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Mayor Bloomberg: Right on Neighborhoods, Right on Immigration

Julia Vitullo-Martin, January 2008

Without its immigrants New York wouldn't be New York—and, what's more, never would have been. Ours is the ultimate immigrant city—founded by immigrants in the 17th century, sustained by immigrants over nearly four centuries, and flourishing today in part because over three million immigrants are contributing to the economy and to the rebuilding of neighborhoods. That New York is also the country’s wealthiest city is no accident.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

For Mayor Bloomberg, the contract between the city and its immigrants can't be denied. As he said in his Jan. 17 State of the City speech, New York gives them unlimited opportunities, and these families help make New York the nation's economic engine, its financial hub, its fashion center, its media mecca, and its cultural capital." And he's not just talking about legal immigrants. He has testified repeatedly that without its half-million or so illegal immigrants, New York's economy would be a shell of itself.

In advocating virtually open immigration, Bloomberg follows in a long line of aggressively open-minded New York administrators, beginning with the profit-oriented Dutch West India Company. "They favored admitting any settlers who would enrich the colony," says Hasia R. Diner, professor of American-Jewish History at New York University. When Gov. Peter Stuyvesant wanted to drive out the Jews, the company forced him to let them stay, noting they were good for trade. "That kind of toleration then led to real toleration. Their discourse was much like the pro-immigration arguments today: the immigrants will work hard, pay taxes, improve the whole society." And, of course, they did.

NEIGHBORHOOD DEVELOPMENT
All over urban America neighborhoods declined after World War II, as urban dwellers moved out and very few new residents moved in. But things started turning around in the 1970s, when immigrants picked up the slack, choosing and revitalizing areas abandoned by Americans.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Immigrants saved many American cities, but perhaps none so clearly as New York. Fighting off bankruptcy in 1975, the city government soon found itself the reluctant owner of some 400,000 housing units forfeited by their owners, who refused to pay the steep property taxes. Many New Yorkers, in their despair at what seemed to be the city's inexorable decline, didn't see that their saviors were at hand. Chinese, especially from Hong Kong, and other Asians moved into Lower Manhattan; Dominicans and other Caribbeans spread through the Bronx and northern Manhattan; the Russians flooded Brighton Beach in Brooklyn; the Irish returned to northern Manhattan; Bengalis, Turks, Albanians, Uzbeks, Romanians moved to Queens. Immigrants are now even rejuvenating sections of the least urban borough, Staten Island.

What if they hadn't chosen New York? Brighton Beach would surely be as troubled financially as neighboring Coney Island; the South Bronx would have continued to burn; Flushing would have become a ghost town.

It was Flushing where the mayor, with a fine sense of neighborhood, chose to deliver his State of the City speech. A jumble of restaurants, bakeries, and cultural institutions, Flushing offers every kind of Asian food—high-end seafood in elegant settings, bubble tea cafes and fried noodles from street vendors, not to mention Vietnamese pho and Korean barbecue. Now home to 177,000 people, Flushing has minuscule commercial and residential vacancy rates. It is the impact of intense economic demand from all quarters that has neighborhood activists worried, not abandonment and decay.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

What a difference a few decades make. In the 1960s those same storefronts were boarded up, the sidewalks in front of them empty. The area was so derelict it was designated in the city's 1975 federal community development block grant application as eligible for urban renewal money. Then came the Chinese immigrants, first in small numbers, then in great waves, through the 1980s and 1990s.

With Flushing's economic success as proof of the pudding, Mayor Bloomberg argued confidently, "Keeping New York City and America at the front of the pack begins with an openness to new energy, meaning immigration, and new ideas, meaning innovation. That's how I built my business, and that's the approach we've brought to a city government that was insular and provincial, and married to the conventional."

IMMIGRANT BUSINESSES
Because New York welcomed immigrants—both legal and illegal—its economy expanded exponentially. Immigrants opened new businesses, filled vacant jobs and moved into declining neighborhoods. Such people form "extended clans," wrote Nathan Glazer and Pat Moynihan in Beyond the Melting Pot.

They capture, and sometimes even invent, markets. Jewish diamond cutters, Korean green grocers, Chinese restaurateurs, Russian massage therapists, Irish bartenders and Greek coffee-shop owners aren't only stereotypes. They are the reflection of a real economic phenomenon. Immigrants sell goods and services to their own group and, once successful, to everybody else. Armed with little capital, they start labor-intensive businesses that employ friends and neighbors. The neighborhoods they settle in are decrepit, the commercial streets tired, the infrastructure overtaxed, the schools deplorable, but all that will change when immigrants reach a critical number and make an area their own.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

"We've repeatedly seen immigrant succession in New York's economy," says Mitchell Moss, professor of planning and public policy at New York University. "They create businesses, especially outside Manhattan. They’re willing to work long hours, investing their own human capital. And it's not just entry-level. You can't have an advanced service economy or a high-tech information economy without immigrants."

WHAT’S NEXT
Bloomberg, however, is looking farther afield—at New York's competitors abroad, the other world cities that hope to take New York's place at the top. "We are in a competitive struggle. And the stakes couldn't be higher," he warned in Flushing. "Over the past year, I've seen cities from London to Paris to Shanghai pushing the frontiers of progress. They are doing everything they can to attract the best and the brightest in every field: medicine; engineering; construction; and more. These cities are not putting up barriers; they're not looking inward or blaming someone else. They're not afraid of the new or the different, and we shouldn't be either. If we are, we won't have a future."

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Bloomberg has spent six years strengthening New York's economy, rezoning barren land to make it developable, reforming the building code, and reducing barriers to construction. But there’s one barrier to New York’s competitive stance that seems to grow ever higher—and that’s federal immigration policy. "No public policy is more important to cities than federal immigration policy," argues Mitchell Moss. "The immigration act of 1965 opened up the country again and did more for cities than all the HUD bureaucrats put together or all the money spent on federal housing, transportation and welfare."

But today federal immigration policy coupled with national security policy is preventing highly skilled and educated workers from coming here temporarily or permanently. Indeed, entry requirements in the U.S. are the "worst in the world," said Jonathan Tisch, chairman of NYC and Company and CEO of Loews Hotel last fall. Last spring, Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft, warned that restrictions on the number of skilled workers allowed to enter the U.S. put the country's competitiveness at risk.

New York wants the best and the brightest from all over the world. Only if it gets them will New York be able to stand up to London.

 

January 2008
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“I'm not a partisan guy. I am a mayor who has to deal with 500,000 people who are integral to our economy but are undocumented.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg
 
“Diversity began on the first day of New York's settlement. From day one the Dutch were not interested in creating a homogeneous community, but in trading. The Dutch famously heard more than 18 languages being spoken here in the 1630s, when there were fewer than 1,000 people. It was not a homogeneous society, and it still is not. In 2000, New York had 2.9 million foreign-born residents. Even though London claims to be the most diverse city, it has only 2.2 million foreign-born residents—and they count people from Wales and Scotland!”
Prof. Kenneth T. Jackson, Columbia University
 
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