Martin Luther King Day should be an ideal time for politicians to go high, as Michelle Obama once put it, but Eric Adams decided instead to go low — very low. “Go back to Iowa!” snarled the Brooklyn borough president and New York City mayoral candidate in a screed that has propelled into national fame. “You go back to Ohio! New York City belongs to the people that [were] here and made New York City what it is.”
Adams’ vulgar opposition of natives who belong vs. foreigners who don’t, locals vs. outsiders, and black vs. white (Iowa is over 92% Caucasian) earned him justified comparisons to our presidential divider-in-chief. But not only does his message ignore the racial and ethnic churn that has always defined Gotham, it wildly distorts the multicultural reality of New York’s dramatic transformation over the past two decades.
Yes, New York City has witnessed the arrival of crowds of college-educated newcomers, most, though not all, of them white since 1980. They came because that’s where they could find the most desirable jobs in finance, marketing, media, the arts and, more recently, tech. And, yes, these workers needed places to live, which has put tremendous pressure on the city’s housing market and produced galling stories of rent hikes, displacement and homelessness.
But here’s the thing Adams and the gentrification-obsessed ignore: Most of New York’s new arrivals are not people who had the bad luck of being born in Des Moines or Dayton; they’re from abroad. Domestic migration into New York from within the U.S. has been declining over the past eight years. It’s international migration and a rising birth to death ratio that boosted the city’s population numbers to record highs.
The Department of City Planning estimates that between 2010 and 2018, the city saw a net 768,306 New Yorkers leave the city, while 479,960 arrived from foreign shores. Thirty-seven percent of New York City residents are foreign-born. That number also applies to Brooklyn, Adams’ home borough and ground zero for Gotham gentrification.
You would never guess from Adams’ rant that, taken as a whole, New York City is actually more diverse than it was 25 years ago. In 1990, 43% of the five boroughs were white, according to the Census Bureau. By 2010, the figure was only 33%. During those same years, the city’s population increased by a full one million. As it happens, most of those new arrivals were not white, but people of color, largely from Asia and Latin America.
The trend toward greater diversity appears throughout the boroughs and in many unexpected neighborhoods. Manhattan, the city’s wealthiest borough, was 49% non-Hispanic white in 1990; by 2016, it was 47%.
True, legendarily black areas, most notably Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, have gotten whiter. The white population of central Harlem has increased a whopping 2,000% since 1990. But 1.2% of those living there at the time were white, which means the nabe can claim only an unremarkable 13.5% Caucasian population. More striking is the 23% of the neighborhood that is now Hispanic.
Bed-Stuy’s shift is more noticeable; the area is now a little less than 50% black, down from 80% in 1980. Midwestern invaders are far from the whole story, though. Many of those comprising the 25% of the population that is white are Hasidic Jews. Meanwhile, Hispanics have grown to be a full 20% of residents.
Of course, for neighborhood veterans, these changes are big enough to evoke a sense of disorientation and loss. Attachment to home or to places we have known well is a human impulse, shared by both black folks in Bed-Stuy and white Trump voters in dying industrial cities. We want to keep places and people as they are — or were.
There are lingering questions about how much and how fast change should come to New York. But by being here, Gothamites have made a commitment to a multicultural existence. If only the demagogic politicians in charge would let them.
This piece originally appeared at New York Daily News
Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. She is the author of the book, The New Brooklyn. This piece was adapted from City Journal. Follow her on Twitter here.
Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for United Way of New York City