The Dream City of the Demographer

A French reporter walks through New York City’s kaleidoscopic ethnic landscape with the city’s official demographer. Are there lessons for France in the way New York has swallowed up and assimilated generation after generation of foreigners?

In springtime, Steinway Street fills with sidewalk cafes that flavor the air with puffs of tobacco smoke all through the summer and fall, until winter rolls back around. ‘America’s First Hookah Bar’ opened on this street in Queens in 1996. The owner of the place says that around 20 competitors have opened in the surrounding area in the years since, earning this oriental enclave the nickname “Little Egypt.” There is a Lebanese pastry shop, a halal butcher, a mosque, and pediatric clinic called ‘Fatima,’ but there is also an Indian jeweler, and a single relic from the neighborhood’s Italian past, Cafe Espresso. “The owner is Sicilian but our clients are from all over,” says the waitress, who is Romanian. “This is the new face of New York,” says Joseph Salvo, who comes here for walks on the weekend.

Nobody knows New York better than this demographer, who this year will celebrate his thirtieth year as head of the city’s Population Division. He can quote from memory the percentage of the city’s immigrants who are from Haiti (3 %) or its babies who were born to foreign mothers (53%). A tireless explorer, he can give you a description of Bronx’s Little Africa, or the “Sari Block” at the intersection of Roosevelt Avenue and 76th St in Queens. “You have to get out on the streets to understand statistics,” he says. In this thirty-year career, Salvo has known four mayors, and as many censuses. But more than anything else, he has seen the monochrome New York City of his childhood turn into a “global, multi-ethnic city.”

When he started this job, the most populous city in the United States was host to only three communities. There was the white European majority, many of them descendents of the great wave of migration that had seen whole ocean liners of Ashkenazi Jews, Italians and Irish disembark at Ellis Island at the beginning of the last century. And there were two homogenous minorities, the African Americans and the Puerto Ricans.

“The flow of immigrants dried up starting in the 1920s because of the draconian restrictions imposed by the Johnson-Reed Law,” Salvo says. “But New York’s destiny took a sharp turn in 1965, when Congress removed the immigration quotas.” This historic amendment, which encouraged family reunification, inaugurated an era of massive immigration from Asia and Latin America.

These days it is the Dominican Republic, China, Mexico, Jamaica and Guyana which supply the largest contingents of newcomers to New York. Salvo is convinced that this second wave of immigrants “saved” his city. You need to remember, he says, the city’s desolation during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, when President Gerald Ford told the city, when it asked for federal money to avoid bankruptcy, to ‘drop dead.’

Bled dry and devastated by urban violence, New York was undergoing a kind of desertification: from almost 8 million inhabitants in 1970, its population dropped to 7.1 million in 1980. “The Bronx was in flames, Brooklyn was in a pitiful state. Fortunately, the immigrants came and offset the exodus of middle-class whites; they retook all those abandoned territories. And the city bounced back. By the year 2000, we were back up to 8 million people.”

The other industrial cities of the Northeast had no such luck. Over the same period, Detroit, Baltimore and Cleveland all saw their populations declining inexorably. The latest census confirms the scope of a metamorphosis that has been ongoing for forty years in New York. Between 1970 and 2010, the proportion of non-Hispanic whites has collapsed, from 63% to 33%, while the percentage of New Yorkers born abroad doubled, to reach 37%.

In absolute terms, the newcomers today number over 3 million. “More than the whole population of Chicago!” Salvo rejoices. Another point: the diversity of this foreign-born population is unrivaled in the USA. “When we look at other cities with strong immigration, we notice that typically one nationality is overrepresented, like the Mexicans in Houston or the Cubans in Miami. In New York, if you add up all the people coming from the ten most important countries of origin, the result will be barely half the number of total immigrants to New York.”

And every census reveals new flows. The latest news is that arrivals from Bangladesh, the Arab countries, Subsaharan Africa and the former Yugoslavia are sharply increasing. “New York deserves its melting-pot description now as never before. Our neighborhoods are more and more mixed. Today, half of them no longer even have a dominant group.”

