IT'S as if the boundaries of the United Nations had suddenly
expanded to include all of New York City. The babble of foreign
languages on the streets and in coffee shops is so pervasive that
the English-speaker often feels like the foreigner. A full one-third
of all New Yorkers - up from one-fourth 10 years ago - are now
The faces change. Over the last 25 years the Caribbean, Latin
America, and Asia have largely replaced the nations of Europe as
points of origin, but New York City remains the destination of
choice for one of every six immigrants to the United States.
Hispanics account for the largest numerical increase. Greater New
York now has the second-largest Hispanic community in the US, after
New York is one of the few Frost-Belt cities to actually grow
during the 1980s, rising from about 7 million to 7.3 million people,
according to preliminary 1990 census figures. The new immigrants,
arriving at a rate of roughly 90,000 a year, are considered a major
factor. Many move into housing and jobs vacated by earlier
immigrants, who have been moving steadily to the suburbs for the
last two decades.
Some of the newcomers find the American Dream lives up to its
promise. Most find making a life here much tougher than they were
led to believe by television and word-of-mouth success stories. Many
take menial jobs and work long hours just to survive.
In addition to enriching the culture - in everything from cuisine
to music - the new immigrants have had a powerful and largely
positive economic and social impact on the city.
"Immigrants have been crucial in revitalizing and stabilizing
many New York neighborhoods," says Mitchell Moss, director of New
York University's Urban Research Center.
The influence on New York politics usually lags a generation
behind each new wave of arrivals. Yet neighborhood ethnicity is
playing a major role in the redrawing of City Council districts now
When the Soviets crack down on Armenians or cyclones batter
Bangladesh, a sympathetic community of immigrants in the US now
invariably sends up a cry of concern. Congress and US foreign
"The newcomers are a much more diverse group than has come to New
York at any other period of our history ... and it's changing our
awareness of the rest of the world," notes Carol Stix, a professor
of sociology at Pace University. "Taking a page from the civil
rights movement, they recognize that they have to speak up and
organize to be heard and have their needs met."
New York City schools face one of the strongest challenges posed
by the new immigrants. On the enrichment side, teachers are being
retrained and given new materials on the theory that every subject
at every grade level should note contributions made to it by a
variety of cultures; it's termed multicultural education.
Yet the English language gap remains a persistent problem for the
schools. Currently, some 110,246 children - more than one of every
nine in the school system - have only limited English proficiency.
"That's a sizable proportion," notes David Reimers, a New York
University history professor who is writing a book on the city's
ethnic history. He says that most of the students having trouble are
Hispanic. "It's a culture in which English is not spoken that
By contrast, he notes, English is widely spoken for historic
reasons in a number of Asian nations such as the Philippines and