In NYC Suketu Mehta Sees That Immigration Works

Suketu Mehta turns his eye on the city of New York and confirms that immigration is what keeps it fresh, alive, and interesting.

The writer E.B. White famously defined, in 1948, the three kinds of New Yorkers: the native, the commuter, and the person from elsewhere who comes in quest of something.

Today there are three different kinds of New Yorkers: the people who act as if they were born here, who have a sense of entitlement about the city even if they arrived here after college; the people who are here and wish to be elsewhere, so toxic has it become for them; and the collection of virtual New Yorkers all over the world, in cities from Sarajevo to Santiago, who wish they were living in New York. These are the three New York states of mind, and what they have in common are longing and a quantity of delusion. It’s a city of dreamers and insomniacs.

What makes New York special? New Yorkers are convinced of its specialness—but Toronto is more diverse, London is bigger, Washington is more politically powerful. So why does New York think it’s the capital of the world?

Because it says so, comprende? You got a problem with that?

From my window in Manhattan I can see the hole in the skyline where the World Trade Center used to be. I live in the crosshairs of every wacko and terrorist in the world. They knew what they were doing on 9/11 when two of the four planes they hijacked made their way to New York. When the crazies want to register their objections to America, Christianity, capitalism, dance music, whatever, they keep coming back to New York. We live in this city like a tongue between teeth. What happens if a dirty bomb goes off in Times Square? Nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t wanna die there.

But the terror threats do not stop people from wanting to move here from all over the planet: two out of three New Yorkers are immigrants or their children. As I was, when at 14, I moved from Bombay to Jackson Heights, in the borough of Queens, the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the U.S.A. My neighbors were Indians and Pakistanis, Jews and Muslims, Haitians and Dominicans—people who had been killing each other just before they got on the plane. But here they live next door to their ancient enemies, and their kids date each other. They still may not like each other, but they do not attack and riot; they’ve agreed to suffer their neighbors. It’s been years since there was any major ethnic conflict in the city. Because no one ethnicity dominates, no one community gets blamed if there’s trouble or if the economy goes south.

People often explain the problems in European cities by citing unemployment or inequality. But New York today is one of the most unequal cities in America. In 2007, according to a study by the Fiscal Policy Institute, 1 percent of New Yorkers earned 45 percent of its income (in 1980 this single percent earned 12 percent of income). That works out to an average of $3.7 million a year for the city’s top 34,500 households. The average daily income of this group is greater than the average annual income of the city’s bottom 10 percent.

So why would people still come to try their luck in this tough place? Over the next couple of decades, the city’s population is slated to grow by another million, mostly immigrants. Is it opportunity or delusion that draws them?

They come because any newcomer stepping off the plane at JFK can find a place in the hierarchy of New York. If you look at a New York City restaurant, for example, the chef might be French, the people washing dishes might be Mexican, the hostess might be Russian, the taxi driver bringing the customers might be Pakistani, the owner might be British. They are not all equal. They earn different rates. But they work together, to get food to hungry people. It’s like the Hindu caste system: it’s not equitable, but everybody has a place.

What New York demonstrates, the lesson it has for its fellow rich cities such as Amsterdam or Paris or Tokyo, is this: Immigration works. The city can use its immigrants, even the illegal ones. “Although they broke the law by illegally crossing our borders,” observed Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “our city’s economy would be a shell of itself had they not, and it would collapse if they were deported.” Each immigrant is an epic in the making. Enticed here by the founding myth of the city, he is seeking to escape from history, personal and political. For him, New York is the city of the second chance.

More from the "The City" series:

Wole Soyinka on LagosJan Morris salutes LiverpoolJunot Diaz savors TokyoAntonio Skarmeta reflects on ChileP.J. O'Rourke's splendid junkyard in Toledo, OhioKana Makiya rediscovers Baghdad

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Suketu Mehta is the author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.