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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 February, 2005, 11:12 GMT
The changing face of New York City
By Damian Fowler
New York

The New York mayor's office has just issued a report called "The Newest New Yorkers", which paints a detailed and complex picture of the metropolis at the beginning of the 21st century.

New York
Some of the biggest immigrant groups are from China and Jamaica
Frances Sandoval's eyes sparkle when she speaks, even though she knows her English is less than perfect. "In New York, English is number one," she says with a smile.

Her voice, with its lilting Spanish accent, reverberates down the empty corridors of this school in Manhattan's Washington Heights district. 

It is just before six o'clock on Monday evening, the children are gone and the adults, mostly parents, are arriving clutching their own schoolbooks.

They are here for their daily three-hour language class. A tough task on top of a long working day. 

Frances and her classmates are recent arrivals from the Dominican Republic. Over the last decade, Dominicans have become the largest immigrant group in New York City, just over 13% of the foreign-born population.

For more than a century, immigrants to the new world have been struggling to conjugate the verbs of the English language. 

"I want, he buys, we work, they dream." 

English is a lynchpin and a bridge to a better life.

Changing face

Most of these new arrivals are, as ever, from the poorest countries. In addition to the Dominicans, the biggest immigrant groups in New York now hail from China, Guyana, Jamaica, Ecuador and Bangladesh. 

Having arrived in record numbers over the past 10 years, these people are here to stay and they are changing the face of the city for good.

New York absorbs its newcomers.  It gets under your skin

Sitting at the back in the English class, I was amazed to hear what people liked most about life in America.

"You can buy a lot of food for a little money," said Frances.

"Washing machines," said Zenya.

"The electricity stays on all the time," said Jorge.

Walt Whitman, the great 19th century poet, said, "Here is not merely a nation, but a teeming nation of nations." That was the truth of it at the turn of the 20th century, and 100 years later, it still is.

Identity absorbed

New York absorbs its newcomers.  It gets under your skin.

Busy street in Manhattan, New York
As a famous immigration city, New York is constantly evolving

Despite all the aggravations of living in the controlled chaos of this city, an urban ingénue very quickly identifies himself as a New Yorker. 

After more then ten years of living here, I know I do.

Recently I moved to Astoria in the borough of Queens. According to the new report published by City Hall, Astoria is one of the largest immigrant neighbourhoods in the city.

More than 50% are foreign-born. I suppose that includes me.

The story of Astoria dramatically captures the demographic changes happening all across New York. 

When I tell someone where I live, they invariably mention a favourite Greek restaurant. That is because Astoria is a predominantly Greek and Italian neighbourhood.

There was certainly no doubt about that on 4 July last year, when the heart of Astoria exploded with Greek flags. 

The cops looked bemused. After all, 4 July is Independence Day and the stars and stripes are supposed to be on display.

What was happening?

Well, the answer was easy. Greece had just won the Euro 2004 championship.

But the area is changing before my eyes. 

'Newest New Yorkers'

On my street, there is a Bangladeshi sari shop and an arts centre where I see local children learning to play the tabla drums. 

There is a tiny Colombian restaurant at the corner. It is easy to spot because it has a satellite dish on top big enough to receive images from Mars. In actual fact, it is there because it beams in South American football games which attract a lively crowd of fans.

Jewellery store in Chinatown, New York
People from across the world bring different cultures to the city

That is the story of New York. The older wave of immigrants making way for the next who keep arriving, despite what happened on September 11, 2001 and despite the stories of harsher immigration law.

The newest New Yorkers are changing the composition of this mosaic city again. In 1970, it was mostly a white city, more than 60% white. 

Thirty years on, the white population is down to just 35%.

The near future shows, for the first time, no single ethnic group with a majority.

What that means is not clear, but the new report reveals New York City to be as much a process as a place.

For now, my Sunday night offers a quick snapshot of the way things really are.

I decided to order some food with my good friend and room-mate Evgeny, a Bulgarian who came here 11 years ago. He is now an American citizen, but that is another story.

Leafing through the myriad menus to hand, Brazilian, Egyptian, Greek, Italian, and so on, all these restaurants within a few blocks, we decided to order Mexican.

After some telephone confusion over the address, the enchiladas finally arrived, delivered by a gangly, energetic young man.

It seems he could not speak a word of English, but I am willing to bet he is learning.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 3 February, 2005, at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



SEE ALSO:
The new Americans
02 Apr 04 |  Americas


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