Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

White Flight

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A personal narrative I thought was more or less substantively true, one that was promoted by the last three mayors or so of the phoenix-like resurrection of New York City from a den of sin and depravity to a modern, crisp, attractive destination, is the effective reversal of decades of White Flight – the domestic emigration of middle-class white families and their tax base due to racism, from federal subsidies for home ownership in newly-constructed yet segregated suburban townships to overt red-lining covering entire districts straight on from the LaGuardia administration in the 30s and 40s. The narrative, it goes, is that once violent crime started going down in the Dinkins administration straight on to historic lows in the Bloomberg administration in the new millennium, domestic immigration of the white, taxpaying types started up again, revitalizing – and gentrifying – neighborhoods en masse, such as Williamsburg and Park Slope. Indeed, Amanda Burden the former commissioner for the Department of City Planning under former mayor Bloomberg was an avowed cheerleader of gentrification, and indeed volunteered her rather contemptuous opinions of current mayor de Blasio’s emphasis on affordable housing – after all, her doctrine was more on real estate values, which meant getting the ‘right people’ into those houses, not getting the right houses for the existing people.

I say “thought” and not “think” because, despite this narrative, White Flight never ended. According to the US census, the non-Hispanic white population of New York peaked in 1940 – the first year the city differentiated between Hispanic and non-Hispanic white people – at 6.8 million out of a total New York population of 7.4 million. It’s at this time that the red-lining efforts were mostly discussing an “infiltration” – the actual term on analytic documents of the time – of undesirable Greeks, Jews, Italians and Irish, as there were only half a million Black residents and only 150,000 people of Hispanic descent. For the narrative to be completely true, one would imagine that the white population would have bottomed out in the 1990 or 2000 census, and then seen an uptick since then. However, between 1990 and 2010, a further loss of 450,000 white residents of New York was still tallied – the last census has the lowest number of white residents in 70 years of unbroken decline at 2.7 million out of a total of 8.1 million, meaning that while the city on the whole only gained ~700,000 people between 1940 and 2010, the non-Hispanic white proportion of the city went from being 92% of the total to 33% of the total… and is still falling, both in ratio and in raw numbers, though perhaps not as fast as it once was.

There is some weight to the narrative of yuppies moving into certain gentrified neighborhoods – aside from Manhattan, Brooklyn is the only borough that saw an increase in the white population between 2000 and 2010, gaining about 40,000 (for an equal loss in the Black population of Brooklyn, which statisticians have argued represents a trend in which they’re leaving the area entirely due to high cost of living and relatively low employment rates and remuneration, rather than a white population that simply relocates to the suburbs) which lends support for a narrative of population replacement, though the city itself noted that domestic emigration, not immigration, remained paramount, and that population numbers were buoyed by childbirth, longevity and international immigration, so those broad statistics can be interpreted in part by the relatively high childbirth rates of orthodox Jewish communities in South Williamsburg and Borough Park as much as homesteading by white yuppies in Park Slope and Carroll Gardens.

There is also a more holistic interpretation in that the city is and has always been an entrepot of international humanity, which it then disseminated to the rest of the nation, in which case the truth hidden in the statistical data of a declining white population is that in the first half of the century the largest batch of immigrants were white though of Catholic and southern European heritage, who then flocked to Yonkers and New Jersey and Long Island, and that nowadays the largest batch of immigrants come from Asia and Latin America, who will in turn homestead in the suburbs. Of course, this other narrative somewhat glosses over that so-called ‘white ethnics’ can also be racist and bound by tribalism – the character Archie Bunker was, after all, modeled after creator Norman Lear’s Jewish father and played by Irish Catholic Carroll O’Connor – and so too can new Asian immigrants.

It’s also true that our now-President started his career in racist exclusion in New York real estate, and whose son-in-law carries the torch of a current real estate business model of aggressively harassing New York tenants in order to flip their housing for more ‘desirable’ clients. How to reconcile the prevalence of this practice with current demographic data requires a more in-depth set of interpretations about who exactly is benefiting from such, what the numbers are – what people are moving in and how many, what people are moving out and how many – and where they’re doing these sorts of practices, but a cursory conclusion is that there are still great swaths of the city avoided by capital investment, the people benefiting from such rapacious activities are not very numerous and the people moving out under duress are far greater in number, but not so many as to offset those filling in every bedroom in Bronx and Queens – still areas that are ‘terra incognita’ for the sorts who left half a century ago and never returned.

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