The Whitewashing of New York

Six out of every ten New Yorkers is an immigrant or the child of one, according to the latest census data released by New York City’s Department of Planning.

But when it comes to contemporary popular culture, the city’s immigrant majority is hidden. It’s as if they’ve all vanished. On television, in film, and elsewhere, New York’s demographics are being whitewashed. Shows like HBO’s Girls feature the city’s rich, vanilla frosting that coats Brooklyn’s northern and western exterior. Even The New York Times — which, for all its flaws, remains a great newspaper — bends over backwards to cover the latest trends in Williamsburg and other parts of gentrified Brooklyn that may interest some, but tend to be rather banal and vapid to me. 

There is more news that’s fit to print. In the past decade, as luxury condos have surrounded most of the East River, New York has also witnessed the emergence of Koreatown, the growth of the Chinese population in Bensonhurst (of all places), a 74% increase in the Bangladeshi community, and China-based wealthy individuals making major real estate investments in Flushing. In fact, New York today has its highest percentage of immigrants since 1910. A remarkable figure given that the hundred or so years in between included two World Wars and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that brought in waves of immigrants.

New York’s immigrants — as well as the city’s increasingly obscured African American community — have stories to tell and stories to be told. They have concerns that need to be addressed, including the city’s failing experiment with charter schools and gentrification that has pushed blacks into crime-afflicted central Brooklyn. New York City belongs to all those who inhabit its five boroughs.

Relations between New York’s different ethnic groups can be tense. There is, for example, some degree of self-segregation. But it is still amazing how people from different backgrounds connect. Growing up in Queens, my first crush was a beautiful Puerto Rican girl named Rachel. In the sixth grade, my closest friend was a Russian kid named Lenny. And the next year, I had difficulty getting Raquel, who was Chinese, out of my mind.

Last month, as I stood on the F train, before me was a Jewish man reading the Talmud. Seated to my right were two men reading newspapers, one in Urdu and the other in Persian. To me, that was quintessential New York: a daily walk through a kaleidoscope — something you won’t experience through the monotonous, monochromatic cultural products of hipster hegemony.