Little Australia: Down Under in the Big Apple

Appropriately (although by coincidence) a familiar Australian place name appears at the intersection of Mulberry and Broome Streets in Little Australia, New York City. Photo: KarryOn.

New York City is best explored by foot, with a coffee in hand. Each neighbourhood has its own personality – turn a corner and you can ‘travel’ into another country. One one such neighbourhood transports the thousands of Australians who’ve immigrated here straight home. Amanda Smith introduces us to Little Australia.

New York is a city that welcomes all cultures. Walk down any street on any block and there’ll be a dozen languages heard in the sidewalk chatter. It’s what upholds the ‘come here and be anything you want’ ideology. New York doesn’t just accept outsiders; it embraces them, dedicating zip codes and microneighborhoods to these cultural clusters. 

Little Italy. Chinatown. Koreatown. Little Jamaicia. Little Dominican Republic. Little Guyana. Little Poland. Little India. There’s even a sub-community spearheaded by the thousands of immigrants from Down Under.

The city is now peppered with Australian food and coffee – and New Yorkers are eating it up. In particular, one Lower Manhattan neighbourhood feels like a trendy urban Australian nook: Nolita (derived from North of Little Italy), now fast becoming known as Little Australia. 

Shouldered by Little Italy and Chinatown, liberated from nearby Soho’s exorbitant prices and walking distance to the grungy East Village, Nolita draws an eclectic mix of passers-by that first attracted two Aussie guys, Giles Russell and Henry Roberts to the neighbourhood, when they opened Two Hands.

“Back when we opened the café in 2014, rent was cheap. People didn’t expect to see a bright, welcoming café in the Chinese and Italian area, so it drew people in. Nolita had that laid-back feel to it that Aussies are naturally drawn to,” explains Lucy Thom, Two Hands COO.

“Australians would either work or hang out at Two Hands. Many of the staff went on to open their own coffee shop or eatery in the area, such as Egg Shop, Charley St and Rubys. We all know each other and there’s now a community within the Australian hospitality group.”

Rubys, pictured, is a dead ringer for a chic Surry Hills café. Photo: Rubys Café/LinkedIn.

Giles and Henry saw a need for an Australian-inspired community space, where people could get coffee, a proper meal and catch up with friends. Good coffee, fresh food and brunch every day is ingrained in the Aussie lifestyle – something the pair thought New Yorkers would also find solace in.

And they have. Big time.

It’s this approachable yet experimental, “let’s just jump in” ethos that enables Australians to do so well in New York. While so far from home, Australians in New York have a strong community to lean on – thousands of people who help each other, answer visa questions, and are often the initial customers and advocates for new businesses.

Dinosaur Designs, a stylish Australian studio of jewellery and home décor products had a store in Nolita, before moving to Soho. They’ve just celebrated their 20th year in New York, after opening their first international store in 2001. 

It still holds a special place in the heart of Louise Olsen, Dinosaur Design’s co-counder, creative director and artist.

“Nolita has a wonderful village feel and a great mix of cultures from native New Yorkers to representations of cultures around the world. It’s such a great place to meet people. When we opened, there was maybe one or two Australian-owned stores on Mulberry Street and it’s grown and changed every year since,” she says.

“Our first store was on Nolita’s Mott Street. I remember Café Gitane, Café Habana and one of New York’s oldest Italian pizza stores. We just loved the area and it felt right for us. Dinosaur Designs is now on Crosby Street in SoHo – a few blocks away from Nolita. It also has a wonderful, energetic street life.”

Louise believes Australians do well in New York because we have our own persona, a unique aesthetic and creative point of difference. This can be seen and felt in bright storefronts, colourful dishes and approachable people. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. In a city like New York, these characteristics are refreshing and can’t be taken for granted.

“Running a global business is exciting and rewarding, but it’s essential to have a team of critical thinkers who can adapt to the changing circumstances of New York. From a design standpoint, it’s fascinating to see how diverse countries are in their sense of colour, shape, and form – which I think is influenced by the climate we live in.”

Two Hands brings an Australian-style café experience to New York. Photo: supplied.

While Australians are intrepid, easily fitting into new environments, we have a lot to offer the countries we call home. “Leverage that point of difference, our unique worldview, and a find way to contribute to the community,” Louise adds

Foreigners love Australians. This is a well-versed statement and it’s true. Australians love Australians, too. When two Australian expats meet, whether it’s over brunch in New York, on the ski slopes in Whistler or at a London pub, something special happens. A vortex forms – the shortening of words, the laughter, the seven degrees of separation. A fellow Australian soon becomes a mate, an extension of family. Because while we’re fulfilling lifelong dreams of experiences abroad, nothing replaces home.

Nolita and other Australian enclaves aren’t just a way to connect the world to our country; it’s a way to keep home alive, in our everyday.

Amanda Smith is an Australian-born author, copywriter, cultural commentator and journalist based in New York City. Her website is located at www.amandasmithwriter.com.au.