PUT IT THIS WAY: Komal Ramparsad is my grandfather. This would come as strange news to Komal, who’s more than ten years younger than I am, from a different part of the world, and Hindu, not Jewish. But it’s true, one hundred years on, he’s doing what my grandfather did, in almost exactly the same place. There’s no denying it, he’s more like my grandfather than I am.
My mother’s father, Barnet Melnick, arrived in New York after a series of pogroms in 1905 made life impossible in Czarist Russia. He came to the city seeking opportunity. What he got was a miserable job as a sewing machine operator in a sweatshop. But he was a frugal guy and saved enough to open a candy store/soda fountain underneath the elevated train (the “El”) in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. It was a German neighborhood then, but my grandfather decided that in this diverse new land, nationality mattered less than location.
The myth in my family for many years after my grandfather sold the business was that the old neighborhood had become a slum. But it wasn’t true. This modest neighborhood where the soundtrack of life is the shrill shriek of the El as trains traverse the sharp curve from Fulton to Crescent has remained what it was: a home to immigrant dreams. It only changed ethnicities, becoming less European and more Latino and West Indian. Today, Cypress Hills is where you will find Komal Ramparsad, manning the counter in a West Indian grocery one block from the soda fountain my grandfather ran for four decades.
Ramparsad came to New York six years ago from Guyana. He, too, came to create a better life for himself. “When you have a home there,” he says, “you can work but you make no money.” What’s more, he said, Guyana has its own homegrown discrimination. “You have a kind of racialism between the blacks and the Indians.” New York, for Ramparsad, is far less tense than his home country.
Today, at age thirty-four, he claims he has found a new identity and has no interest in returning to Guyana, even though his parents and siblings remain there. “I feel more American than Guyanan,” he says as he banters with the few customers who stroll in on a brisk December morning. As they chat and pick through piles of freshly delivered eggplant, bok choy, young squash, and long beans—displayed in their cardboard packing cases—plus a wide variety of spices and curry powders and stacks of CDs and DVDs of the latest Bollywood beauties, the lilt of their English is so lush and musical that I find it hard to understand. After the customers move on, Komal continues his story.
“Here you have a mix of everything. Every year, different people take over and different things happen. Fresh memory, fresh everything. I love everything here. I even love the winter.” Komal has become a New Yorker. And, though it would no doubt embarrass him to say so, in this process, he has helped save his adopted city.
According to the common myth, New York has been revitalized through gentrification, which reclaimed the battered buildings and neighborhoods of a city that was given up for dead a generation ago. The casual consumer of news would be left to think that New York’s economy is booming because of the good works and megadollars of developers and yuppie types, whose high-priced condos and suburban shop-till-you-drop lifestyle seem to be taking over the city. Immigrants, by contrast, are viewed as a drain on the city, sucking up services, subsidies, and Section 8 and destroying the civility and beauty of neighborhoods.
Contrary to these parallel legends, however, Ramparsad and his fellow recent arrivals are the ones keeping New York City alive. The upper-crust New York mainlined into the national psyche in sitcoms and serials like Seinfeld and Sex and the City is not the real New York. Outside of a few privileged neighborhoods, the average New Yorker is more like Komal than Kramer or Carrie Bradshaw.
According to most economic indicators, the 1990s were a boom time for the city. Business thrived, rents soared, and Wall Street was in the stratosphere. Yet, while political leaders pretended everything was rosy, 1.3 million people left the city—and only 250,000 folks from elsewhere in the United States arrived to take their place. This net outflow of more than a million people would have sapped the city, in both symbolic and serious ways. New York would have shrunk to around 6 million people—smaller than the city has been since 1920. Neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs would be feeling the effects of this contraction, just as they did in the 1970s, when New York’s population plummeted by more than 800,000: abandonment, foreclosures, business failures, crime, a government response that led to the decay of infrastructure (through what policy makers called “deferred maintenance”), and, ultimately, to 1977’s financial meltdown and default.
New York escaped this fate in the 1990s for one major reason: because Ramparsad and 1.2 million others like him arrived from abroad and decided to stay. Add to that 500,000 more births than deaths during the decade—because immigrants tend to have more kids than native-born residents—and you’ve explained New York’s astounding recent population growth.
