Forget hot dog carts, giant pizza slices and skyscrapers – there’s much more to the Big Apple than clichés and postcard tourist attractions.
During a three week stay in New York City, surprising encounters and unexpected moments sparked new thinking and perspectives about the way our city operates here in Cairns.
Despite the obvious differences between the two destinations – they have a population of more than 8 million people, for example – here are some ideas and lessons Cairns could adopt from one of the greatest cities on earth.
1. CLOSE THE STREETS
On weekends, I would step up from random stops on the subway to find entire blocks temporarily closed to traffic so that food stalls, markets, events – and people - could take over. I’m talking some of the busiest streets in the world, including right in the heart of midtown Manhattan. We can’t close a tiny section of Cairns Esplanade (even just once a week) without fierce opposition from a vocal few who seem to stop councillors from making any bold decisions. Yet the authorities in NYC can shut down major roads every single weekend. On one such occasion, I walked along the middle of 5th Ave eating and browsing for nearly 10 blocks all the way up to Central Park. Locals and tourists embrace these street parties, while cabs, cyclists and motorists just deal with it.
TIP trial the regular, temporary closure of more streets in the Cairns CBD & the suburbs. Let the people decide.
2. CHILL OUT ABOUT ALCOHOL
I bought beer from a stall in a park while watching a live band. I drank booze while watching Shakespeare’s Othello performed in Bryant Park. I sipped a schooner at a shopping centre’s incredible food hall. I was offered a glass of wine while browsing in a shop. It all felt very adult. No-one was out of control drunk. It’s an absolute joke we can’t legally have a glass of wine with a picnic on our beautiful Esplanade. Crack down on drunks and intoxicated idiots and let the rest of us be grown-ups.
TIP Lift the ban on alcohol consumption on Cairns Esplanade and promote it as a vibrant place of picnics and parties, while policing the handful of people who abuse the privilege.
3. TALL POPPY SYNDROME DOESN'T EXIST
New Yorkers (and Americans in general) embody a refreshing, progressive attitude when it comes to competition and success. Whether you’re just starting out or achieving great things, you’ll be supported and celebrated for it. Confidence is an asset, rather than being viewed as arrogance. They’ll compliment you if it’s warranted, from the cool clothes you’re wearing to the exceptional service you’re providing. Here, our negative approach to achievement and competition is stifling and small-minded. Be more vocal about your own success and support others who are delivering high-quality work, services or products.
TIP If you see someone doing great things, be it in business or their personal life, tell them so.
4. CELEBRATE DIVERSITY AND MULTICULTURALISM
New York City is home to the most diverse cultural mix in the United States – indeed of any metropolis in the world - and they celebrate it, big time. This dynamic form of multiculturalism is found everywhere from countless festivals and cultural days to specific museums, hybrid cuisines, and the auditory overload of an estimated 800 languages you hear in bodegas and bars, on street corners and the subway. We already do a good job of celebrating our multicultural mix, given our town’s Indigenous Australian foundation and our gold prospecting, cane farming past. We shouldn’t hesitate to do even more to celebrate our cultural diversity.
TIP Take a coordinated approach to local cultural festivals and events and better support and promote them. Also, why doesn’t the culturally rich Cairns Museum attract more visitors?
5. AMAZING WIFI
I didn’t buy a data plan for my visit to NYC so my only connection to the digital world (hello, Google Maps) relied entirely on free Wi-Fi – and it was absolutely everywhere. From hotels to the subway, from the streets and parks to the stores I shopped in, free high-speed internet was available when and where I needed it. We all know Australia is hopelessly behind when it comes to internet speeds and access, so maybe there’s a niche for Cairns and local businesses - particularly the CBD - to become the nation’s best Wi-Fi city. Tourists and locals will love us for it.
TIP Set a target to become Australia’s best free Wi-Fi city.
6. POPEYE'S CHICKEN SANDWICH
In welcome respite from the depressing 24-hour news cycle featuring President Trump, gun violence and racial disharmony, my visit to NYC coincided with a seriously intense debate about fried chicken burgers, or sandwiches as they’re called. Fast food chain Popeye’s had just launched – and promptly sold out of – a new fried chicken sandwich, sparking desperate searches by customers, in-depth media analysis and serious rivalry with competing chains offering similar burgers. It was all a bit ridiculous, of course, but it was fun and pointed to a foodie phenomenon we don’t see here in Cairns – the viral food hit. When was the last time you visited a favourite local restaurant or café for that one special menu item you crave above all else?
TIP Local restaurants and cafes can get creative and offer up one very special, must-have dish on their menu and encourage customers to spread the word and create the marketing buzz for them – which will happen if it’s super delicious and unique.
7. KNOW OUR BRAND
The Big Apple. The City That Never Sleeps. The Greatest City on Earth. New York City knows who it is and sells it to the world. Sure, the city’s origins stretch back nearly 400 years when it was called New Amsterdam – that’s a lot of rich history and local culture to draw on. But they’ve honed their brand, embraced their unique attributes and marketed themselves, non-stop. On a much smaller scale, we need to do the same. Not just from a tourist perspective, but for locals as well.
TIP Work together to map and design who we are and what we represent as a city and share the Brand Cairns consistently and relentlessly - and be proud of our unique place in the world.
8. ART AND CULTURE IS BIG BUSINESS
Of so many sights and attractions in NYC, museums and galleries are among the most popular. We don’t have galleries bursting with works by Picasso, Warhol, Basquiat and Van Gogh - let alone awe-inspiring buildings like the Guggenheim to display them in - but we do have something few places in the world can claim such provenance over – Indigenous and Torres Strait art and culture. It’s been talked about for a long time, but it’s patently insane that Cairns hasn’t stepped up and set a vision to be the nation’s epicentre of Indigenous art in all its ancient and modern forms. And not just locally produced art from Tropical North Queensland; I’m talking about a truly national showcase. Cairns Indigenous Art Fair is a great starting point, but we need something permanent and spectacular to draw the crowds in. Just look what MONA has done for Tasmania.
TIP Build Australia’s most magnificent Indigenous art and culture museum.