Sunday, May 29, 2005

Brooklyn's technicolor dream quilt

The new face of New York City is taking shape among the graceful Victorian houses and stout apartment buildings of Ditmas Park, Brooklyn.

This softly shaded patch of Flatbush is one of the city's most polyglot and polychrome, what city demographers like to call a melting-pot neighborhood, because no one ethnic or racial group is dominant and many are represented. Moreover, the neighborhood's population of 8,243 is not cut up into distinct ethnic swatches like Williamsburg in Brooklyn - where Hasidim, Italians, Poles, Latinos and white bohemians live in distinct pockets - but is significantly intermingled. Residents proudly reel off a multitude of races and nationalities that flank their porches and backyards, and interviews with two dozen residents indicate that the ethnic mix is not merely cosmetic, it is thorough and strong.

The outlook for such neighborhoods, according to a new analysis by the Department of City Planning, is bullish. Data from the 2000 census indicates there were 220 melting-pot census tracts among the city's 2,217; in 1970 there were 70. In 2000, they were found in neighborhoods like Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Flushing in Queens. The ranks are growing as a result of immigration and the apparent comfort level long-rooted New Yorkers feel in cosmopolitan milieus.

"People are living side by side in a way that 100 years from now we may take for granted," said Joseph J. Salvo, director of the City Planning Department's population division in a speech last month at New York University's Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. New Yorkers, he added, are more ready to say, "I'm going to live next to the guy even though he's five shades different than me."

In part, this is the result of a wave of newcomers from two dozen countries since 1965, when a revised immigration law began to shape the city into one in which immigrants or their American-born offspring account for 55 percent of the populace. The decline of crime, the city's liberal tradition, and the sheer habit of encountering different cultures on a daily basis has made New Yorkers more open.

"Anybody who rides the subway is going to have a multicultural experience," said John H. Mollenkopf of the City University of New York. "One senses that people who can't handle that sort of thing moved out of New York."

I thought the "melting pot" metaphor represented assimilation - as in WASPy American culture is what everyone else gets absorbed into. The new metaphor for multiculturalism is the "salad bowl". The kind of neighborhood described here sounds a lot more like a salad bowl than a melting pot.


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