The strength of immigration in New York in the 1980s and 1990s far outpaced the fabled influx in the forty years from 1880 and 1920, when 1.5 million immigrants arrived from eastern and southern Europe. Between 1980 and 2000, more than 2 million immigrants poured into New York, one-third of them from the Caribbean and Latin America. In modern-day New York City, the 369,186 immigrants from the Dominican Republic make up the largest portion of the foreign-born population. Rounding out the “top-five” feeder countries for the city are China (261,551), Jamaica (178,922), the states of the former Soviet Union (163,829), and Guyana (130,647). Mexico and Ecuador are coming on strong, too.
Despite recent indications that immigration is tailing off, city planners believe that immigrants will continue to flock to New York. “Despite 9/11 and despite the more stringent visa requirements we have, we assume that at the very least, the number of new immigrants coming to New York City will still be over 100,000 a year,” says Arun Peter Lobo, deputy director of the New York City Department of City Planning’s Population Division. The New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, a consortium of regional governments, projects that the city’s population—currently 8.2 million—will vault past 9 million within fifteen years and will hit 9.5 million by 2030.
The dense array of skyscrapers may remain the postcard image of New York, but the city’s real growth isn’t in the borough residents call “the city.” During the 1990s, Manhattan added only 50,000 additional residents—a population increase of just 3.3 percent. And most of those new arrivals were concentrated at the far northern tip of the borough, in Washington Heights and Inwood, neighborhoods that have long been a Dominican enclave.
The real story was off the island of Manhattan. Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island all grew more than twice as fast as the city’s fanciest borough. And that population explosion has translated into development and dollars: in 2004, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx each boasted more apartments under construction than Manhattan, according to plans filed with the city’s Buildings Department. The value of this development: $1.6 billion. For the foreseeable future, 90 percent of the city’s population growth is expected to be in the outer boroughs.
“The population in the late 1960s and 1970s had really declined,” says Jonathan Bowles, head of the Center for an Urban Future, a local think tank. “Storefronts were empty and in many cases it was dangerous to walk around. The immigrants really helped turn that around. Today there’s no abandonment. The biggest problem facing many of these neighborhoods today is congestion.” (To be fair, this is no minor issue. Overcrowded schools and overstressed infrastructure are severe problems that fall most heavily on immigrant families.)
Though we have created a rosy picture of the immigration boom of a hundred years back, the reality was far from ideal. When my grandfather came to New York, the idea of a city of immigrants scared long-term residents. Many, including reform-minded progressives like Jacob Riis, saw new arrivals as a criminal class. Despite immigrants’ continued willingness to work long hours in difficult conditions for incredibly low pay, similar sentiments abound today. The first rumblings of discontent are being felt in the suburbs. Upscale Westchester County, for instance, has seen its immigrant population double over the last thirty years. And the influx has created tensions.
Take Brewster, New York, which has attracted a large pool of laborers, many of them Mexican, who regularly congregate on Main Street seeking daywork. In October 2005, when authorities discovered one of those Mexicans dead drunk and passed out behind a local school, the community responded with the kind of anger normally reserved for violent crimes. Rather than looking for ways to help the immigrants avoid social pathologies—such as creating a local hiring hall that would get the immigrants off the streets and ensure that these laborers are treated fairly by their employers—more than one hundred parents packed a school board meeting to push local legislators to lobby in Washington for tougher immigration laws. Similar protests have taken place in communities on Long Island.
But contrary to these concerns, there’s evidence that immigrants actually make the city and its surroundings safer. Back in the 1960s, when New York’s immigrant population plunged by more than 120,000, crime became rampant. By the end of the decade, the percentage of immigrants fell to 18 percent of the city’s population, down from more than 41 percent in 1910.
The 1970s saw a small rebound in immigration but not enough to reverse the city’s energy drain. Again, crime got worse. Immigration began its sustained rise in the 1980s, when an average of 85,000 people from abroad arrived each year. The annual number of immigrants flowing into New York increased 25 percent in the 1990s, to 104,000 people each year. And that’s when crime began to fall.
