Of all the Boroughs, the one I’ve barely touched in my career as a scout is the Bronx. Sure, I’ve scouted the Zoo, and the Botanical Gardens, and Riverdale, and all the other places people typically mean when they say “Oh, I’ve been to the Bronx.” But not the real Bronx.
Then, last March, I signed onto a movie that was planning to film exclusively in the Bronx, in neighborhoods with pretty rough reputations. I gotta be honest: I was uneasy about it. Walking around with a pile of bright neon flyers and an enormous camera around my neck, I knew I was going to stick out like a sore thumb. I’ve had some bad encounters scouting in places like East New York before, and I just didn’t know what to expect in the borough Hollywood likes to portray as the most dangerous place on Earth.
I was originally going to title this post “Is the Bronx the friendliest borough?,” but you know what? After four months spent visiting just about every corner of the Bronx, I feel I can answer that question unequivocally: the Bronx is the friendliest borough in New York City.
Let me be clear: I don’t mean that people in the other boroughs aren’t perfectly nice. Or cordial. Or polite. Or amenable. But I meet a LOT of people in my travels as a scout, and if there’s one trait that seems universal to the New York personality, it’s what I’d call an elevated level of suspicion.
New Yorkers are infamously suspicious of one another – just try saying “How’s it going?” to a random person on the street and watch him or her brush past you like you don’t exist. And of course, it’s often for good reason, as anyone who’s accidentally answered the “How’s it going?” question (spare change? got a metrocard swipe? want a free stress test? give me money for whatever cause is on this clipboard?) knows full well.
But something was different in the Bronx. From the first day I started scouting, I found that people would talk to me out of the blue without any hidden agenda. For example, as I’d pass someone crossing the street, they’d nod and say “What’s up?” to me…and that was it. Could people really just be asking “What’s up?” just to be friendly? It didn’t make sense! But before long, I actually found myself answering, and returning the query.
Things got weirder and weirder. I’d be in a deli, and someone would ask about my camera, and before I knew it, I was having a ten minute conversation explaining about the differences between camera bodies and lenses. Or I’d be putting up flyers in a building lobby, and find myself chatting about the weather with an elderly tenant checking their mail. And I swear, the friendliest Dunkin’ Donuts employees in the country are in the Bronx, of all things. In a way, it reminded me of the first time I visited the midwest, and was completely disarmed by how random strangers just kept having friendly conversations with me.
But it was more than just casual conversation. When I’d be taking pictures of some of the Bronx’s lesser known historic areas, residents would always come up out of nowhere and start telling me the full history. I’d knock on people’s doors out of the blue, and they’d warmly let me in, proudly showing off the home where many had lived for decades, having survived the Bronx at its worst. No one treated me like a suspicious outsider, as so happens just about anywhere else in the city; I was treated like I lived next door (In fact, the only creepy people I met in the Bronx were the property owners from Manhattan, who always seemed to make uncomfortable jokes about about us being the only white people for miles).
This is not to say there isn’t a dark side to the Bronx, or that bad things don’t happen there, or that when you visit you shouldn’t be on your guard, just as you would be in any other neighborhood you’re unfamiliar with. But the past four months I spent wandering through the Bronx have to be among the most enjoyable of my career, not only because of the beauty I got to see, but because of the people I got to meet and the wonderful spirit I found that I didn’t know existed in this city.
To the Bronx: Thank you for a great four months. I shall return soon.
Oh, and one more thing. One day, I was getting something at a corner deli in a pretty dilapidated neighborhood as a bunch of 10 year old girls were buying candy after school. Just as they were leaving, one of them looked right at me and said, with the utmost sincerity, “You have really beautiful eyes,” then ran out.
I had to blink. Where was I????