This is the Christmas of Obama in New York City. In the upper reaches of Harlem, where I live, this year the baubles and multi-coloured lights have been spurned to make way for the buckets of merchandise venerating the first black President. Men and women with mittens and big weighty coats stand by their tables all day in subzero conditions guarding all the different arcana emblazoned with his face, giving his visage a religious tint in this time of Christ.
At any other Christmas there might be a cloud of depression hanging over the poorer sections of the city. Down the road in Wall Street the wheels of the capitalist machine have come off in spectacular fashion; people over the city are losing their jobs at a rapid rate, and foreclosures blight the landscape.
I just graduated from Columbia University Journalism School, which according to its own propaganda is the most venerated such institution in the land, but finding a job is not following the assumed course as the media deals with the twin pressures of the decline of newspapers and the financial crisis. The New York Sun, a multi-million dollar broadsheet project founded in 2002, folded at the end of this September, and became the symbol of the descent of media, which is only just beginning.
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The pages of Columbia University’s own jobs site are speckled with “unpaid internships”, as media companies try to pull the purse strings and bank on the willingness of the next generation of journalists to start out as slaves (even without the indentured bit). In this dearth of opportunities even finding a paying job at a bar or restaurant is impossible. I trekked around lower-Manhattan this month with my Masters-furnished resume looking for a bar that would let me pour some drinks for them. But nothing was forthcoming, and as the season of goodwill approached I was joined on this journey by a bunch of other people who had been laid off: at least I’d never had a job to lose.
Despite the usual pathos of the situation, walking around trying to find a job is still a magical experience in Christmas-time New York. Despite the city’s massive budget deficits (they’re planning a $2 billion austerity measure), they don’t scrimp on decorations, and throw in the snow we’ve had this week and the whole experience is pretty Hollywood.
The Rockefeller Center around 57th Street has its ridiculous Christmas Tree which must loom over every other in the world: it’s about 90 feet tall and has literally tonnes of lights. On the streets of downtown the colourful lights in the shape of Father Christmas and other symbols of the season (Obama, for example) spread across the street. But when you go into the famous Delis and they’re playing Mariah Carey’s, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”, it’s all a bit too much.
I am not seeing in Christmas Day in the city this year. I did Thanksgiving dinner already – thanked the Indians for the land they so willingly gave — which seemed like a good dry run for what Christmas would be like. Like many expats, I’m returning to my native London, where things are done a bit differently: a bit more restrained, a bit more depressed; and, of course we’ve got Gordon Brown, who it can be safely assumed can’t boast one bit of Oxford Street merchandise with his dour face plastered across it.