Saturday, November 22, 2008

The hot spot on the melting pot expands

In today's NYTimes, there's an article on Europeans making themselves at home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This underscores my belief that while home prices may plunge everywhere else on earth, they will remain stable in New York because everyone on earth with a little cash wants at least a pied-a-terre in the Apple. But the article tells other tales as well, the tale of the expansion of (shall we say) the griddle under the perennial fondue pot of New York. (Also: the kind of cheese that gets melted in it: the couple at the article's heart are named Patel, him English, her Swedish - unmentioned, the fact that "Patel" is an Indian name, that his family can't have been in Blighty all that long, that perhaps they came there not from India but from East Africa ... Obama says we're all mutts; I prefer to say "mongrels.")

Another change in traditional New York is, however, demonstrated by this article:

I once unwarily boasted of New York as the mingler of nations; a guy at the next table in the (Polish) restaurant (himself of Italian deriv.) laughed in my face. "I live in Jackson Heights," he said. "There are 18 nationalities on my block. And none of them mingle. They won't even speak to each other. Different grocery stores, different restaurants, different social groups at the park." "But what happens to their children? They go to public schools together, right?" said I. "Oh, they grow up and mingle - after they move to Manhattan," he admitted.

A few years ago, it was fashionable to say the Great American Melting Pot did not actually melt, that immigrants remained in their separate enclaves. That's true - for a while. In my family (who arrived in the decades before 1900 from Russia and Austria-Hungary), everyone married, and before World War II, everyone married only other Jews, and Ashkenazic Jews at that. (Scandal in my grandmother's family when their Hungarian daughters married Russian Jewish men - but they all did anyway.) In the generation after World War II, the first marriages to gentiles, gradually reaching and passing fifty percent of the mizpochah. Not until the seventies and eighties were marriages interracial as well. (One marriage to an ethnic Chinese in the 1950s.) Now we're getting into interesting religions and far corners of the earth, never mind same-sex unions and unusual adoptions. And of course we live everywhere. But we're still Ashkenazim. I think.

Used to was, the New York melting pot was Manhattan, and only lower Manhattan at that (and only parts of lower Manhattan – my neighborhood, South Village-SoHo, used to be pure Italian). Everyone grew up in an ethnic enclave of one sort or another, then moved and married and joined the middle class, and sent kids to mixed schools, and - then the pot melted, Irish married German Catholics, their kids married Italians or (horror on both sides) Jews, their kids married WASPs or (horror on all sides) blacks or Puerto Ricans, their kids married Chinese or Koreans.

But now the region where the melting goes on is much much larger, and the enclaves are diluting and gentrifying and vanishing: no unmelted Jews on the Lower East Side or Italians around here or Irish in Hell’s Kitchen or Inwood (it’s all Dominicans now in Inwood) or even blacks in Harlem (gosh!); all those neighborhoods have melted and interconnected (and interfucked, a word of my own coining). And now (we learn from this and many articles) Williamsburg has ceased to be a Polish slum and is a major meltdown. (Nearby Greenpoint is still Polish, with Chinese fringes.) And Crown Heights is still Hasidic, but how much longer? (Another generation, I’d say.) And Astoria is still Greek, and Jackson Heights is Afghan-Greek-Indian-Turkish-Croatian-Pakistani-Bengali-Chinese-Hispanic, and FOR THE MOMENT 18 nationalities share a block without ever mingling or even speaking to each other - but their children will go to CUNY and melt and move to Manhattan.

So it melts, but not at once, but in New York (and other ancient towns) the hot surface expands, the fire burns, the cauldron bubbles.

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