Historically, New York City was woven from a variety of ethnic fabrics. And while the descendants of the city’s first foreign settlers—mostly groups of Dutch, German, Irish, Italian and Chinese—may have been born in America, their allegiance to their roots is evident in our culture, which is an ode to diversity.
Decades later, fresh waves of immigrants continue to arrive in troves. The immigration reform of the 1960’s, which was designed to welcome those from around the world (and not just Europe), opened the door for this mass movement. As a result, our nation’s ethnic patchwork—and that of NYC especially—has changed dramatically. Today, roughly 36% of the city’s population is foreign born, so many of our residents’s ancestries trace back to different lands. In fact, New York City is the only place in the U.S. where each of four major racial and ethnic groups accounts for at least 10% of the population.
Though the dream for many is to become a New Yorker through and through, few are willing to shed the vestiges of their homelands. Food, specialized products and services are integral comforts to immigrants, who either bring or import these goods. In a way, New York City neighborhoods are defined by ethnicity more than by zip code or the names of streets within.
In Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and Astoria, Queens, the sounds of the Arab Middle East pour out onto the streets. On Friday nights in Bay Ridge, the mosques are often so packed that those who arrive fashionably late can be spotted praying in doorways. Meanwhile, the once fledgling neighborhood of Kensington is rapidly growing into a bastion of all things Bangladeshi. More than 80 Bangladeshi-owned businesses in the area provide staples such as atta flour (used to make South Asian flatbreads such as naan), and serve dishes such as pulao to the local community.
Once an Italian stronghold, the famed Queens neighborhood of Corona is quickly becoming more Latin in flavor. Among those flocking to Corona from Mexico, the Latin Caribbean and Central America, Ecuadorians are leading the way in strides. A similar ethnic transformation is taking place in Staten Island, where a burgeoning Sri Lankan community is comforted by restaurants such as New Asha. In Briarwood and Jamaica Hills, Queens over 30% of the local population is of direct Filipino origin. The smells and sounds of sizzling sisig are now commonplace in the area, now dubbed “Little Manila.” In Carroll Gardens, the French have made their mark through bilingual schools, artisanal shops and Bastille Day celebrations.
Could this unique mix of locals and cultures from around the world exist in such harmony elsewhere? Perhaps, but it doesn’t seem to. New Yorkers’ minds are as open to new ideas as our bellies are to new foods. As a city, I’d like to think we’re more excited than suspicious of other peoples. Plus, there’s a distinct advantage in having the world come to you rather than traveling thousands of miles to sample it.
Image courtesy of Black Maps