Diverse Culture of New York City

New York City’s people make up about half the population of the larger New York State, most of which belong to major ethnic groups – about 52% are white, though non-Hispanic whites are not in the majority overall. Blacks count for around 29% of the people, and Asians 7%. Hispanic people of all races make up 24% and about 1 million people belong to other racial groups; which all makes New York city a varied, cosmopolitan and rich cultural environment.

A sizeable section of New York’s population is still made up of foreign immigrants, around 28%, it is estimated that in the early 1990s the greater amount of immigrants were from the Dominican Republic – around 25,000 – and most of them went to live in Washington Heights. There has also been a large migration of West African blacks since the late 1990s, mostly settling in Harlem, New York’s most famous African American region; around the same time the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn experienced an influx of 20,000 citizens from the former Soviet Union. Similar numbers of people from Taiwan, China and Hong Kong, came to live in Chinatown, pushing the borders of the area northward towards the East Village.

The federal ‘Green Card Lotteries’ have also been responsible for a large amount of Polish and Irish immigrants; the Irish live all over the city but many move to their traditional area in New York, the Riverdale section of the Bronx; and the new Polish citizens mostly settle in Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn.

The East Village has seen over 5000 middle-class, young Japanese move into the area, along with many Japanese restaurants. The Japanese are attracted by the comparatively low rent and the strength of the Yen against the dollar, they can sometimes be seen adopting certain New York styles of dress such as Hip Hop and even large Afro hair styles, which some may find amusing.

New York has representatives from the far reaches of the globe, if there were people from other planets they’d probably come settle in the city too; it is a truly diverse city with all the cultural liveliness you’d expect from such a place. New York has the largest Chinese population in the US, the largest Asian Indian representation; the largest Jewish population in the world other than Israel; more native Greeks than anywhere outside Athens; more native Russians than anywhere outside Moscow; and maybe (no one can be sure) more native Irish outside the United Kingdom. Hundreds of thousands of Caribbean-born residents attend the Caribbean Day parade through Brooklyn on Labor Day. It is difficult to gather exact statistics on the many and varied cultures of New York city, but a tour of all the boroughs will show any visitor exactly how diverse and interesting a population the city hosts.

New York City Blacks

New York City has a black population of around two million. African slaves were first shipped to New York in 1644, when the city was still part of the Dutch colony called New Netherlands. There were around 2000 blacks in New York by the time of the War of Independence from Britain, the black slaves of New York helped fight the British in the hope of earning their freedom – the ones that did help fight were released from slavery by the state of New York after the war was over.

The abolitionist movement was gathering momentum in the early 1800s; it was established in New York along with Freedom’s Journal, America’s first newspaper for blacks. It was not till well after the Civil War in 1870 though that black men were allowed to vote. The black population of New York at the time also found themselves being economically downtrodden by immigrants from Eastern Europe and Ireland.

The area of Harlem in Upper Manhattan was developed by blacks coming up from the south during the early years of the 20th century; they helped to create a sense of community through creating churches, black-run businesses and nightclubs that were open to whites from other areas of New York.

West Indians also became a significant part of the Harlem community for the first time during this period – there was a kind of Harlem Renaissance from 1920 until about 1930 that witnessed an unprecedented outpouring of creative activity among African-Americans in all fields of art. It was was brought to a sad end though by the horrendous economic effects of the Great Depression.

The economic stability of New York’s blacks fell behind that of second and third generation white ethnic groups after the second world war; the local government was aware of the problem but chose to do nothing about it until the Harlem riots broke out in 1964. New York’s blacks were pretty much forced into living in grubby, grimy project housing, as in many larger cities; what was left of the black middle-classes had moved out to the suburbs with the middle-class white people during the 1970s.

Harlem has been given a new breath of life more recently though as West African’s have moved into the area, opening up new small businesses throughout the area – exciting eateries serving foods from the Ivory Coast, Mali, Ghana, and Nigeria; all delicious and a must for anyone.

New York City Hispanics

About half of New York City’s 1.8 million Hispanic residents are of Puerto Rican descent, the island has been a US possession since 1898, and its people have been US citizens since 1917. They began migrating here from the island in significant numbers during the Depression and began displacing Italians in East Harlem.

As citizens, Puerto Ricans may enter the United States without restriction; New York has a higher number of Puerto Rican citizens than any other American city, more than in Puerto Rico’s capital of San Juan. Throughout the 1960s, political activism by ‘Nuyoricans’ led to increased recognition of their contribution to city life and to the establishment of several important cultural institutions, including the Museo del Barrio near East Harlem.

Over the past 20 years, Latinos from many other countries have arrived in significant numbers. Immigrants from Ecuador and Colombia have created new communities in Queens, and the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan is home to many former citizens of the Dominican Republic and El Salvador.

Hispanics historically have accounted for more than a third of all legal immigration to the United States, they are mostly people who wish to work hard for their family and make a better life than their homeland can support.

In 1958 New York held its first Puerto Rican Day Parade, in 1995 this evolved into the National Puerto Rican Day Parade and became a permanent fixture in the city’s cultural events.

New York City Jews

New York City has the oldest and largest Jewish community in North America. More than one third of all the Jews in the United States live in New York. Almost 2 million Jews live in New York City, which is the principal port of entry and site of settlement for new Jewish immigrants to the United States.

The first Jews, a group of 24 refugees fleeing persecution in Brazil, came to New York in 1654, when it was still a Dutch colony called New Amsterdam. The governor, Peter Stuyvesant, did not want them there. But the Dutch West Indian Company was heavily dependent on Jewish investments, and blocked Stuyvesant’s efforts. One of the leaders of this Jewish colony, Asser Levy, became financially successful, with real estate dealings as far north as what is now Albany by 1658. Levy also gained the Jews of his colony the right to serve in the militia of New Netherland.

