Everyone who has ever lived on the island of Manhattan is either an immigrant or a direct descendant of one. Whether a Lenape Indian or a 5th generation British immigrant, there are no true “native” New Yorkers, just as there are no true native Americans – human life on North America is a result of migration at various points in world history. Thus one of the most endearing, meaningful, intriguing, and frustrating aspects of like in the Big Apple is its role as the world’s most culturally and ethnically diverse city. Nearly 40% foreign born according to the 2000 census, New Yorkers come from literally every country and speak literally every language (200+). Strolling the streets, one hears a significant variety of languages and dialects, some vaguely familiar, others incomprehensible. Every sort of authentic cuisine is offered, and specific cultural celebrations are held throughout the year (Puerto Rican Day, Chinese New Year, etc). Likewise, every sort of religion is practiced in New York, and every “holy” day of every religion is observed in some form. So for this Manhattan Wednesday Monday, we’ll take a look at life in the ultimate melting pot.
Diversity has been a hallmark of city living since the Dutch arrived in the 17th century, as the colony was composed of a mix of Europeans integrated with the local population. Even by the mid-1650s (New Amsterdam, as the City was then called, was “purchased” in 1626) the flourishing colony was home to a European mix of Finns, Swedes, Germans, French, Spanish, Dutch, and English, with an array of Africans (many were free but poor) and Jews. Such cultural and religious diversity was not welcome by the rigid Reformed Dutch, as evidenced by this letter from Johannes Megapolensis:
For as we have here Papists, Mennonites, and Lutherans among the Dutch; also many Puritans or Independents, and many atheists and various servants of Baal among the English.
Such a letter was a complaint to the Church in the Netherlands about the influx of Jews, who would only add to the “confusion” of religion in the New World. Indeed, Stuyvesant and the strict Dutch were averse to cultural and especially religious diversity, yet it flourished despite their best efforts until the English took control in 1664.
Today, while London, Miami, and even Toronto are home to a higher percentage of foreign born residents, none of those cities can match the breadth of diversity of New York. Consider the fact that New York is the largest Irish city in the world, the largest Jewish city outside Israel, the largest Chinese city outside Asia, third largest Greek city in the world, and the fifth largest Italian city in the world. Over 200 languages are spoken in the City daily, and every major world religion as at least 100,000 followers.
Surprisingly (at least to me), Whites (including Jews) are still the largest ethnic group, comprising 45% of the New York city population, though far below that of the United States as a whole at 75%. Blacks and Hispanics of all back grounds make up 22% each, and Asians make up the difference of about 10%. Italian ancestry is the most common in New York (9%), followed by Irish (5%), then a mix of European ancestries including German, English, and Russian.
More Chinese live in New York than anywhere else outside Asia, with a total population of over 600,000 – far surpassing San Francisco. Also with 600,000 people, New York’s Indian population is the largest of any American city. Around 800,000 Jews live in New York city proper, with another 1.2 million in the metropolitan area. Thus New York is home to more Jews than Jerusalem and is the largest Jewish city in the world outside Israel. Though only 420,000 New Yorkers claim pure Irish ancestry today, the metropolitan numbers are much larger – larger in fact than Dublin, making the NYC the largest Irish city in the world. New York is the 5th largest Italian city in the world with about 700,000 New Yorkers claiming Italian ancestry, along with 2.5 million more in the metro area. The Hispanic population is more of a mix, but the Puerto Rican population is undoubtedly the largest, with 800,000 residents in the City; Dominicans are clearly second, with about 500,000 residents. The 2 million black people in New York come from an array of backgrounds, mostly of African descent, but many are from the Caribbean islands.
So where do all these people live? The superficial answer, of course, is everywhere, since people of all ethnicities live in all neighborhoods in the city. But the real answer is that there are neighborhoods that are traditionally dominated by members of certain ethnicities and nationalities. The reason these immigrant populations live where they do is largely economic and historic, and most of the major pockets of foreign born immigrants live in the outer boroughs, especially Brooklyn and Queens. In fact, the largest “Chinatown” in the U.S. is in Flushing, Queens, not the tourist-filled Manhattan Chinatown. Brooklyn is home to a very large number of Hasidic Jews scattered in neighborhoods such as Bensonhurst, Crown Heights, and Williamsburg. Most Italians in New York are scattered throughout the outer boroughs and New Jersey – very few actually reside in the Little Italy of Manhattan. And most Russian immigrants live in Brooklyn, especially in Brighton Beach near Coney Island.
But since this is a Manhattan-oriented blog, the question is “Are there still any ethnic neighborhoods in Manhattan?” Obviously the answer is yes, starting with the most famous ethnic neighborhoods of Little Italy and Chinatown. Located in the Lower East Side adjacent to one another, these two are must-sees for tourists. The main drag of Little Italy is Mulberry Street between Canal Street to the south and Broome Street to the north. Closed to car traffic during the summer months, Mulberry is now home to a variety of Italian restaurants and tourist shops, and is home to annual San Gennaro’s Feast in late September.
This feast is basically a giant carnival, offering numerous food options including steak, baked clams, meatball subs, pizza, pasta, arepas, tacos, not to mention an vast array of tempting desserts. Of the restaurant options, Melissa and I really enjoy Il Palazzo, but it’s hard to beat the Canoli Cream & Strawberries at Ferrara’s. The truth is all the places provide close to the same quality, though there are a few higher quality eateries. There is little “authentic” about the modern version of Little Italy – it’s more or less a tourist place with some good Italian food. Few Italians actually live there, so you’re more likely to see Soprano’s t-shirts than any “real” Sopranos-type characters.
