New York has long prided itself on being the melting pot of America.
The image is a precise one. In metallurgy, different metals, heated until they melt, fuse together into an alloy with its own specific properties. Bronze is an obvious example, made from blending copper and tin. Demographically, the image suggests that over time different races gathered together in a single place will fuse, so that the end result is a homogenous community.
So how’s that working out in New York?
According to a new study by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative, market-oriented think tank, segregation by race has fallen noticeably in recent years and all-white neighbourhoods in the city are “virtually extinct”.
Anybody who lives in New York will tell you this is nonsense. The liberal Center for Urban Research, after examining the report’s findings, concluded that segregation was in fact alive and well.
“Single-group predominance is still the prevalent residential pattern across New York City,” the CUR observed. “Despite the popular characterisation of New York as a melting pot, many neighbourhoods in the city for years have seen little racial-ethnic diversity and are dominated by one or another of the major race/ethnicity groups.”
I live in Brooklyn Heights, a genteel neighbourhood noted for its mix of handsome nineteenth century brownstones and well-constructed, expensively maintained apartment blocks. Not a single black person lives in my building, which has more than 70 apartments. The only obvious latino is Edmundo, our building superintendent, or caretaker.
I’m pretty sure that no black or latino person, other than servants, lives within half a mile of our front door. Non-whites bus in and bus out. Our local supermarkets are staffed almost entirely by “minorities”—the women mostly black or hispanic, the men often from Eastern Europe. Our post is delivered by a black woman. Michael, who mops the corridors in our building, is from Jamaica. Black and hispanic men deliver groceries and takeouts.
All of the small army of nannies in the area are black women. They walk the streets by day, pushing prams containing white babies as if auditioning for a role in The Help. By late-evening, once the little ones are put to bed, they are gone. At my local, Italian-owned restaurant, none of the regulars who gather round the bar from six to seven-thirty, is black.
When I leave the Heights and enter Brooklyn-proper, the change is immediate. Now the streets are filled with African-Americans, Orthodox Jews, Mexicans, South Asians, Chinese and Koreans. I have stopped trying to get service at the local branch of my mobile phone company because the black staff there ignore me and call only minority customers up to the counter. Here, the banks are 100 per cent staffed by “ethnic” tellers. The stationer’s is Orthodox, and closed on Saturdays. There is a row of Arab delis—including the incomparable Sahadi’s—and several hardware stores owned and run by, I would say, fifth-generation Italians or Irish.
Every set keeps to itself, and at close of business everyone returns to their own neighbourhood, where difference isn’t an issue. (Click here to see a picture of the new ethnic neighbourhoods in New York—and click here for a more detailed ethnic breakdown.)
Taking the Subway in to Manhattan, I am often struck by the number of ethnic Chinese I see on the train. Nearly all are from districts further out, in north Brooklyn and Queens, that are predominantly Chinese. The younger, more prosperous of these speak, I am told, Mandarin. The over 70s—or most of them—converse in Cantonese. This reflects the fact that newer arrivals from China are overwhelmingly from the North, a fact that has left the previous generation, few of whom ever learned English, linguistically stranded.
South Koreans live in their own up-market areas. At weekends, a boardwalk overlooking the East River is where Korean newly-weds like to have their wedding photographs taken. Russians congregate in Brighton Beach, a suburb near Coney Island, where English is considered a foreign language. We don’t have many Indians, Pakistanis or Bangladeshis near us, but Little India in Jackson Heights is the place to go for a well-spiced curry or a hit Bollywood movie.
African-Americans live in a string of mainly impoverished ghettoes that radiate out from Court Street (marking the Brooklyn Heights border) into areas that I only catch a glimpse of when travelling by cab to JFK airport. In the winter, groups of men wearing an improbable depth of layers gather around street braziers, drinking beer. They are either homeless or else waiting for their womenfolk to come back from cleaning white people’s homes or sitting for eight hours at a check-out counter.
There are, of course, middle-class, even upper-middle-class blacks. Barack and Michelle Obama are far from being the only upwardly-mobile black couple in America. Television and magazines like to stress how far a people, most of whose ancestors were slaves, have come since the civil rights era of the 1960s and ‘70s. But 150 years on from abolition and 50 from the end of formal segregation, more than half of blacks in Brooklyn still live on the economic margins.
Even Europeans, though more likely to marry out (within the overall white community) still hang on to their areas: Italians in Staten Island, Ukrainians in the East Village, Poles in Williamsburg, Germans in Yorkville, the Irish in a green belt that weaves in and out of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Only the English, having long since identified themselves as “American,” lack an ancestral home.
White New Yorkers like to point out the cosmopolitan nature of their city. I have sat around dinner tables at which the guests—all of them high-earning white professionals—describe with relish their country’s “unique” ethnic heritage. America, they will tell you, is built on immigrants.
They are not wrong. What they don’t tell you is that nobody has lit a fire under the crucible and that the metals tossed into the melting pot will not be transformed into New York alloy any time soon.