Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Tuesday Evening at the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble: Joseph Berger & "The World in a City"

This was posted to Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Wednesday, October 3, 2007:
Tuesday Evening at the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble: Joseph Berger & "The World in a City"

Last evening I went back to the neighborhood where I lived part-time from 1984 to 1990, specifically to Broadway and West 82nd Street to the Barnes and Noble that opened after I left the area. When I lived there, part of the bookstore was a Chase Manhattan branch I wrote about in my story, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Citicorp," which originally appeared in the Lower East Side litmag Between C and D.

I always liked that Barnes and Noble store when I'd visit in the 1990s because it was one of the few bookstores in New York that carried my books. (So I didn't mind that they caused Shakespeare and Company a block down to leave; not only wouldn't they carry my books, they were pretty snobby about it.)

By 7 p.m. a big crowd was there to see New York Times reporter Joseph Berger discuss his new book, The World in a City: Traveling the Globe Through the Neighborhoods of the New New York.

Berger began by noting the changes in New York's ethnic makeup since the relaxation of the immigration laws 40 years ago. Old neighborhoods are no longer the bastions of one nationality; for example, Astoria is still somewhat Greek but now more Arab and Brazilian; Bensonhurst is still Italian, but the Chinese -- who love Bensonhurst's brick homes -- are beginning to dominate parts of the area depicted in 1977's Saturday Night Fever.

This is because as Italians, Greeks, Jews, Irish, Germans and ethnic groups established in this country for over a century become more affluent, current generations see no allure to the old neighborhood and light out for the suburbs, the Sun Belt, and posher places in New York City.

The Grand Concourse, where Berger grew up in the '40s and '50s as the son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, now has many West African residents -- and stores that sell homes in Ghana to its immigrants who want to show their relatives and friends that they have truly "made it" in America.

While New York's newer immigrants often lead hard lives -- Berger tells the story of a Palestinian woman who has the incredible daily commute from Bedford Park in the Bronx to Jamaica, Queens, all for a $7-an-hour job as a home health care attendant -- they are usually better off than they'd be back in their native lands, and that's why they keep coming.

To anyone who explores the various neighborhoods of New York by bus and on foot as I do, none of this should come as big news. Flushing has been Chinese and Korean for a long time now; I have Guyanese friends who've dominated Richmond Hill (along with other West Indians, South Asians and Indo-Caribbean people) for years.

A lot of what Berger talked about also echoed what I'd heard at Saturday's lecture on Brooklyn by historian Mike Wallace, who, like Berger, mentioned the incredibly diverse Ditmas Park -- a neighborhood familiar to me all my life and now home to great restaurants like The Farm at Adderly and the righteous coffeehouse Vox Pop.

Berger discussed material in the book that came out of stories he did for the Times, such as the Little Neck controversy over the Korean-language signs over the stores once dominated by the neighborhood's Italians and Jews; why you can find so many ballroom dancing places in Russian Midwood and Brighton Beach; how Bukharian men in Rego Park have responded to their adjustment problems and being financially dependent upon their more adaptable wives by resorting to domestic violence; and how an Ecuadorean couple in Jackson Heights go to a videoconferencing store to be a presence in the lives of the teenage children they were forced to leave behind (they can't go back to visit for fear of never being able to return to the U.S.)

Berger discussed the last story in light of how the nature of immigration has changed. While Italians, Irish, Jews, Germans and others who came over decades earlier essentially lost nearly all contact with the old country -- Berger's mother could communicate with her only relative in post-Holocaust Poland through occasional aerogrammes back when international phone calls and airfares were prohibitively expensive -- technology and cheaper prices have made it possible for immigrants to have much more contact with their homelands.

Any New York immigrant can watch satellite channels found in her native land, Berger said. I still have the fan I got at the Dominican Day parade for Television Dominicana -- advertising the ability to get ¡Toda la emoción de tu tierra está aquí!

Younger people adapt more easily. Berger said he used to exhort his parents, "This is America! Speak English!" and today's young immigrants often chafe under their parents' old-country ways and rules, such as the Queens Afghan girls who rebel by wearing makeup and who dread arranged marriages. (I heard recently from an Indian teenage girl who bemoaned this "tradition" she knows will be forced upon her.)

There are also conflicts between more established immigrants and the newcomers from their homelands, Berger said. Just a few days ago, a friend who's lived her whole life in Chinatown complained about the Fujianese who have recently come to the neighborhood, speaking not Mandarin or Cantonese but a dialect she can't understand, as well the "smelly fish" from this province that she gets a whiff of every time she goes home.

Berger took many questions and his talk was fascinating. He emphasized that while New York is unique, the world is coming to cities and suburbs and even rural areas all over the country. Asked what New York's new rising immigrant might be, Berger guessed the Mexicans, who have largely taken over the stores in East Harlem, once the barrio of Puerto Ricans, who've moved on to the suburbs as they became more affluent and educated.

After I left Barnes and Noble, I walked along Broadway in the neighborhood I called home two decades ago and wondered what happened to the Korean greengrocer, the Lebanese hardware store owners, the Chinese-Cuban and Sichuan restaurants that were once the local specialty of the Upper West Side. As they used to say in Liverpool, Ob-la-di, ob-la-da.

Back in 1980, when I was living in a Rockaway neighborhood once known as Irishtown (and not so Irish anymore), my friends Marie Cincotta and Stuie Hershkowitz from Brooklyn College took me along to a party at the apartment of their friend Carol.

It turned out to be in the building on East 54th Street between Snyder and Church Avenues where I lived till I was eight. Most of the people at the party were West Indians from the neighborhood. When I told Carol that I used to live just a few houses down as a little kid -- of course I didn't say that the block was all Jewish in those days -- her reaction was one I'll always remember because it illustrates how we all idealize the past: "It must have been beautiful back then before the Haitians came and ruined it."

Arthur Avenue is more Albanian than Italian now, and the Albanians own many of the city's "Italian" pizzerias. No doubt some little Albanian boy fifty years from now will go back to the neighborhood of his childhood and say that some other nationality has ruined it.

Meanwhile, as Berger said, New York's population has gained a million residents since the nadir of the 1970s, and we'll have nine million people here in 2020.

Joseph Berger, who currently writes the education column for the Times, is an engaging speaker as well as an excellent stylist. I look forward to enjoying his book as much as I have his reporting.

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