In 1664, the British gained control of New Netherland and renamed it New York. New Amsterdam, now called New York City, remained religiously, ethnically and racially diverse as a British colony. Shearith Israel, the first synagogue in New York City, was organized by the end of the 17th century. By 1720, the majority of Jews in the New York colony were of Central European descent although Sephardic cultural and religious customs prevailed. In 1740, Jews were given the right to be full citizens.

During the 1850s, New York City’s Jewish community established a Jewish hospital and the first national Jewish defense organization, the Board of Delegates of American Israelites. The first East European synagogue in New York, Beth Midrash Hagadol, was organized in 1852. In 1868, the German Jews of New York built a Reform synagogue, Temple Emanuel, on the Upper East Side. Today it is the largest Jewish House of Worship in the world.

A huge number of Eastern European Jews immigrated to New York between 1880 and 1914. These immigrants inspired Emma Lazarus, who was also Jewish to write the poem, “The New Colossus”, which is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty. By 1880, New York, had a Jewish population of 180,000, that would soon grow to 1.8 million. Some Jews were able to become very wealthy in New York City, including Charles Bloomingdale, founder of Bloomingdale’s department store, Marcus Goldman, founder of Goldman, Sachs & Co., and Henry, Emanual and Mayer Lehman, founder of Lehman brothers. But not all Jews who came to New York City were so fortunate.

In the beginning of the 1900s, many poor Jews came from Eastern Europe to find themselves packed in Lower East Side tenement houses. Many of the Jewish immigrants found work in the garment industry. Others maintained small retail establishments. Some of them were very involved in socialism and trade unionism.

Jews in New York City had a very rich culture. The leading Yiddish theater district in the world developed along Second Avenue in Manhattan. Numerous Yiddish daily newspapers were popular including “Der Tog” and Abraham Cahan’s “Forward.” Sholem Aleichem, who some say was the greatest Yiddish writer of all time, was born in the Ukraine and immigrated to New York City in the early 1900s. He is best known for his collection of stories about Tevye the Dairyman, which later became the basis for the musical, Fiddler on the Roof.

Until the early 20th century, most of New York’s Jewish population lived in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and the neighborhood still retains its traditional character, even though most New Yorkers of Jewish background now live elsewhere. In Brooklyn, the neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Williamsburg are still home to large numbers of Orthodox Jews, and an influx of immigrants from the Soviet Union during the ’80s added to their numbers.

Today New York’s Jews make up about 12% of New York City’s total population. They are the city’s second-largest ethnic voting bloc, behind blacks, but are the most effective ethnic group politically because they vote in higher numbers.

Racial Unease in New York City

David Dinkins, former New York mayor, once described the city as being a ‘gorgeous mosaic’ of differing people, which it is, but things have not always run so smoothly between the different ethnic groups. The main racial problems have arisen from a growing level of mistrust between New York’s African American population and other ethnic groups. A black man was sent running to his death and two others were beaten with bats by a gang of white youths in the well-publicized Howard Beach incident, which became national and international news.

Other ‘hate crimes’ or so-called ‘bias crimes’ occurred around this period and prompted city official to promise a crackdown on these incidents. Two particularly notable incidents arose from tensions between African Americans and Jews; when a black child was accidentally run down by a member of the Hasidic Jewish sect in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights in the summer of 1991, a rumor spread quickly that a Jewish ambulance crew had refused to treat the stricken black girl; there followed a spate of rioting that lasted several days, during which time an innocent Hasidic man was murdered by an angry mob.

New York’s police force has also come under the spotlight for racial prejudice, often using excessive physical force when dealing with New York’s black population in arrest situations. One of the most high profile cases involved the police shooting an unarmed black immigrant male, Amadou Diallo from West Africa, a total of 19 times and using up 41 rounds. The police testified in court that they thought Amadou was reaching for a gun when he brought out his wallet. The officer’s acquittal caused a general outrage in February 2000.

Even though these incidents are without a doubt tragic, they are relatively few when you consider millions of New Yorkers get on well with each other year after year, sharing the same streets and subways with no bother at all. Still some visitors refuse to explore certain ethnic areas, giving in to irrational fears and missing out on a lot of interesting culture.

New York City Language

There are hundreds of words that have filtered into American English via the languages of foreign immigrants. New York City is the most popular point of arrival for immigrants so, as you’d imagine, all kinds of words have been added to the local language as well as being absorbed into the American language as a whole. There was a time in American history when there was no prevalent official language, so it’s hardly surprising that American English has so many additions from other languages, such as the German word ‘hoodlum’, the Yiddish ‘schmuck’ (fool or origin, penis) and, more recently, the Russian word ‘robot’.

A New Yorker’s accent is pretty well recognized by most people around the world with its elongated vowels, the local accent of Manhattan in particular is a sort of toned down version of the over exaggerated “New Yawk Tawk” popularized by the TV and Movie industry. Some of the older people have a tendency to emphasize the syllables at the beginning of words like receipt and Broadway, giving their speech a somewhat curious cadence. In general, the deeper you go into New York’s boroughs, the more pronounced the accent becomes – unless you happen to be talking to a recent immigrant of course.

New York has a very large Hispanic population whose language, though not yet developed into a total hybrid speech, has lent words to the local tongue; so that everyone knows ‘bodega’ is another word for a corner convenience store, a corruption of the word for ‘wine cellar’. It’s very easy to pick up all the common phrases used in New York once you’ve been there a while, though some of their meanings can change from borough to borough; a regular coffee in Midtown for instance is different from a regular coffee on Wall Street. New York also has a huge Hip Hop and Rap scene which itself adds new words, and new meanings to existing words, to the local language.