On the screen, a posse of cowboys thunders across the prairie. Snow-covered peaks loom in the distance. A herd of cattle tramples past the camera. Country-western music almost drowns out the sound of hoofbeats, while a sensuously deep Italian voice utters a single word: “Brookleeeeen.”
It is an Italian television ad for Brooklyn chewing gum, one of Italy’s most popular brands. In its final seconds the commercial does show a scene that could be Brooklyn: a romantic couple on a bench gazing, from what could be the Brooklyn Heights promenade, at the Brooklyn Bridge. It could be Brooklyn except for one thing: There is no Manhattan on the other side—just a vast empty space, as if the Brooklyn Bridge were built to join one prairie to another.
There are two Americas in the European media: the good America, depicted in advertisements—Colorado—and the bad America, found in the news pages—New York. In either case what astonishes is how provincial the view from the Old Country now is.
The British, who share the European passion for westerns, seem to derive a special illicit pleasure from the seamy side of New York. The London Sunday Timed recently ran this caption on a full-page article: “Typical of many teenagers, Tina Dancer, 17, has been an alcoholic since she was 11” Just a few weeks before, the Sunday Times ran a big New York story with an eight column headline: “Hard Times Bite Into the Big Apple.” The photo featured a lone black man walking through a mountain of burning garbage under the Williamsburg Bridge.
After bemoaning “crack, crime, AIDS, homelessness, racism, economic recession, a crumbling infrastructure, and pollution,” the reporter somewhat belatedly mourned the loss of Studio 54.
A few weeks later, the editors of the Sunday Times, perhaps sensing their coverage had grown a trifle one-sided, printed what may be the first recorded instance of a British reporter interviewing a New Yorker who was not smoking crack. It was called: “New York Turns to Guns and Vigilantes.”
The Guardian recently carried a story on the infamous “Rat Explosion,” which it summarized this way: “Rats are a new urban hazard faced by American city dwellers used to a rising tide of muggings, robberies, and collapsing roads.” So far there have been no reports of rats on crack, but that is sure to come. Myself, I marvel that there are still any uncrushed rats left at all, what with all the collapsing roads.
Much of the nonsense about New York stems from the normal antipathy people from pretty important cities feel toward really important cities. If the world has a capital, it is New York City, and a lot of those in the Old Country harbor jealous resentments about the fact. But these stories share something else in common: As far as the European media know, there are absolutely, positively, no middleclass blacks in America, except Jesse Jackson and David Dinkins. The idea of successful blacks runs counter to one of Europe’s most cherished images: the American black as the noble savage.
That is why the French, who cling fiercely to this image, love to visit New York: to see Harlem. The French still go slumming. The elders go to Sylvia’s, hoping a little of that noble Duke Ellington spirituality will rub off. The young are looking for something more in the spirit of Run DMC.
Then, in pursuit of the savage half of the myth, the French go to the South Bronx. A number of French tour-bus companies even cater to their desire to transform a tour of burned-out ghettoes into a bit of holiday relaxation. The French hop onto these air-conditioned buses and cruise in comfort up to Tremont Avenue where, pressing their noses against the tinted glass, they tell each other how racist Americans are. And no doubt they try to figure out which of the men they see are the really bad muthas like they saw in Shaft.