Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Through Immigration and Exodus, A New Melting Pot

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Second of four articles

With six photos, of men playing bocce (NNS7), Manmurat Singh serving guests in Sikh temple (NNS8), Angelica Danks and Jessica Alejandro at America Day Parade (NNS9), Jerry Schneider crossing street (NNS10), Bachan Singh leaning against utility pole (NNS11) and Gyanda “Eric” Shivnarain standing on sidewalk (NNS12); and with biobox, logo, map and two graphics showing declining white population in the nation’s largest cities and demographic factors that distinguish the Melting Pot


c.2004 Newhouse News Service

NEW YORK _ When did Miami become 12 percent Anglo and Chicago a quarter Hispanic? When did the chockablock neighborhoods of Houston come to feel more like a sweaty Queens than an overgrown Galveston? When did Patel and Singh become the Smith and Jones of Edison, N.J.? When did the suburbs of Los Angeles _ until 1960 the whitest big city in America _ become less than a third white? And when did the shining beacons of New York, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles, indeed the whole state of California, places that once drew people from every corner of the nation and the globe, lose their luster at home?

The Melting Pot comprises the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, where most immigrants come in search of their American dream and from which many existing residents depart to chase their dreams in the presumably greener pastures of the New Sun Belt. The Melting Pot is becoming less white and more diverse at a pace without precedent _ social change at warp speed, creating an America where no America, no nation, has gone before.


Jerry Schneider is a buoyant New York character. On his voice mail he promises to return your call “expeditiously.” He opens Kiwanis meetings throughout Queens in Yiddish. His father was a green grocer “before you had to be Korean.” Schneider lived in Flushing before it went Chinese. He lived in Jackson Heights before it became the single most diverse neighborhood in all America. “This doesn’t bother me at all,” he says. “As a matter of fact, I’m learning to speak English as a second language.”

For the last 23 years Schneider has lived behind his little printing business beneath the screech and clatter of the elevated subway on Jamaica Avenue in Richmond Hill. “Now this, the last five years, has gone Indian, totally,” he says. From 60 percent to 28 percent white in a decade.

On 101st Avenue, which used to be best known for John Gotti’s Fourth of July block party, DeVito’s lumber warehouse has been reincarnated as an Indo-Guyanese Hindu temple that is booked for weddings every Friday and Saturday for the next three years.

A few blocks up 101st is Gurudwara Baba Makhan Shah Lobana, the largest Sikh temple in the tri-state area. In an upstairs room, elders of the temple pray over six burlap bags of books, the beginning of a library about Sikh life and learning just arrived from New Delhi.

The next room is empty but for eight suitcases with JFK airport tags, huddled together in the middle of a rich, red carpet. Harbreet Singh Khurana offers to act as a guide to the temple. He is 16. How long has he been in America? “Since Tuesday.”

“Here you don’t feel outside, you have it all,” says C.S. Puri, gesturing on 101st at his neighborhood of nine years. “It’s like being in India. Little India. Little Punjab.”

This is Queens, home of Archie Bunker. In 1970, the year before “All in the Family” went on the air, Queens was 86 percent white, whiter than Utah is today, whiter than Kansas. Well, Jerry Schneider is not in Kansas anymore. Queens is now a third white and nearly half foreign-born.

The borough president, Helen Marshall, is black _ unimaginable to the Bunker mentality. But to look at her is not to know exactly what she is. She looks more than anything like her predecessor, Clare Shulman, a Jewish woman. As it happens, Marshall’s parents were immigrants from Guyana, though unlike Indians from Guyana, blacks from that racially divided country typically move to Brooklyn, not Queens.

Crossing Queens is, in the sheer breadth of humanity encountered, to circumnavigate the globe. “Bring your passport,” says Schneider. But lo, here in this slab of New York that looks like a starter suburb put through a compactor, emigres from lands of ancient antagonisms live in relative peace and forbearance.

“You’ve got enclaves of people, but they all get on the subway together,” says Thomas L. Kearns III, whose family has been in the funeral business hereabouts since 1900, who grew up in Richmond Hill when it was very white and now buries people of every hue and caste.

This is the heart of the American Melting Pot, epicenter of the demographic earthquake that is transforming the racial and ethnic landscape in New York and New Jersey, in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Houston, Miami and Chicago. These are the metro areas and states where the largest, longest and most universal wave of immigration in history keeps breaking against American shores and where an increasingly powerful undertow is carrying existing residents away to a whole other America in the states of the New Sun Belt.

Joseph Salvo, New York City’s chief demographer, has described it as “probably the greatest social experiment in history.” Thrilling, to be sure, but like any good thriller, tinged with uncertainty. No one knows how this story ends.

This is epochal change. That it has not been attended by more fuss or fanfare is a tribute to something _ to the genius of America or its resilience,or to the fact that, after all, it’s a big country.

