The constant shifts in New York's neighborhoods, housing patterns, zoning policies, and visual appearance has always fascinated me. That flux can be rendered impressionistically by observing the feel and look of the city. But those changes also can be understood, in a more objective manner, by closely examining demographic and other urban data and news.
For example, scanning an interactive map "Visualizing a Changing Region" created by the CUNY Mapping Service, I learned how the racial and ethnic composition of New York neighborhoods changed from 2000-2010. What the maps showed was that integration has advanced in some New York neighborhoods while, at the same time, segregation has been reinforced in others.
Today, Bedford Stuyvesant and Harlem have many more white residents -- Central Harlem's white population has grown from 2 percent to close to 10 percent, while its black population has gone down by 10 percent -- and other Brooklyn neighborhoods like Fort Greene and Clinton Hill have had an influx of white residents. There are blocks where black pluralities in 2000 have now been replaced by white pluralities. So far there has been little racial tension on streets where blacks and whites share the same commercial and residential space.
The South Bronx of my boyhood, however, is still dominated by minorities, and there are few whites to be seen. Despite the fact that whites are moving into a few black neighborhoods in New York, it remains, according to a number of studies, the second most segregated city for African Americans -- topped only by Milwaukee. There is clearly no interracial utopia in the offing (the 2010 census found 85 percent of the city's census blocks had the same predominant racial or ethnic group that they had in 2000), but modest demographic changes have occurred and will continue to.
Even the Upper East Side, which one thinks of as a privileged, insulated world inhabited only by the white upper and upper-middle class, has become more integrated, with 6,500 departing white residents replaced by more than 4,000 Asian and close to 2,200 Hispanics. The newcomers are, no doubt, as wealthy as those they have replaced, a sign, perhaps, that while we are heading for a more integrated city, it will not be a more equitable one.
Although housing construction surged in the city in 2012, it pales in comparison to the boom years 2005-2008. But there have been proposals for more massive developments; some are already at the point of starting, while others are only in the planning stage. An example of the former is the Seward Park Extension, just south of the Williamsburg Bridge on Delancey Street, an urban renewal project that has been a bone of angry contention between local residents and the city for over 45 years.
In the ‘60s the eight-block area was cleared of tenements that housed nearly 2,000 low-income residents. Some sites were developed, but the rest has stood moribund as an immense parking lot. Finally, after all these years, an agreement between different community groups has been reached, and the City Council has approved a plan, not for an egregious mega-mall, but for housing low and medium income families and senior citizens. One thousand units will be built and 500 of those will be "affordable." There will also be retail space, a new school and public green space. One can only be exasperated and enraged that it took more than four decades to work it out, but it sounds like an ideal solution.
One project in the planning stage is Mayor Bloomberg's proposal to rezone a large area east of Grand Central Station, where the average age of the buildings is 73 years. He wants to see taller buildings in order that New York can be more competitive with other cities for office tenants.
Opposition has been mounted by organizations like the Municipal Art Society who wish to balance Bloomberg's desire for more office space and striking looking skyscrapers with the necessity for public space, transportation infrastructure, and preserving historic buildings like the Yale Club. Given Bloomberg's commitment to rezoning the area, the chances of his plan being approved are very high. The only question is how much his lack of sensitivity to the aesthetics and human needs of New York neighborhoods will be constrained by his opponents.
The Brooklyn housing market shows continued strength, and European, Latin American, and Asian billionaires have made the city one of their favorite places to buy apartments. I doubt if the fact that wealthy tourists, billionaires and rich people in general find New York an ideal place to live for brief periods, leaves much of an impact on ordinary New Yorkers' daily lives. Still while they live the "good life," 1.7 million New Yorkers live in poverty -- many working full-time in the food industry.
We can always select statistics and news items to serve our view of the city. If we are positive about New York, we can emphasize the fact that while the city's incarceration rate has fallen well below the U.S. average, New York has become the safest city In America. But if we want to see the city in a dark light, all you have to do is look at the statistics on the city's income inequality, and poverty. Given the nature of national politics I see little possibility of the latter aspects of New York life ever-changing.
Leonard Quart can be reached at