Himself a child of immigrants, Salvo grew up in an Italian enclave of the Bronx. His mother, born in Salerno, had crossed the Atlantic on board the Woodrow Wilson when she was 2 years old. Later, in the 1940s, she fell in love with a young farmer from Naples with whom she had been writing letters.

America at the time being anything but hospitable, she was obliged to meet up with him in Cuba-where, after a month, she married him. “My father had not gone to university, so he started out unloading bananas at the Port of New York. From being a docker, he became a laborer, then a fine woodworker and eventually ended up owning a little construction company. He worked all the time. When I was in high school, he would take me to his worksites and tell me: ‘if you don’t go to school, this is what is waiting for you.’ He only had one ambition, to allow his sons to go to university.”

His passion for numbers and for people led Salvo to choose demography. At Fordham University, his PhD was on Puerto Rican migration to the United States. In the meantime, he forgot the Italian that he had spoken as a child.

Wave follows wave, and the result is the same. Today as before, migrants wear themselves out to make the future better for their children. “They choose New York because the city provides a wide spectrum of opportunities for all levels of work qualification. The newcomers provide 43 percent of the city’s workforce and start more than half of its small businesses. Their rates of economic activity are higher than that of the average population.”

Busy scaling the social pyramid, they rarely have the luxury of perfecting their English: 24 percent of New Yorkers do not speak the language fluently. So, the city adapts. Since 2008, all city agencies have offered multilingual staff and forms in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Korean and Haitian Creole. (And if you speak nothing but Tagalog or Urdu, interpreters are available on request.)

One of the agencies, the Office of Immigrant Affairs, has as its sole mission to inform immigrants of their rights and the services that are available to them. “The city makes a huge effort to encourage them to be full participants in civic and economic life,” he says. “We want them to pay taxes, to create businesses, to become citizens.”

More than half of foreign-born New Yorkers are already naturalized citizens. At a moment when Congress, under pressure from President Obama, is working on a historic immigration reform program aimed at legalizing the status of 11 million immigrants, New York happily sees itself as a model for the rest of the USA.

“Michael Bloomberg is the first mayor to be so involved in the national debate about immigration,” says the demographer. He arms his boss with statistics every time the Mayor goes to Washington to plead the cause of foreigners. And the capitals of ‘Old Europe’: can the metropolis of 3 million migrants be an example for them too? Joseph Salvo smiles. “Nobody likes to be given lessons from Americans. Especially not the French.” But when he attends conferences in Europe, he is sometimes asked to spill the secrets to New York’s melting pot. “It is not complicated,” he says. “You have to welcome and give a hand to the newcomers, because that is the only way their children will succeed.”

Underneath what appears to be the ‘communitarianism’ that we so much decry in France, the ethnic enclaves of new York hide a tremendous capacity for absorbing the outsider. According to Salvo, Brooklyn’s Little Odessa, or Manhattan’s Chinatown, are actually indispensible to the process of assimilation. “These neighborhoods are like entrance airlocks into the nation,” he says. “They are cocoons that allow immigrants to speak their own language and benefit from the support of their countrymen. The Islamic cultural center or the Hindu temple fulfill the same function that the Italian churches did in the past. Populations change, but not the levers of integration.” Experience shows that these enclaves never survive the disappearance of the particular immigrant flows that populated them.

Salvo’s favorite stroll is in what used to be Little Athens. In the 1960s, Queens was host to the largest Greek diaspora on the planet. In the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, the Italians have left an enormous void that is now being filled by Chinese and Ukrainians. And as for the children of the Russian immigrants, today they are leaving Brighton Beach to live in the suburbs of New Jersey, leaving the neighborhood to fresh-off-the-boat Bangladeshis. And who knows who will replace the Poles in Greenpoint? Check back after the next census in 2020.

Stephanie Chayet