Chinatown is on nearly every tourist's to-do list, as it was on mine almost six years ago on my first real visit to the city.
Chinatown's charm, however, quickly wears off after a couple of visits. The thrill of seeing a non-Roman alphabet doesn't last very long, and it's a pain to contend with the crowded sidewalks -- crowded even by New York City standards. I'm sure there are gems of restaurants and stores throughout the neighborhood, but I haven't been patient enough to find them.
There is another alternative: Brooklyn's Chinatown. It's only about a mile away, yet Paul and I had never managed to visit. That changed on Saturday.
We didn't browse through any of the shops; I was content to walk the 20 blocks or so of 8th Avenue that make up the neighborhood. That was enough to confirm that Brooklyn's Chinatown seems much more authentic, even if it is a bigger pain for Manhattan tourists to visit.
The two Chinatowns are alike in the most obvious way: Chinese restaurants and bodegas on every corner selling meat, fish and other delicacies. But unlike Manhattan's Chinatown, in Brooklyn Paul and I were the only white-bread faces for blocks. This Chinatown was actually filled with Chinese instead of tourists. In a rare moment of thinking-before-doing, I left my camera in my purse. By snapping photos it seemed like I would be destroying a bit of the very atmosphere I was lauding.
All this, just 25 blocks away from our apartment.
By Brooklyn standards, Bay Ridge isn't considered a very diverse community. I would strongly disagree more now than I would have when we moved here a year and a half ago.
Not only are the Greeks and Italians that were stereotyped in "Saturday Night Fever" still around, but the ethnic communities that used to be outside Bay Ridge's borders are slowly moving toward the center.
I regularly meet women covered in veils strolling down the sidewalk. I sometimes get couscous from the Turkish grocer a couple of storefronts away. My favorite bodega is run by a Middle Eastern man. The Lebanese restaurant a few blocks away has live entertainment, and the Moroccan place a few blocks in the other direction is known throughout the city for its couscous dishes.
Walk 20 blocks north and you'll pass through both Arab and Latino neighborhoods. A few blocks east of that and you're in Chinatown. There's also a Jewish community nearby-- in fact, the Ace Hardware store a couple of blocks from here is closed on Saturdays so the owners can keep the Sabbath.
Bay Ridge and the surrounding neighborhoods are a real-life melting pot. Maybe it doesn't have as many ingredients as other New York City locales, but it's twice as spicy as any other place I've called home.