Sunday, February 21, 2010

Think Local, Ummm… Think Narrow?

(See video at end of post)
On February 18, the New York Times published a profile of urban sociologist, Sharon Zukin, a professor at Brooklyn College. (link) As many of us do, Professor Zukin decries the passing of neighborhoods with special charm and character. But Zukin is wrong; they have not passed. They have moved to northern Manhattan, the Bronx, and countless neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens.

From what the Times says of Zukin, one would think that the entire swath of the five boroughs has descended into an 8 million person shopping mall more worthy of Phoenix than the Northeast. What seems closer to reality is that the likes of Zukin keep their middle-class binoculars focused on the old ethnic enclaves of Manhattan and Brooklyn that were made up largely of white ethnic groups. 

To cite one "colorful" ethnic group - Italian Americans - not very long ago, there were about 2 million people of Italian descent living in the 5 boroughs. Now there are about 625,000. (However, there are 3.3 million Italians living in the overall metro area.) To greater or lesser degrees, this holds true for the Jewish, Irish, German and Slavic populations. Of course their descendants are living in New York City, but they are more homogenized, less colorful and thus less able to lend their old neighborhoods ethnic flavor. As a coda, in the last census estimates, fewer than 100,000 people living in Manhattan identified themselves as Italian-American.

Yet we know that there are ethnic groups abounding in the great metropolis.

New Yorkers speak 170 languages in their homes and there are about 275 ethnic newspapers and magazines published here in 40 or so different languages. The striving, struggling and dreaming goes on, just not in the narrow confines of the Village, Soho or Noho, or formerly German/Slavic Yorkville on the Upper East Side. But, from what The Times says of Zukin's point of view, one would think that the entire swath of the five boroughs has descended into an 8 million person shopping mall more worthy of Phoenix than the Northeast. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

A visit to most of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and especially Queens - the most ethnically diverse county in the country - will confirm this. Ya want ethnic flavor? Get out of town!

Behind the picturesqueness or lack of same, however, comes a portrait of the new ethnic individual, however. A majority are working class, but they are not employed in manufacturing since New York's factory world has been disintegrating since World War II. Now there are less than 100,000 manufacturing jobs here, a loss of 1,000,000 since 1942.

The European-American, hearty lunch-pail image of the New York that we know so well from movies like On The Waterfront and The Naked City is gone for the foreseeable future. 

30% of people with less than a high school diploma who are employed at all, work in manufacturing. The remaining low skill workers toil in the food service industry, retail, and menial labor jobs. Since manufacturing jobs traditionally pay more than those other categories, this does not bode well for us. The difference, once upon a time, between a white collar professional and a skilled blue collar worker was largely a matter of luxury income. Now the chasms are gargantuan. (The blue collar workers of the building trades, and the light blue collar telecommunications and health care fields somewhat ameliorate the situation.)

Is the flavor of Manhattan below 110th Street becoming Walmarted? It surely is. Can that be governed? Probably not. The chaining of America is not a micro, but rather a macro trend.

To recreate the faded industrial era, one would have to bring back the garment industry that once made 70% of all women's and 40% of all men's clothing in the country. Or bring back the dozen and a half big breweries from Rupert's to Rhiengold's to Lion's. Or the slaughterhouse and meat packing business. And shipbuilding, brick making and railroad tie making.

No comments:

Post a Comment