“The United States is in the midst of a great transition.” So begins “The Future of Us All,” Roger Sanjek’s landmark study, published in 1998, of Elmhurst-Corona, the Queens neighborhoods that went from 98 percent white in 1960 to 10 percent in 2000. “It is in New York’s diverse, changing neighborhoods,” the Queens College anthropologist writes, “that clues about the future of us all may first be glimpsed.”

“It’s a melting pot, absolutely,” Kearns says, then quickly corrects himself. “I guess the more operative word is a tapestry because these people tend to hold onto their identity much more.”

It’s different, he thinks, from the European immigrants who within a generation were intermarrying. “I shouldn’t say that,” he says, self-editing again. “The last wedding I went to was a Sikh girl and an Italian fella.”

This is the America of the most distinct and insular racial, ethnic and religious communities. But it is also, if not a melting pot, with its strong aroma of assimilation, at the very least a melding spot. Nearly three in 10 Latinos and Asians in the United States marry across racial lines, and most of them live in this America, hothouse of the MTV youth and popular culture that prevails wherever Nikes are sold.

It is also, so far, home to an egregious gap in political representation, because so many immigrants can’t or don’t yet vote. A 2003 study by political scientist John Mollenkopf and sociologist John Logan of politics in New York and Los Angeles _ together home to two-fifths of all immigrants _ found that while non-Hispanic whites hold office at far higher rates than their share of the population, and blacks at just about parity, Asians and Latinos are represented at rates reflective of their populations 20 years ago.

This is true in Queens, where of 14 representatives on the New York City Council, only one is Asian and one Latino. In Chicago, 11 of the 50 aldermanic districts have a Hispanic majority, but there are only four Hispanic aldermen.

In America’s past, most immigrants came from Europe. Today only 14 percent of America’s foreign-born are from Europe, and the new diversity is celebrated as a virtue even as old notions of Melting Pot Americanization are condemned as corny or creepy or coercive. And, as never before, this greatest wave of immigration is still building in its fourth decade. New immigrant communities are perpetually refreshed with newer arrivals.

Unlike the polyglot cosmopolitanism of New York and New Jersey, in Texas, California and Florida, immigration is predominantly Latino, and in Texas and California _ the nation’s two largest states _ mostly Mexican. That feels different.

More than half of all newborns in California are Latino, and Latinos will likely outnumber Anglos in Texas by 2020. More than a quarter of all Californians and Texans speak Spanish at home. In both Texas and California, Latinos are about three times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to be poor.

In California, 90 percent of white adults have a high school diploma, but less than half of Latinos _ and in Los Angeles, barely a third. More than 40 percent of whites in L.A. have a college degree, but only 6 percent of Latinos. Latino upward mobility is obscured by the ceaseless flow of ever-poorer newcomers, even as Los Angeles and San Francisco attract only the best-educated whites.

“We are all sitting on a demographic time bomb in which a shrinking, mainly white elite is nearing retirement and ready to be subsidized by more numerous, poorly compensated and younger Mexicans,” Victor David Hanson, a classics professor and fifth-generation farmer in California’s Central Valley, writes in “Mexifornia,” a book he describes as “a melancholy remembrance of a world gone by.”

But where Hanson hears ticking, Richard Rodriguez, the San Francisco essayist, sees clicking: “In this new century, our separate dreams are sliding together. The surfer grows up knowing, without having to learn, chopsticks and Spanish, and the Korean diner on Whittier Boulevard serves tofu burritos.”

The only certainty is that a metamorphosis is well under way.

In 1960, more than half of Californians were born in other states, and fewer than one in 10 were born abroad. By 2000, more Californians were foreign-born _ 26 percent _ than were born elsewhere in America.

In the 1990s, Queens lost as many people to the rest of America as it gained through immigration. In Community District 9, where Jerry Schneider lives, there were 26,000 fewer whites in 2000 than in 1990, but 29,000 more people squeezed into its 3.9 square miles. The place teems _ with new businesses; with people living in attics and basements, sleeping in shifts. Richmond Hill High School is on split sessions.

As Warren Lehrer describes it in “Crossing the Blvd,” an oral and visual history of the new immigrants of Queens (co-authored with Judith Sloan): “For the most part, the choreography of Queens is one of chaotic but polite cohabitation.”

Mary Ann Carey, for years the district director for Queens Community Board 9, says the big irritants are little things, like double parking for cultural and religious events, and wedding parties next door that go on for days. It’s her job to keep worlds from colliding. She shudders recalling the year that Easter, Passover and Pagwa, the Hindu celebration of the triumph of good over evil that brings tens of thousands of people onto the streets of Richmond Hill, coincided.

“Hopefully, it doesn’t happen again in my lifetime.”

