Who Knows New York?—and Other Notes on a Mixed-Up City

"Who Knows New York?—and Other Notes on a Mixed-Up City" (with Paul Weaver), The Public Interest, Summer 1969.


TOMAS WOLFE once entitled a memorable short story, “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn.” Who knows New York? Not very many among the living, it would seem. New York is not different from any other city in that basic statistical data are fragmentary and hard to come by; our cities all have grotesquely inadequate information-gathering services. But surely New York is unique among American cities for the vast ignorance and odd misimpressions which its own inhabitants—including the most educated and the most powerful—have of it. Only in New York can active politicians and leading journalists be so blithely unaware of the kinds of people who live in their city, of where they live and how, of what their condition is and of what their problems are. Everyone knows, for instance, that New York City is in the process of rapidly acquiring a nonwhite majority, and that the city will have to adapt itself- painfully, but inevitably—to this radically new situation. But what everyone knows is, in this ease as in so many others, not so. It is extremely unlikely that this nonwhite majority could arrive before 1990; and it is very likely that it will never arrive at all. Together with Los Angeles, New York City remains one of the “whitest” of our large urban centers. In this coming winter’s election, the combined Negro-Puerto Rican vote will be in the neighborhood of 15 per cent of the electorate. This modest statistic comes as a great surprise to most people, who have received a different impression from reading the Times, watching TV, etc. These people are equally incredulous when you mention the fact that there are as many Italians in the northeast Bronx (“Little Italy”) as there are Negroes in Harlem. Where on earth have they been hiding? To which the answer, of course, is they haven’t been hiding at all; they have merely been invisible to the myopic eyes of the mass media.

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