By David Gonzalez
City Room Blog
New York Times (May 27, 2008)
Five celebrities were featured when the “Just Ask the Locals” campaign, with tourism tips, started in August.You know you’re onto something when even Brooklynites extend a compassionate hand to their mainland rivals in the Bronx. Yet that is what happened after my City Room post in mid-May about hotels, tourism and the Bronx. Boosters of both boroughs know they are often seen as provincial outposts that could never rival the imperial majesty of Manhattan Island.
Yeah, right. As they say in some parts of the city — actually, many parts — “Que si que?” That’s Spanish for “Say what?”
Similar phrases are probably being uttered in Mandarin, Urdu, Arabic and any other of the dozens of languages spoken in this city by the locals. Yet, one advertising campaign intended to encourage tourists to “Just Ask the Locals” has a lopsided view of who the locals actually are.
Granted, the campaign (the ads for which can often be seen in the small black-and-yellow rectangular box on the top-right of the City Room blog front) is big on celebrities, fashionistas and people who are famous and fabulous in some circles. And to be fair, some of the advice posted online by nonfamous New Yorkers actually reflects city life and attractions on the other side of the East River (as do a few of the celebrity videos on the site).
But back to those celebrities. According to NYC & Company, which is behind the campaign, 27 people were chosen to participate in the campaign’s first two phases. Of those, six are black, one if half Korean and the rest — about 80 percent — are white (or, appear to be, anyway). That’s non-Hispanic white, by the way.
Mind you, the actual percentage of non-Hispanic whites in the city is 35 percent, according to the 2000 Census. Hispanics, who can be any race, accounted for 27 percent, black/African-American 24.5 percent and Asians accounted for 9.7 percent.
Jane Reiss, the chief marketing officer at NYC & Company, said the campaign was committed to representing more of the city’s diversity in terms of people and places. The personalities featured in the first two phases — “citizens of the city” who donated their time and wrote their own copy — were found through personal connections, a public relations agency and recommendations from partners of the tourism group.
Willie Colon, the salsa musician and sometime politico, has been working with the group for a while now, she said, and he is scheduled to shoot a video for the ad campaign soon.
“This campaign is evolving,” Ms. Reiss said. “We have a list of people we like to reach out to. It is very diverse. Ugly Betty is coming to the city, and we’re reaching out to America Ferrera.”
Ugly Betty is a New Yorker. America Ferrera, however, only plays one on television.
However, the cast of civic boosters was assembled, the travel tips seen on parts of the Web site hew toward the tried-and-trendy in Manhattan, by and large. Alan Cumming suggests a club on the Lower East Side, Sean Combs favors drinks at the Mandarin Oriental. One designer raves about custom-made shirts at Barneys, while another suggests that tourists check out the bargains in the flower district.
And while Deborah Harry recommends a club in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, she also promotes Kenkeleba Garden in the East Village as “one of my favorite little-known places.”
By these standards, the other four boroughs could be called “little-known places,” too.
The absence of any Latino celebrities — even Jennifer Lopez, though she and Marc Anthony live on Long Island now — is disheartening but not surprising to those who notice such things.
“Latino culture is invisible in this city,” said Arlene Dávila, a professor at New York University who has written about the intersection of culture, ethnicity and the city. “You have this whitewashed city, a very upscale city, free of ethnicity. This is a city which is more than a quarter Latino, and you cannot find a celebrity who is Latino? Hello!”
If by celebrity you mean someone who appears on television, another scholar has some bad news. Clara E. Rodriguez, a professor at Fordham University, looked at the casts of the most popular prime-time shows and found that even those set in New York featured few recurring Latino characters (as opposed to the janitor who shrugs and keeps sweeping when being questioned by a police officer in some cop show).
“People want to envision New York as Manhattan, where it is white, urban sophisticates and well-to-do,” she said. “It’s an old view of New York City, even if the shows are set in modern times.”
The 21st Century City – Five Borough Edition – has a little more flavor and fun. While the Bronx Tourism Council has yet to return a phone call from two weeks ago, regular e-mail messages from the Bronx Council on the Arts consistently laud dance, theater, exhibits and concerts from the borough that gave the world doo-wop, salsa and hip-hop.
The history of those last three genres can actually be traced, just by walking up Prospect Avenue, starting at Samuel Gompers High School (where Grandmaster Flash got his start), past Casa Amadeo (where Mike Amadeo still presides over a music store that has attracted generations of Latin artists), and into Morrisania (where vocal groups once harmonized on street corners and stairwells).
That’s just one street.
Then there is Brooklyn, whose borough president, Marty Markowitz, apparently never misses a chance to promote its people, neighborhoods and attractions. He thinks the “Just Ask the Locals” is a good start, and he praises the city for promoting tourism in recent years.
But, he added, consider these locals:
Mos Def, the actor and rapper? Brooklyn.
Jhumpa Lahiri, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist? Brooklyn.
The Mighty Sparrow, King of Calypso? Queens, mainly.
“But he’s got a place in Brooklyn, too!” Mr. Markowitz said. “Whatever Brooklyn doesn’t have, Queens does. Between Brooklyn and Queens, we represent the world.”
Quick, somebody call Staten Island.