Ramparsad’s neighborhood provides a perfect example. White people fled the neighborhood in the 1990s (Cypress Hills’ white population fell by 42.4 percent during the decade, according to the 2000 census and the City Planning Department statistics) and were replaced by such a swarm of new immigrants that the community’s total population swelled by more than 7 percent despite the white flight. Those new arrivals, though poor (29 percent of the people in Cypress Hills live in poverty, according to the census), opened eighty-seven new businesses between 1998 and 2003, almost all of them mom-and-pop operations.
And what happened to crime during the same period? Reports from the New York City Police Department’s CompStat Unit tell the story. In 1990, the Seventy-fifth precinct, which covers Cypress Hills, recorded 109 murders, 133 rapes, and 3,452 robberies. By 1998, just before Ramparsad arrived, there were 41 murders, 112 rapes, and 1,628 robberies. In 2005 (the latest statistics available run through December 18th), there were just 29 murders, 51 rapes, and 725 robberies. In the years since Ramparsad arrived in New York, murders dropped by 30 percent, rapes by 55 percent, and robberies by 56 percent. The NYPD reports similar declines in neighborhoods all over the city.
Though crime is likely a cyclical phenomenon (this would explain why much of the nation has also experienced a decline in violent crime over the past few years), and the NYPD’s move toward community policing and zero tolerance for minor misbehavior has also had a hand in the reduction in violence, it’s impossible to dismiss the notion that immigrants also influenced the trend.
“It didn’t happen because of immigration alone, but it is one of the contributing factors,” says Hiram Monserrate, a former police officer who now represents Corona, Jackson Heights, and Woodside, Queens, on New York’s City Council. “Clearly, where there’s more economic activity and more economic opportunity, there’s less crime.”
Irwine G. Clare, an immigrant rights advocate whose firm, Caribbean Immigrant Services, is based in Jamaica, Queens, adds: “We’re here out of choice—and with choice comes responsibility and sacrifice. When people work, when they own things, when they are entrepreneurs, there is a tendency for crime to go down. New York is a good place to come and study, to come and work. It is not a good place to come and hustle.”
Of course, you could argue that Ramparsad had it easy in New York City. Coming from an English-speaking Caribbean country, he had an advantage in being able to negotiate the system without having to learn a new tongue. Indeed, Ramparsad now has a green card, which entitles him to be here legally, and hopes eventually to become a citizen.
Perhaps Angela Diaz is more typical. She came to the United States at almost the same time as Ramparsad, from her native Colombia. She arrived at age nineteen, along with her mother and her aunt, all three of them clutching tourist visas entitling them to be in the United States for six months. And all three have stayed put, in violation of their visas, setting down roots in the borough of Queens, where they share an apartment. Diaz works in a gift shop in Corona, her mom is a home-health-care worker, and her aunt is a housekeeper who lives with a family on Long Island.
Despite the hardship of not being able to speak English when she arrived (in her first job, at a pizzeria in a mall on Long Island, customers routinely yelled at her and told her to go back to her country), Diaz says things are much tougher now. “At the beginning, no, I wasn’t scared. But now it’s scary, because I don’t have papers.” Diaz and her mother fear that they will be caught and deported.
What’s more, though her command of English is now quite good, without papers Diaz cannot qualify for financial aid for higher education. And she is afraid that, simply by applying to City University, she will put herself, her mother, and her aunt on the radar of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
“I want to go to school, and I can’t,” she says. “I want another job, but I can’t. I need papers to try to go to college. That’s my dream, and I can’t.”
Queens Councilman Monserrate, for one, says Diaz and her family are right to be cautious. “Deportations are at an all-time high,” the councilman says. “But, under the guise of September 11 and homeland security and antiterror efforts, the number-one group of deportees is Latinos. Isn’t that interesting?” Indeed, the INS has been folded into the Department of Homeland Security, sending a not-so-subtle message to immigrants: we’re in business to keep the United States safe and pure, not to welcome the huddled masses.
Diaz would plan for a future in New York if she could establish herself legally. Instead, she is sending her savings to Colombia to buy an apartment there in case she is deported.
“Colombia was better,” she says of her six years in New York. “This city is just too much thinking and nothing in the heart. I thought that everything was going to be easy. But it’s very hard. It’s hard to be an immigrant. But we need jobs. That’s why we’re here.”
