The above cake was part of last night’s celebration at the Tenement Museum for the launch of One Out of Three: Immigrant New York in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Nancy Foner. In addition to the delicious cake which featured the book’s wonderful cover, the event also included talks by some of the contributors to the book about immigrant life in twenty-first century New York City.
The evening however, began with a talk by Sukethu Mehta, himself an immigrant from India, who talked about his own experiences growing up in Jackson Heights, Queens, as well as the successes of immigrants and the challenges confronting them in the future. He pointed to the incredible mixture of immigrants in the city, often bringing together groups, such as Indians and Pakistanis, who might not like each other back home or even behind closed doors but find a way to work and live with each other in their daily lives in New York City. However, Mehta also expressed concern about New York City’s ability to continue to support a healthy immigrant community as the city becomes more expensive and stratified.
Nancy Foner, the book’s editor, considered the emergence of new groups from West Africa and Bangladesh, who are changing the composition of New York City’s immigrant population. In addition, traditional immigrant groups are now establishing communities in different parts in the city: Dominicans settling in the Bronx, Chinese in Brooklyn and Queens, and Russians in Queens. As new immigrants continue to play a large role in city life as small business owners, they are likely to expand their influence as they become more involved in city politics.
Joseph J. Salvo, director of the population division of the Department of City Planning, used statistics and maps to explain the changing nature of immigration in New York City. He discussed the incredible diversity of immigrants in New York City, with no one particular group dominating unlike in other cities, and how immigrants are spread throughout the city. Citing age breakdowns, Salvo demonstrated how the city will become increasingly diverse as the population of non-Hispanic whites ages.
Looking at a specific immigrant community, Bernadette Ludwig discussed “Little Liberia” in Staten Island. She explained how Liberians, fleeing their war-torn country, overcame their initial disappointment with America and have made a vibrant community despite the many challenges they confronted. More specifically, Liberian immigrants were resettled in a dangerous neighborhood in Staten Island and had to grapple with suspicion and even hostility from black and white residents.
Ludwig also discussed the challenges faced by families as the children become more integrated in New York City and American life. This was a topic taken up more fully by Philip Kasinitz, who talked about the second generation of children of immigrants. Most young adults now presently living in the city are children of first-generation immigrants, which will undoubtedly change the character of the city and make it a more diverse and fluid place. While disputes between immigrant parents and their children about striking the right balance between being American but not too American are unavoidable, this kind of tension creates a kind of creativity. Immigrant children coming of age will find creative ways in which to incorporate and integrate their parents’ culture into their American lives and New York City life. While expressing excitement about how this new generation will enrich the city, he also saw the persistence of racism continuing to hinder immigrant life particularly as it relates to police policy (stop-and-frisk) and education, which is increasingly becoming segregated and divided along class lines.