But New York has a way of showing you so many different cultures and allowing you to hear so many different languages, all in one day. Where I’m from, you may hear Spanish, occasionally French and sometimes Chinese or Japanese. But that’s about as far as it goes. Here, not only can I see people of different ethnicities and hear their language, I can enjoy their culture. I can walk down a street in Harlem and maybe pass a few Senegalese or African restaurants. I can travel to Chinatown or Little Italy. I can try on traditional clothing, or eat the most popular dishes from different countries. While Indiana offers a variety of restaurants, they definitely don’t compare to the number I can try in New York.

But it’s about more than food. I’ve gotten to experience others’ culture and perspectives in so many ways. I’ve participated in Black Lives Matter rallies. I’ve attended African festivals. I’ve danced at a Latin club. In New York, it seems that different cultures are celebrated. They are not hidden and people are not trying to minimize their traditions to fit standards. They listen to music in their language and dance salsa, or play African drums.

I also got to experience things that are traditional to New York. I’ve been to Smorgasburg, Coney Island, Black Tap for their famous shakes and the Williamsburg Flea Market, just to name a few. I’ve visited four out of the five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. I’ve even learned some slang and phrases we don’t hear in Indiana. I’ve listened to Soca and Afrobeat music (and I had no idea what either of these were before). Ultimately, I have enjoyed my two-month stay. It has been an experience that is so far removed from the things that happen in my hometown and I couldn’t appreciate it more.

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