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Looking forward to the 2007 ASA Annual Meeting in New York…

Four Trends Shaping the Big Apple

by Andrew A. Beveridge, Queens College and the Graduate Center of CUNY

When the demonstrations for immigrant rights flared up around the country last year some members of New York City’s various immigrant groups participated, but the demonstrations here were a faint echo of those in other cities. The simple reason: New York draws substantial numbers of its immigrants from many different countries, continents, languages, and origins, while the majority of immigrants and the vast majority of undocumented immigrants nationwide originate in Mexico. This diverse immigrant population is one of four demographic trends that define New York City’s unique social landscape permeating every facet of life from politics and business to culture and family life.

Immigrant Waves

New York City’s recent population growth was fueled by immigration. Without it, the city’s population would not be near eight million. “Without the immigrants,” Mitchell Moss, professor of urban planning and policy at New York University, has said, “New York City would be Detroit,” a city whose population is lower now than it was in 1930.

During the 1990s, New York continued to draw large numbers of immigrants with a variety of backgrounds, origins, and economic status. Unlike virtually every other immigrant area in the United States, immigrants to New York City come from many different places:

  • Older European countries such as Russia, Italy, and Poland;
  • The Caribbean, including the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Haiti;
  • Asia, including China, Korea, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India;
  • Central and South America, including Mexico, Ecuador, and Colombia.

Some of these groups are better educated than others; some gravitate to certain professions; some are self-employed. The economic status, family status, and ratio of male to female vary widely from group to group. The immigrants today are increasingly segregated from the rest of the population and from other immigrant groups than were immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, and even groups from the same nation often gravitate to different locations.

Mayor Giuliani once remarked that he loved all immigrants, legal or illegal, but in recent years New York City, along with the rest of the country, has reversed that inclusive sentiment. After September 11, 2001, the climate for undocumented immigrants in New York City has worsened. Entering the country—legally or illegally—has become much more difficult, and undocumented immigrants have a harder time living here since they can no longer open bank accounts or obtain driver's licenses. Recent Census data and a study from the Pew Research Center both point to a slowing of immigration since about 1997. Yet, immigrants and their children continue to change New York City as they have since before its founding in 1897.

Racial Segregation and the Black Middle Class

The African Americans in New York City are highly segregated from other groups. Within this segregation, there is a burgeoning black middle class in Southeast Queens as well parts of the Northeast Bronx and recently the beginnings of one in parts of Harlem. Median black households in Queens have higher incomes than whites, according to 2005 Census data. Queens is the only large county in the United States (with a population above 65,000) where this is true. The neighborhoods around St. Albans, Cambria, and Laurelton are especially affluent and virtually 100 percent black, while large and poverty-stricken areas with high concentrations of black population exist in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Though parts of Harlem recently have had an economic rebound, the difference in income between blacks and whites in Manhattan is the highest of any large county in the United States.

Rising Income Inequality

Areas of wealth exist around the boroughs, but New York City and especially Manhattan, remain economically stratified with income inequality dwarfing that of most third world countries. Neighbors and peers of Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the Upper East Side zip code of 10021 supplied the most political donations to both the Bush and Kerry campaigns in 2004 of any zip code in the country. The rich folks constituting the top 20 percent of Manhattan’s population have about 50 times the annual income (more than $350,000 on average) of the poor folks in the bottom 20 percent. Income inequality within the very small geographic area of Manhattan is a growing trend, and it seems there is little New York City can do about it.

Indeed, recent changes in rent stabilization laws have meant that much of the Upper West Side (the area extending north of Lincoln Center through Columbia to about 122nd Street west of Central Park and Morningside Drive), which has the highest concentration of Manhattan sociologists, has seen soaring incomes as the middle class (here defined as those with household incomes below $175,000) can no longer afford the area. Unregulated apartments in Manhattan fetch about $1,000 per square foot to purchase, and about three-quarters of rental apartments of any size rent for more than $2,000 per month. The recent sale of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper village (two connected post-war middle class developments with about 11,000 apartments) means that the trend towards unregulated apartments will accelerate. These taxabated developments rent two bedroom apartments to current tenants for $1,500 per month and to new tenants, when the current ones leave, for well over $3,000 per month.

Starting salaries at Wall Street law firms are nearing $150,000 per year, while partners take home several million dollars. This year, bonuses in Wall Street investment banks, brokerages, and hedge funds are expected to set a new record. Indeed, there are recent reports of bidding wars for apartments that cost as much as $10 to $20 million, while $400,000 Ferraris are in short supply.

Some of the truly affluent families maintain at least one domicile in Manhattan, and Manhattan is in the midst of a baby boom fueled mostly by non-Hispanic white families. Indeed, the median income of such families, who have a child below five years old, is about $285,000.

Middle Class Exodus

Many of the middle and upper middle class are moving outside of New York City into the New York metropolitan area, now farther from the city than in the past. The movement of people and jobs undoubtedly increased in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, but the trend began in earnest after World War II, especially among the affluent who sought employment, housing, city services, and improved quality of life outside of city limits.

New York City is increasingly the home of the foreign-born, as well as native-born and foreign-born African Americans and Hispanics. Recently the number of African Americans has decreased, and without immigration it would have decreased even more. Such residents, in fact, are more often in need of education, decent demonhealth care, reasonable employment, public transportation, etc. While the wealthy take care of themselves and the middle class leave New York City, new residents and those on the bottom become the core recipients of vital city services and are those most affected by changes to them. Despite its disproportionate tax burden, the city struggles to fulfill these needs. Recent economic policies (e.g., the Campaign for Fiscal Equity school funding case, the abolition of the commuter tax, and the big development plans for Ground Zero and for the West Side) contribute to the impression that city residents and their needs are subordinate to the interests of suburban and upstate residents.

Mayor Bloomberg proudly promotes his city as “a luxury product” and seems unconcerned about the loss of the middle class. But he is really speaking about Manhattan (excluding most of Harlem, East Harlem, Washington Heights, and Chinatown) and neighborhoods in the other Boroughs that are becoming Manhattanesque (e.g., Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, and Astoria and Long Island City in Queens). The areas where the poor live—primarily minorities or immigrants or both—are also not considered.

Andrew A. Beveridge is Professor of Sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center of CUNY. This article draws on his analyses that have appeared in the New York Times (for whom he has consulted since 1993) and from his more than 50 columns on New York trends written for the Gotham Gazette (an online publication of Citizens Union Foundation). See