Around the world in 52 suburbs: New York

Louise Hawson experiences a cultural mix on the streets of New York as her photographic odyssey continues.

When I lived in Bondi many moons ago, I used to drive past the orthodox Jews climbing Old South Head Road on Saturdays and wonder about their lives.

So the last time I was in New York, four years ago, I spent an afternoon wandering around the orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Borough Park in Brooklyn. It blew my mind and ever since I’ve been keen to go back. But this time around, instead of Borough Park, I chose another Hasidic enclave in Brooklyn - South Williamsburg.

Not only was it meant to be even more Hasidic than Borough Park, it also happened to sit right alongside a group of people with similarly strong but almost opposite beliefs – the hipsters. This I had to see.

Only one problem – Hasidic Jews aren’t exactly crazy about having their photos taken. Would I even get a single shot? And hipsters, well, they can be tricky too.

Turns out the hipsters were a pushover. The Hasidim, not. Like really not.

I did manage to get some shots and learn quite a lot more about orthodox Judaism but it was tough going. Just as I was losing hope that I would ever come across any open-minded members of the community I met Gitty, a wonderfully warm orthodox Jew who single-handedly restored my faith in the community of South Williamsburg. As she said: “There are nice people here you know, you just haven’t met many of them.”

For my next neighbourhood in NY I chose Crown Heights. I had heard it housed another Jewish Hasidic community, from the Chabad or Lubavitch sect, but that they were far more relaxed and open than the South Williamsburg crowd. Well, they had to be - they lived alongside a large Caribbean population who were due to shimmy their way down the main drag of Crown Heights wearing little more than rhinestones and feathers for the annual Labour Day Parade.

The parade was wild, deafeningly loud and incredibly proud. This was the West Indies’ day – Jamaica, Grenada, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago et al – and they were letting it all hang out. But right in the middle of an orthodox Jewish neighbourhood?

Once my ears had recovered I ventured back to the neighbourhood to check out the Jewish side of life there and learn how they could ‘‘tolerate’’ something like the Labour Day Parade on their doorstep.

I discovered by talking to the incredibly welcoming and friendly Chabad Jews that while they had the same Hasidic religion as the South Williamsburg Jews, they had very different philosophies.

A major one was that the Chabads were actively encouraged to go into the outside world to make it a better place, and that it was kosher to be photographed by a gentile like me. Hooray!

After the highs of the past few neighbourhoods, I came down with a thud the next week. I had zero energy and, worse, zip curiosity. All my life I’ve been curious and keen to turn a corner, but suddenly I felt like all I wanted to see were the insides of my eyeballs.

Not surprising – my daughter Coco and I have been travelling for nine months without a break – but not helpful either. So I decided to take it easy and explore somewhere close – Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

While it’s getting more hipsterish by the day, was there more to it than just the cool cafes, boutiques and art galleries? Was there still a ‘‘neighbourhood’’?

In the 1840s there definitely was a neighbourhood, but it was one that was filled with thousands of people per square mile, all desperately trying to pursue the American Dream while crammed into dark, noisy, dirty tenement buildings without electricity, water or toilets.

Despite the bad conditions, Eastern European Jews in particular thrived in the Lower East Side. They lived in the tenements and set up shop down below, stitching and silversmithing their way to a better life. And in 1886 they put their stamp on the place forever by building a magnificent shul, the Eldridge Street Synagogue.

Nowadays the conditions are better but the Jewish community has dwindled and the Chinese in the area are also being squeezed out by the hipster invasion.

The next week I headed east to explore the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Remember that Billy Joel song from 1980, ‘‘You may be right, I may be crazy’’? To illustrate being a “lunatic”, he sang that he was so crazy he even “walked through Bedford-Stuy alone”.

Well, that was more than 30 years ago, so I assumed, as Coco and I set out to have our own walk around the neighbourhood, that things had changed.

My assumption was correct. It’s no longer ‘‘do or die Bed-Stuy’’, famous for crack and crime, but an up-and-coming area attracting a middle-class who like the strong community feel – and no doubt the fact that you can rent or buy a beautiful old brownstone here for way less than neighbouring Park Slope.

Oh, and they also like that Khem lives here. Every so often Khem fires up his drum BBQ and cooks the best jerk chicken you ever tasted for $15 a pop. The smells travel around the neighbourhood and they all come a-runnin’.

It was a wonderful but exhausting month – I may be a little travel-weary after nine months but the blocks in NY seem bigger than anywhere else on the planet.

But while it feels like we’ve been away for years, we are still only two-thirds of the way through my project, with 18 more neighbourhoods to go.

So where to next? As much as I love New York, I feel the need to move on soon. It does depend on budget but I’m thinking a few more North American cities (Chicago, Memphis, Miami) and maybe somewhere in South America (Mexico City or Buenos Aires). I’ve even put Tokyo or Osaka back on the table, having moved on a little from my former worries about the radiation threat.

Anything jump out at you? I was also thinking Hawaii, because all most people know about the place is that it has nice beaches. But then maybe that is all it has.

Follow Louise and Coco weekly at or read their next instalment here on the last Friday of October.