The churn has changed Kiwanis. “We haven’t given out a scholarship to a white kid in years. What are you going to do? The kid gets the average, they get the cash,” says Schneider, who is just completing a term as lieutenant governor for western Queens _ 19 clubs in a three-mile radius.

The Richmond Hill and Woodhaven clubs had so few active members they merged. But, just the other side of Forest Park, over by the house they used for the exterior shots on “All in the Family,” the Glendale club is thriving _ 90 members.

Glendale is still a mostly white neighborhood _ for now _ and the tight lines of tidy homes here and in adjoining Middle Village fly more flags per block every day of the year than most any other neighborhood in America flies on the Fourth of July. Since Sept. 11, they’ve had an America Day parade Labor Day weekend.

At his last meeting in Glendale as lieutenant governor, Schneider is accompanied by his successor, Gyanda “Eric” Shivnarain, young, lean and the only Indo-Guyanese in Queens Kiwanis.

Shivnarain is ambitious. He works both appraising real estate and recruiting nurses to the United States from India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. He lost a bid for school board by 15 votes and is determined to win election to the City Council. Shivnarain believes in marrying your own, but living at large.

He sends his daughter to a public high school that is mostly black. “I want her to be familiar with the real world. You get a lot of Jewish girls who are attorneys and not that successful attorneys (because) the very first time they meet a black person face to face is the first time they get a client and they don’t know how to react.”

In preparation for his City Council run, he is reaching out to Sikhs, to whites, to blacks, even though he believes blacks assassinated his father, a successful businessman, back in Guyana.

Shivnarain plans to double the Kiwanis membership in his region, diversifying its appeal and introducing the Glendale club to Pagwa and cricket _ “I intend to infuse them in my culture.”

Schneider has his doubts. “Glendale’s a great club,” he says. “But they do nothing outside their community. In Glendale, they’ll give you their shirts, their arms, their legs, their livers. Go a block outside their community and you can’t get the right time.”

Queens is like that. Walk off 101st and into the Sikh temple. You are invisible. But take off your shoes, wash your hands and don one of the orange head scarves to be found in a basket by the door and, before you know it, you are sitting on an oriental rug being served tea and pooris.

Maha Lakshmi Mandir, the Indo-Guyanese Hindu temple just up the street, was founded in 1994 by Latchman Budhai. When Budhai moved to Richmond Hill in 1976, “there were four of us,” the opening of a new chapter in an incredible saga.

Beginning in the 1840s, after the British ended slavery, indentured servants from India were brought to Guyana to work the sugar plantations. For a century and a half these Indo-Guyanese, today half the population in Guyana, preserved a separate racial and cultural identity. Budhai is determined that it not now be lost in America, though, he says, from the day he arrived in New York, “this was home.”

At night the temple offers classes, in Sanskrit and philosophy, in Hindi dance and music, the last taught by Budhai himself. Next will come a day school.

There are weddings every weekend. At one, in August, the guests include blacks and whites who know the couple _ Reshmini Jadunauth and Vinesh Dharaj _ from the Sanitation Department, where they met on internships. The maid of honor is Nadine Talja, the bride’s best friend from Brooklyn College. Talja, a woman of Italian and Turkish descent, is from Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, though like many Italians from Bensonhurst _ which is increasingly Chinese, Pakistani and Russian _ she has moved to Staten Island.

Lush paintings of Hindu deities adorn the temple walls. “Who is the great Indian artist?” people ask Budhai. Evelio Peret, Budhai tells them. A Cuban. “I found him on the avenue.”

The real mystery of Queens lies not far away amid the bucolic acres of Forest Park _ huge, beautiful and virtually empty. On a glorious summer day, at the park’s exquisitely restored old carousel, there is one man running the ride, one selling hot dogs and two young mothers _ one brown-skinned and one white _ with their babies.

The white woman approaches. She has lived her whole life in Glendale. Her mother is a tokens clerk, her brother a subway engineer. She offers to guide an excursion, and for several hours, baby in tow, provides a whirlwind, screeching, no-holds-barred tour of how all these new immigrants from God knows where have “ruined” Queens.

She is, in fact, surrounded by change and, viewed from above, the map of Queens begins to look like the board in a game of Risk, the fate of your neighborhood hinging on the throw of the dice.

Even Budhai is nostalgic for the Queens he used to know: “To be honest with you, when I moved in it was such a beautiful place, so much more beautiful than now. When I moved in, the neighborhood was completely Italian, Irish and Jewish and it was peaceful and it was so quiet. I was able to leave my door open.”

Schneider, for his part, is ready to cash out of New York. As soon as he gets a good price for his place, he’s gone for Myrtle Beach, S.C., where he will join a Kiwanis, make new friends and golf.

“I’ll tell you what I’ll miss,” he says. “I’ll miss a good bagel and I’ll miss a good hot corned beef sandwich.”


Written by jonathantilove

November 6, 2011 at 2:24 am

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