Irwine Clare, the immigration advocate, suggests that the country must consider new strategies to help people like Diaz to earn legal status after they arrive. With so many immigrants working in the underground economy—waiting on street corners for low-wage construction work, earning under the table as home-health-care assistants, lining up in the mornings for work cleaning homes and offices—Clare sees the need for what he calls “earned legalization,” a formal process in which people who overstayed their visas or arrived in the United States illegally can gain legal status by demonstrating that they have been productive citizens. Without that, he says, “we say to people, ‘Don’t travel.’”
Clare also calls for smart borders, not closed borders, for reasonable and quick review of immigration petitions (it takes twelve years for the INS to review petitions from legal residents to allow their brothers or sisters into the country, he says.) And he suggests that long-term residents, even if they are illegal, must be given an opportunity to change their immigration status. The waiting room of his office on the second floor of a little run-down building in Jamaica, Queens, is often full of people who have lived in New York for decades, whose children were born here and are American citizens, but who are forced to work at low wages in the subterranean economy because they’re afraid of being deported.
But Clare doesn’t see too many bright signs on the policy horizon. Moves like Real ID, a federal law that would deny immigrants the right to get drivers’ licenses if they are here illegally or have violated the terms of their legal visas, show immigrants that they are no longer welcome in the United States. “As an immigrant, you’re worse than an ax murderer.”
The difficulty, says Gouri Sadhwani, executive director of the New York Civic Participation Project, a union-funded immigrant-rights organization, is that in the post-9/11 world, politicians have pushed Americans to be afraid of immigrants. “The right wing has done a very good job of trying to equate immigrants with terrorists,” she says. “New immigrants today are more brown than they are white, and that is what the real debate is about, though nobody wants to talk about it.”
Clare suggests that immigrants must get involved in politics if they are to change the terms of the debate. “I’m a national of Jamaica,” he says with a smile. “I did not come to the United States for the sun, sea, or sand. I came here to better myself. In bettering myself, I contribute to the economic, social, and political fabric of my community.” But, he adds, “although we throw the biggest party in North America [the West Indian Parade down Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway on Labor Day], although we have a large number of people who attend church, we have not translated that into benefits for our community. We party and we pray, but we don’t politick well.”
Still, the move into politics may take some time. As an El train screeches inbound from Crescent onto Fulton, Ramparsad confides that though he speaks English fluently, plans to become a citizen, and would like to buy the store where he works so he can invest his own money in growing the business, he takes no position on local or national political issues. “I don’t mess with politics and religion,” he says. “That’s too much fuss, too much argument, too much nothing.”
Even so, if current trends continue, he may have to break his vow. In neighborhoods all over the city, including Cypress Hills, immigrants are becoming victims of their own success. Housing prices are rising (a recent survey by the National Low Income Housing Coalition suggested that a person would have to work 132 hours a week in a minimum wage job to be able to afford a market-rent two-bedroom apartment in the city). But instead of being satisfied, landlords are increasingly looking to rip off new immigrants by charging even higher prices, rather than rent to more experienced residents who know what comparable costs are in their communities. Along the main drags in Corona, not far from where Diaz works, many For Rent flyers taped to local lampposts no longer indicate how many rooms an apartment has; instead, they note how many people the landlord will allow in the apartment—an indication that property owners want to capitalize on new immigrants who are willing to band together and live in overcrowded conditions in order to make their way in the city. What’s more, in places like Washington Heights, which has long been an immigrant neighborhood, old timers are finding that their kids are being forced out of the city by the high cost of housing. This ramp-up in rents and housing prices may have a devastating affect on New York’s ability to continue to attract immigrants in the future.
And this, in turn, will have a devastating impact on the city. For immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are key to the future of New York. Without its immigrants, the city would continue to shrink. Without perpetual new arrivals from abroad to replenish the population, New York City would lose its vibrant culture and much of its economic base. Immigrants may need New York, but New York needs immigrants more.
Says Sadhwani, herself an immigrant from Shillong, India: “We need to be able to show new immigrants that power, whether economic, political or social, is theirs to have. The argument is that immigrants will alter our democracy. And, yes, they will—but in a good way.”
this article was
published in The Suburbanization of New York: Is the World's Greatest
City Becoming Just Another Town (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007)