Who is really a ‘native New Yorker?’ This City Reliquary event wants to redefine it

City Reliquary
Photo via City Reliquary

For some, the idea of New York authenticity is one of the last vestiges of the city they can hold on to as high rents displace them elsewhere: it is an identity that newcomers, while able to afford to live here, can never wear. Yet it remains a hotly debated topic, with some arguing that, with time, you can earn your title as Native New Yorker.

Now, Williamsburg’s The City Reliquary has dug itself into the murky, potentially deplorable hole of questioning, and attempting to broaden, the literal definition of what it means to be a Native New Yorker: they’ll be hosting an event entitled Redefining “Native New Yorker” at their 370 Metropolitan Ave. storefront location this Thursday, from 7:30 to 10pm.

“For many people, the term ‘native New Yorker’ usually refers to someone born and raised in one of the five boroughs,” reads the event description, “While this is one way of understanding what it means to be a native in New York, this group of presentations and performances will offer a broader and more inclusive look.”

Without further context, this event would appear to be hocking a massive loogie at all that is good and holy about the birth-given right of those who were born here and grew up here and absolutely no one else to refer to themselves as Native New Yorkers. You can buy yourself a 718 cell number, you can feign a Brooklyn accent and start using Yiddishisms, you can even raise children here, but whether or not you are a native New Yorker comes down to whether or not you were born in New York City proper. Even then, kids born on Staten Island, in Eastern Queens, and Riverdale can expect to have to fight in defense of their native-born status when they venture beyond their immediate neighborhoods.

So why is it that people who moved to Bushwick from Ohio a year ago think they deserve the title? How would you feel if someone moved to your hometown and, after a few months or years, started calling themselves a native of the area, despite the fact that they factually are not.


City Reliquary
The Facebook event page’s cover photo

The City Reliquary ‘s event on the touchy subject is redeemed slightly by the fact that 1. The venue, despite being founded in 2006, has done an excellent job of paying homage to Brooklyn’s lost history, from the forgotten racetracks of Coney Island to an impressive assortment of tchotchke and relics of the borough’s past and 2. The lineup includes one genuine New York native, one Hawaiian transplant, and, most importantly, a member of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, and thus a descendant of the Native Americans who originally inhabited New York, AKA the OG Native New Yorkers.

It’s this last speaker that made me (who’s native credentials, by the way, are that I was born in Cobble Hill, at the now defunct Long Island College Hospital, raised in Park Slope, and attended school grades K through 12 in New York City proper, not to mention that my dad, his dad, and his dad all grew up in Brooklyn) open my mind a bit to the idea of broadening the definition of being a native. Certainly anyone who’s going to tell a Lenape descendant that they aren’t a native New Yorker — even if the descendant was raised in the Dakotas or the south or Germany — is an asshole.

That said, Lenape descendants compose a very small percent of this country’s population. So in conclusion, sure, if your ancestors were violently forced off this land before you could be raised here, you can argue that you are a native New Yorker, in at least some respects, but if your father lived in Bay Ridge before moving to Michigan and raising you there, even though you’re here now, back in Bay Ridge, please, don’t call yourself a native to the area. It’s not a title that can be earned, with neither time nor money nor community input. Being honest about where you’re from will earn you a whole lot more respect than coopting us natives’ birth place.

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