"There are roughly three New Yorks," E. B. White wrote in his slender paean to the city, "Here Is New York": the city of the native, "who accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable"; the city of the commuter, "devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night," and the city of the immigrant, who "came to New York in quest of something." Of those, White found this last New York--rich with dreams, fueled by striving, promising renewal--to be far and away the greatest. He credited immigrants with creating New York's energy, its lyricism, its soaring achievement and its endless capacity for change. "Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion," he wrote.
That was back in 1949, when people of European descent made up 91 percent of the city's population. Today it is truer than ever, with the newest settlers bringing plenty of salsa and spice along with their passion. It is no coincidence that New York has only grown larger, lovelier and livelier as its share of immigrants has increased. According to the latest Census figures, the population of New York City--consisting of the five boroughs of Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island--has topped 8 million for the first time. And that is due largely to an influx of new immigrants, mainly from Asia and Latin America; the number of Mexicans in the city, for instance, has grown 236 percent since 1990, and the number of Indians 118 percent. Indeed, the 2000 Census data show that whites now make up 35 percent of the population (compared with 42 percent in 1990), Hispanics 27 percent (up from 25 percent), blacks 25 percent (down from 26 percent) and Asians 10 percent (up from 7 percent).
New York's debt to immigrants has become almost a cliche. Since Ellis Island was established as a center for new arrivals in 1892, millions of people have sought the shelter of Lady Liberty, fleeing poverty, famine, war and persecution overseas. They literally and figuratively built New York, from the skyscrapers and dockyards to the corner delis and garment factories. They brought their native foods and religions, customs and clothing, which New York graciously absorbed. But those immigrants built the city inward and upward, and few ever ventured off the cramped, self-contained island of Manhattan.
The new immigrants are different. They are heading not for Manhattan, but for the more remote outer boroughs--chiefly Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx--where housing is cheaper, job opportunities abound and there are plenty of derelict neighborhoods ripe for re-vitalization. According to the new Census, while Manhattan's population grew only 3 percent between 1990 and 2000, the populations of Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island rose more substantially. Queens gained the most, with 278,000 people, or about 14 percent of the population; Brooklyn added 165,000 people, or 7 percent; the Bronx grew by 129,000 people, or 11 percent, and Staten Island, traditionally the most homogeneous borough, gained 65,000 people, or 17 percent. They couldn't have done it without immigrants.
Visiting the outer boroughs today is like taking a trip around the world. In Queens, Hindus worship at a temple with carved elephant heads. West Indians play cricket in the shadow of the globe left over from the 1964 World's Fair. In the Bronx, Mexicans barbecue pork over open barrels in Pelham Park. Albanians gather in corner groceries to share job tips. And in Brooklyn, Rastafarians hold raucous drumming sessions in Prospect Park. Old Russian men play chess on the boardwalk at Brighton Beach. The numbers make it clear just how prominent certain immigrant groups have become: since 1990 the Mexican population grew by 334 percent in Queens, 218 percent in Brooklyn and 180 percent in the Bronx; the number of Chinese by 84 percent in Brooklyn, 75 percent in Queens and 10 percent in the Bronx, and the number of Indians by 130 percent in Queens, 108 percent in Brooklyn and 75 percent in the Bronx.
In part, the gains can be attributed to better counting since the 1990 Census. But they also reflect the increasingly connected world that allows, say, a flood of recently arrived Bengalis to all settle in Jackson Heights, Queens. JFK airport in Queens has become the new Ellis Island, welcoming arrivals from all over the globe and whisking them off to neighborhoods ready to help them adapt. Pakistanis in the Bellerose neighborhood of Queens, for one, advertise job opportunities in local papers back home. So it's easy to understand why a newly arrived family from Karachi would head straight for Bellerose, where a mosque and a halal butcher are already established. But what makes the first person of any given background venture into unknown territory? Some unnamable blend of courage, opportunity and desperation, without which New York would never have become what Walt Whitman called the "proud and passionate... mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!" that it's renowned as today.
The news isn't all good. Researchers found that for all New York's diversity, the city remains highly segregated, with non-Hispanic whites and blacks living largely apart and Asians and Latinos clustering in enclaves of their own. White flight remains a common problem. Sitting on her porch behind a for sale sign, Theresa Mahoney explains why she's leaving her Brooklyn neighborhood after 23 years: "It's just not the same little Canarsie that I knew," she says. "It's basically a Haitian neighborhood now."
But for the most part, New Yorkers recognize that by welcoming new immigrants, they are welcoming an earlier version of themselves. Rosa Silva, who came to Queens from Puerto Rico in the 1970s, has lately seen her Richmond Hill neighborhood overtaken by Indo-Caribbeans. Rather than feeling displaced, she feels invigorated. "Their dynamism is incredible," she says. "They're very hardworking, very serious, very committed to the community." That's the way New York has always been: the new become the natives, making way for the next arrivals. And in the process of transforming their lives, they end up transforming the city.