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Facts and Intuitions
There are many ways to get a handle on the city. One of them is by flaneuring,1 either by setting off to take notes on what I observe, or just drifting without a purpose about different neighborhoods and casually picking up the illuminating detail. Another is by scouring newspapers for urban facts, and demographic trends.
In the last month or so I read various news pieces that alter one's image of the city. I find that the latest statistics from the 2010 census suggest that Manhattan has become a magnet for younger families —the only borough, it turns out, to register gains in both children under 5 and in its 15-to-34-year-old population. These are families who are sufficiently well off to afford living in Manhattan. The increase in high-income families means intense competition and accompanying anxiety about entry into high status nursery and private primary and high schools. It's also why so many affluent white families are evident picnicking with their children in Central Park on a summer weekend. Yet, despite this influx of families, nearly half of Manhattan still consists of people living alone.
The city also sees the arrival of many new immigrants, among them Asian Americans (from South and East Asia), who trace their roots to dozens of countries, and who speak more than 40 languages and dialects. New York's Asian population has been by far the fastest growing group over the last ten years—with a 32% increase (Hispanics have only grown by 8%). They now are over a million people—13% of the city's population (and many remain uncounted). Nearly half of all Asians in New York are of Chinese descent— the second largest being of Indian descent. They remain underrepresented politically with two members of the City Council, and one in a citywide post, the comptroller, John C. Liu. Their median per capita income remains well below the city's average, and they have the highest rate of linguistic isolation. So, despite, all the high achievers, and the "model minority" stereotype, there are many Asian Americans in need. As a result, there is a push for broad coalitions among diverse Asian ethnic groups by leaders of a younger generation to provide them with a political voice commensurate with their numbers.
If the Asian American population has increased, the city's African American population has decreased by 5% in the last census. In fact, New York State's African Americans make up the largest percentage of migrants from the East and Midwest to the South—a reversal of the Great Migration from the agrarian South to the industrial North that took place from WW1 to the 1970s. Many of the migrants are middle class, and they go back to the South to find better jobs as well as return to their cultural roots. One pernicious effect of resettling in the South is that it divests New York's black neighborhoods of men and women who could have been bulwarks of their communities. Finally, I'm always struck by how subways on weekends are subject to interminable delays and bypassed stations due to construction. Since, weekend ridership has doubled over the past twenty years, it makes for cars crammed with passengers, and innumerable complaints.
These statistics offer one significant way of perceiving the city. But another way of seeing derives from merely sitting on a radiantly sunny, breezy day in the newly renovated eastern half of Washington Square Park, and observing the scene. Everything appears serene —in the new oval seating areas a man strums a guitar to himself, a jazz group plays for some tourists sitting on benches, and pass the hat after their set, and I read an English novel. There are also people lying on the freshly planted grassy lawns that now look infinitely better than before the renovation, because they include a variety of plantings and an array of flowers including black-eyed susans, hydrangea, and purple and white echinacea. Besides the usual drug dealers—fewer in number, but still very present— the park has suffered a summer invasion of young tattooed, grimy, nose-ringed, dreadlocked young men and women wearing backpacks and clothes so stiff with grit that they are known as "crusties." These loud seasonal nomads leave their garbage (many beer cans) on the Park's lawns and underneath the benches. It's New York, so it's implausible that any park could be idyllic.
On another day I go to the Met. After years of visiting I take pride in finally having mastered my way through its many additions and labyrinthine turns. This august, bountiful museum has always felt like home to me. There are rooms and small-unheralded exhibits that I blunder into that often turn out to be revelations. So though a swarm of people wait on line for the late fashion designer's Alexander McQueen crowd-pleasing, blockbuster display, I drop in on the minimally visited small exhibit of night photography whose subjects range from Steichen's misty woods to Brassai and Brandt's photos of Paris and London's night life, and Robert Frank's Coney Island at night.
Still, the city is too intricate and mystifying to be truly understood merely by gleaning facts and absorbing experiences.