When non-New Yorkers think of New York City, I imagine they picture skyscrapers, the Empire State building, or the Statue of Liberty. Some might think of NYC as a fashion capital or a place to be “discovered”. If a non-New Yorker’s perception of NYC is derived solely from media depictions, these assumptions are fairly valid, but for many immigrants, NYC is a place to start anew. It’s a place where they’re sure to find a job and perhaps work towards “The American Dream”. My family in the Dominican Republic thinks my parents are wealthy. To them, if you live in New York, you must have everything going for you. This notion is far from the truth, but I’ve never been especially angered by their assumptions. What does anger me is when someone who is not from NYC talks about it as if it were their home. As if a visit atop a tour bus passing through 42nd Street or Harlem shows them everything NYC is.
I’d like to provide some context to the opinion I hold of Taylor Swift. From wearing “bling” to “rapping” and even starring in her own racist music videos, she has a history of being less than mindful of appropriation, so I was a bit wary when I was shown a video featuring the beloved country-turned-pop star. When Taylor said she was going to highlight some important New York terms, my immediate thought was “What does this white girl know about New York vocab words? Isn’t she from the south?”. I tried to give her a chance, but as soon as she uttered the first word I realized this video was wholly going to be an performance of appropriation. That first word was “bodega”.
“…A bodega is a corner store that’s open pretty much 24 hours most of the time… bodegas are our friends.”
I immediately searched where exactly Taylor Swift lives in NYC. I found she lives in Tribeca, in an apartment that looks like an “Anthropologie store, but prettier”. To be completely honest, I don’t know much about Tribeca, there probably are some bodegas around there, but I wondered if she had actually ever stepped into one. I always thought rich white people in New York only bought food from Trader Joe’s and organic food vendors. But what I do know, is that I’m most definitely not a rich New Yorker. I do, however, know about bodegas. I’m not trying to proclaim that bodegas are only mine to define, but I did feel unsettled when she tried to. A rich and famous white woman was trying to define something that is so specific and relevant to people of a completely different socioeconomic group than hers.
Bodega: “a convenience store, often specializing in Hispanic groceries.” They’re not our “friends”, Taylor Swift. A bodega is where we can get ten plátanos for a dollar. It’s where we can get our spices and avocados. It’s where our cousin’s husband will let us put the milk on a tab because our check still hasn’t cashed from our second job and the rent is due. It’s where I would go with 100 pennies trying to buy a Kit Kat bar after school. Its where the elderly in the neighborhood grab a beer and play a round of dominó in the front. A “bodega” is usually open 24 hours, that is true. But I would be surprised if she’s actually been to one during any one of those hours.
At this point, I was only 20 seconds into the video and already quite heated (NYC Vocab Word #1: meaning “angered”). She then went on to explain the pronunciation of “Houston Street”. Still steaming from her “bodega” definition, all I could think during the Houston segment was: “damn this girl is basic” (NYC Vocab Word #2: meaning something or someone that is uninteresting, vapid, boring, or uncool). She also explained NoHo and SoHo. “NoHo stands for north of Houston, SoHo stands for south of Houston.” For me, SoHo stands for “place where rich people shop” and NoHo stands for “place where rich people live”.
Next on the list was “stoop”. Taylor Swift explains that in the South, a stoop would be the part of the “house” where the porch is. She then goes on to show a series of photos that represent what stoops are in NYC. I died of laughter seeing her representations of NYC stoops. The photos were only of brownstones and townhouses, but I mean, i’m sure her bougie self (NYC Vocab word #3: from the word ‘bourgeois’, meaning a person who is very rich and privileged) has never sat on a stoop anywhere other than those places. Where I’m from, a stoop is the stairs at the entrance to an apartment building. A stoop is where neighbors hang out on a hot summer day gossiping and joking around. It’s where I couldn’t hang out due to gang violence and drug activity on my block. It’s the entrance to my home, my hub of safety. I could only laugh bitterly when Taylor Swift showed those photos, because it gives the impression that New York is a warm, clean and pristine place. All those photos did to me was just show all the places in New York that I can’t afford and am not welcome to.
I’m not usually angered by people’s assumptions of NYC. But I am angered by a privileged white woman from the suburban South, attempting to define and subsequently appropriate terms that are not only irrelevant to her, but also clearly don’t belong to her. She claims to be celebrating a city that’s been her home for the past year, but all I see is her acting as though she is knowledgeable of topics she knows nothing about. I can only imagine what other interesting facts of NYC she relays in her new album “1989”. If I could say anything to the country star, it would be “stay in your lane gringa”(NYC Vocab #4: meaning white American girl).