By 2010 one of three of New Yorkers were immigrants, something that becomes clear to me every time I take a subway, where a third of my fellow passengers are Asian, or patronize a small business like a dry cleaners, a corner grocery, deli or diner, or the local barber shop. And if we add the second generation, the immigrant progeny, the number is 55 percent. I’m including myself in that group, since my parents came from the Soviet Union in the 1920s, settling in Bronx neighborhoods filled with working class Jewish immigrants.
The great influx of immigrants in the late ‘60s differed in many ways from the Eastern European Jews and Italians who immigrated at the turn of the 20th century. The new immigrants have come mainly from Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia, and they are an unusually diverse assemblage with no single group dominating. It makes New York very different from cities like Chicago and Houston, where Mexicans are the overwhelmingly dominant group.
I discover this and much more by reading the perceptive, lucid essays in "One Out of Three: Immigrant New York in the Twenty-First Century," edited by Nancy Foner (Columbia University Press). The essays inform me that in 2010 about half of the adult Russian and Indian immigrants had a college degree and they do relatively well (though language can be an obstacle) in the New York economy, but only about 5 percent of Mexican immigrants had college degrees, and only 4 out of 10 completed high school.
They have not been a drain on the city economy, but play a central role in the resurgence of city neighborhoods that were in a state of decay, like Brighton Beach and even Jackson Heights. In immigrant neighborhoods like Flushing, the number of businesses has grown faster than in other sections of the city. The book makes clear that the immigrants "contribute to the city’s overall economic output in nearly exact correlation to their share of the population." In 2009, they were 36 percent of the city’s population, and accounted for 35 percent of the city’s economic output, while also being 45 per cent of the work force.
The immigrant group that I want to focus on are Africans, most of whom are from West Africa. Black African immigrants are one of the fastest-growing segments of the US immigrant population, doubling in size between 2000 and 2010. Seven of 10 speak English very well, and nearly half are naturalized citizens. The Bronx is home to the largest concentration of African immigrants in the city, well over 70,000 settling in neighborhoods like Parkchester, Highbridge, Tremont and Morrisania, ethnic enclaves in minority neighborhoods.
In the last 15 years or so, large numbers of immigrants from several Francophone West African countries have moved to Harlem. The fulcrum is a vital Senegalese community around West 116th Street that has created a vibrant neighborhood known as Little Senegal, which is packed with inviting restaurants, mosques, electronics stores, and numerous Senegalese-named clothes and hair care shops.
When interviewed the Senegalese immigrants speak of desiring to return, but there is a stagnant economy back home, and the possibility of social mobility lies in New York, even if it doesn’t come easy. There is also tension between the ethos of the city, and their traditional familial life style. Many African immigrants are wary of being lumped with African-Americans, both fearing becoming victims of white prejudice, and generally not identifying with them, since, for Africans, ethnicities and clans, rather than race, determine identity.
Nigerians, coming from one of the wealthiest and the most populated of African countries, are the largest contemporary African immigrant group in the US. Many who emigrate here are educated, and about 40 percent of Nigerian Americans hold Bachelor’s degrees, 17 percent hold Master’s, and 4 percent hold Doctorates, more than any other ethnic group, including white Americans.
A recent film, "Mother of George," from Nigerian-raised director Andrew Dosunmu, captures the world of Nigerian immigrants from the inside. It depicts a newly married couple who have a small restaurant in Brooklyn and a desire for a child, a goal continually pushed by the husband’s controlling, tradition-bound mother, who wants a male grandchild named after her dead husband. The film provides a richly textured snapshot of a coherent immigrant culture, but at its center is the painful, overly high-pitched personal drama resulting from the conflict between tradition and autonomy, and culture and individual identity.
That conflict has always been part of the immigrant experience, no different for Nigerians than for Italians and Jews more than a century earlier. Only time will tell how it will be resolved.
Leonard Quart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org