the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

The Authenticity of Queens

I have an acquaintance who is not very fond of Americans, seeing them as insular and parochial.  He is American himself, born in Ohio, and currently lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

This acquaintance travels a great deal for his work and has visited exotic locales.  Recently, he was in South America, and given the opportunity to visit this small village.

When he returned to NY, he could not stop praising the uniqueness of the residents of this village, and the talent of the local folk artists.

During coffee one afternoon near his apartment, he told me that he learned more about the meaning of life from speaking with one simpler villager than he did from four years at an expensive university.

“You should come to Queens,” I said. “There is this restaurant from that country in Jackson Heights.”

“Nah,” he replied. “It’s not going to be authentic.”

On the way home, I pondered his response. Why wouldn’t this restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens be authentic?  Isn’t it possible that the chef could be using the same exact ingredients he might use back in the old country?  Perhaps he even comes from the village that the acquaintance visited.

And taking this idea of authenticity one step further, would the amazingly wise villager that this acquaintance met in Central America lose all her unique wisdom if she moved to Queens?   Or is she simply more interesting living thousands of miles away in a remote foreign village than she is a mere fifteen minute subway ride away?


This is the view out of my bedroom window. A few weeks ago, the owner of the supermarket placed these flags up as decoration.  My friend jokingly calls it “Ghetto UN,” because you’ll notice that outside of Old Glory, none of the traditional power countries are represented, bigwigs such as Great Britain, France, Germany.   Instead, the display is an oddball mish-mash representing residents who now live in the area — from Iran, Pakistan, Israel, Korea, the Ukraine, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and other troubled spots in the world.

I’m not sure it is old authenticity.   It is a new authenticity.


  1. magpie

    Ghetto UN = love that.

    I was reading over someone’s shoulder on the subway yesterday, as she typed a memo that included “they will be arriving at JFK, in the Queens area of NY”. The Queens area.

    What do Donald Manes, King Henry VIII and Liberace all have in common?

    They all screwed queens.

  2. Jane Gassner

    Permit me to rant a bit about Upper West Side New Yorkers who take themselves too seriously. I mean, really! I’m sure your friend is a perfectly nice person, albeit a tad self-involved and snobbish (code words for Upper West Side New Yorkers), but I am so sick of people who reify other countries and cultures by dumping on ours. It’s okay to really really really like a place, but that doesn’t require that you seal your liking by comparing it to America. You know who also insists on doing that comparison when they travel? The people who loudly find fault with a foreign culture because ‘that’s not the way we do it where I come from.’ And what do we call them? Ugly Americans.

    • Neil

      I think it is probably easier to see the charm and innocence of others when it is far away. Most don’t really want neighbors cooking exotic foods or donning strange outfits near their own home.

  3. schmutzie

    I like your idea of the new authenticity. REALLY like.

  4. christine

    your friend’s attitude is one i encounter all the time. once someone told me that i was not an “authentic” chicana because i don’t speak spanish and didn’t live in the ghetto.
    the word “authenticity” is so meaningless unless you are talking about old coins.

  5. Danny

    I’m probably more like your friend in some ways that I care to admit (i.e., critical of my fellow Americans, snobbish) but I still wanted to puke at his proclamations regarding authenticity. Say what you want about Queens, it’s probably as “authentic” a place as you can get, especially its ethnic enclaves and restaurants. I agree that it’s a ridiculous word.

    • Neil

      Granted, Olive Garden is not very authentic when it tries to sell itself as a cafe in the middle of Rome, but I suppose it is authentic in being by a mall in LA.

  6. slouchy

    You are right that something seems more authentic when it’s distant, literally and figuratively. So no, I don’t think your restaurant is necessarily any less authentic.

  7. Megan

    *insert eye roll*

    The definition of authentic: not false or copied; genuine; real.

    I don’t think it gets any more real than any of the four boroughs that are not Manhattan.

  8. Juli

    Last night I was watching Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. In this particular episode, Tony goes to some of the last “authentic” restaurants in NYC and talks with bloggers and food critics about what makes those restaurants authentic. For example, egg rolls and wonton soup aren’t “real” Chinese. But they are definitely authentic to a certain neighbourhood.

    So, what happens when the old authenticity disappears? Is its replacement more authentic? Maybe authenticity is something that develops over time.

  9. Josette at Halushki

    I’ve done a bit of traveling here and there and over there some more, and I’ve come to the conclusion that people are people are people are people. Some use different spices in their cooking; some are poor and generous, some are poor and stingy, some deal with hardship well, others not so well, some wear hats and some wear scarves and some wear fancy underwear under their Amish plain clothes (true story – ask my midwife friend.)

    Most every culture has the story of a virgin birth and a martyred death. Most everyone celebrates the return of the sun at winter solstice (unless you live down under, then strike it, reverse it.) A therapist who worked with refugees from the killing fields of Cambodia said that, yes, there was much trauma people wanted to talk about, but other than that? The refugees wanted to talk about who they were in love with, who just broke off a romantic relationship with them, who they lived with unrequited love for.

    So, you know, cultural differences? Some easier to live with, some harder – some harder simply because of geography and lack of clean water or mosquito nets. Maybe outside of those stressors, they become more like their authentic selves, not less. But in general, people are people are people.

  10. Irish Gumbo

    What Schmutzie said. Spot on.

  11. unmitigated me

    He went to college to learn the meaning of life? Not surprised that didn’t work out.

  12. Rufus Dogg

    I live in Ohio and I just want to say that anyone from Ohio who moves to New York is bound to be a pain in the ass. I should know; I live with them every day.

    I have a friend who lives on the Upper East Side and he says I should move to NYC. “Naw, I say, too expensive…” “Queens is nice,” he says. Now, I will retort and say, “It’s not only nice; it is authentic! My buddy Neil says so!” 🙂

    Americans who travel and stay for a few days at some exotic locale think they know all about the culture. They irritate me. Authentic life is in the day-to-day.

  13. snozma

    That’s a bit drippy. Authentic?

    If I wanted to get all pretentious on him, I’d call that a kind of orientalizing. Defined as: Dorky and presumptuous to exoticize the locals like that. She’s an individual and would be an individual in Queens or wherever she went.

    Then on the other hand, I want to know what this woman said. WHAT DID SHE SAY? WHAT DOES SHE KNOW?

    Was it Central America or was it South America. The only restaurants you can find, usually are Peruvian, Argentinian or Brazilian (South) or Guatemalan or Salvadoran (Central). Does Costa Rica ever get a restaurant? Honduras might get a restaurant. That might be the new authenticity.

    Also, most Americans probably are insular and parochial. But you find that all over, even in non-America.

    The funny thing is to go to the Guatemalan highlands and meet people who used to live in Nashville or San Diego. I guarantee you there is always someone in Central America–ALWAYS–in the most remote village who has lived somewhere like Queens.

  14. Paige Jennifer

    So, it’s a potentially torturous read, dry and boring at times, but Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel would be a good gift for your friend. Your friend’s compartmentalized enlightenment made me think of de Botton’s observations.

  15. tracey - justanothermommy

    Authentic? What the hell does that really mean when we’re talking about human beings? I notice he didn’t MOVE to this authentic village, though. So, it was inspiring and amazing, but not enough so that he doesn’t want to give up his iPad and internet and Upper West Side address, eh? I’m sure your friend is lovely, but that contradiction is just bullshit. Rawr. Don’t piss on my country, beeeyatch.

  16. Kara

    This is the third blog I’ve read in a row that mentioned Brazil! I’m not sure what it means, but I’d thought I’d share that amazing fact with you.

  17. V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios

    Rolling my eyes…

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