To the south of Little Italy across Canal Street is the much more authentic (and much larger) Chinatown. With some superb authentic Chinese restaurants and fantastic dim sum joints, numerous tourist shops, and an actual thriving Chinese community, Chinatown is constantly packed with a mix of tourists, local non-Chinese New Yorkers, and Chinese immigrants. Considerably larger than Little Italy, it extends from Canal southward to Worth Street between Broadway and Bowery.
Situated on what was formerly the old Five Points, the predominant architecture is the classic five-story tenement, some of which are originals from the early 19th century. We typically venture to Chinatown only for the food: dim sum at the Golden Unicorn, and family style dining at Joe’s Shanghai, the undisputed dumpling champion of the City. Be prepared to be offered knockoff designers purses and painfully bad bootleg versions of movies (before they are released in the theaters) as you walk down the street. With most of the signs and building names written in Cantonese even on the main streets, venturing off the beaten path can lead you to very “real” Chinese neighborhoods – all just a short walk from the Financial District and Wall Street. Of course the main holiday in Chinatown is Chinese New Year, an annual festival held every February.
Most people who live in Harlem are American-born, but this historical neighborhood is unique as the epicenter of African American culture in America. Originally a small Dutch hamlet founded in 1658, the area didn’t become a predominantly black area until the late 19th century, when many blacks moved from Hell’s Kitchen for fear of race riots.
In the “Great Migration” of the 1920s and 1930s, millions of African Americans moved from the southeast part of the United State to the north, and many settled in New York, specifically Harlem. The “Harlem Renaissance” was a time of great artistic and cultural resurgence, especially in music with the popularization of jazz at places like the Savoy Ballroom and Cotton Club. The Apollo Theater, a converted burlesque house, remains one of the City’s important historic theaters. Though most New York blacks live outside Harlem (mainly in Brooklyn and Queens), Harlem is still a center of historic black culture. With dramatic decreases in crime since the 1990s, Harlem has seen a resurgence of late, with an increase in tenants, including former president Bill Clinton.
Harlem, Little Italy and Chinatown are the most famous historical ethnic neighborhoods, but the biggest enclaves of foreign born residents in Manhattan belong to Hispanic groups: Spanish Harlem to the Puerto Ricans, and Washington Heights to the Dominicans. Originally known as East Harlem or Italian Harlem, Spanish Harlem was originally home primarily to Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Fiorello La Guardia (of La Guardia Airport) was the Congressional Representative of East Harlem before he became one of New York’s great mayors. A few famous Italian restaurants (eg, Patsy’s) still call Spanish Harlem home, but the area was overtaken by poor Hispanic immigrants in the City’s decline years of the 1960s and 1970s. Primarily Puerto Rican, the area is now almost exclusively Spanish-speaking, and is one of the most impoverished and crime-ridden areas of Manhattan. Located just north of the Upper East Side between 90th and 110th Streets and extending from Park Avenue to the East River, it is situated adjacent to the wealthiest, most Caucasian section of the City.
Puerto Ricans are not only located in Spanish Harlem, and comprise New York’s largest Hispanic group. Proud of their heritage with their flag always on display, the Puerto Ricans celebrate their heritage with the annual Puerto Rican Day parade, an Upper East Side extravaganza that rivals any other major holiday. Puerto Ricans have been a presence in the City for over a century, and came to national attention through the classic musical West Side Story, the revival of which is still currently playing on Broadway – unlike the original much of the 2009 version is Spanish.
Known as Quisqueya Heights for the heavily Dominican population (Quisqueya is the aboriginal term for the Dominican Republic), this neighborhood in northwest Manhattan is most famous for the George Washington Bridge and The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. An uninhabitated “rural” part of the city until Jews and Greeks moved there in the first half of the 20th Century, Washington Heights was home to the Polo Grounds, where many professional sporting events were played through the 1960s. In the 1980’s the influx of Dominicans began, and the area was a major crime area, primarily revolving around the crack cocaine trade. The area improved in the late 1990s due to a more aggressive police force during the Giuliani era, and since then crime has continued to decline. Visiting the Heights today is like being in a Hispanic version of Chinatown: all signs and advertisements are written in Spanish, and the predominant language heard on the streets is also Spanish, primarily Dominican.
Finally, a few small sections of town are home to businesses from a particular cultures, such as Koreatown on 32nd Street between Broadway and 5th Avenue. This street is home to a variety of day spas, Korean barbecue restaurants and karaoke bars. Little Brazil is located on 46th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, but is primarily a collection of Brazilian businesses rather than an ethnic community. The Lower East Side, once home to Eastern European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is now a mix of avant garde restaurants, trendy boutiques, hipsters, and starving artists. The Tenement Museum is the only remnant of one of the most fascinating locations in New York City history.
Of course, nearly 400 years of intimate diversity will certainly breed racism and bigotry, and despite its high tolerance, there are numerous blemishes in New York’s racial and cultural history. Despite these inevitable problems, most New Yorkers feel at home regardless of their ethnicity, language, or religion. As with most aspects of life, there is something and someone for everyone in New York…