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America Meets The World

United States

new internationalist
issue 178 - December 1987

America meets the world
Cities beckon and people are caught in the spell, lured by the energy
of urban life and the chance for economic advancement. New York has always
been a city of migrants - which explains the uneasy relationship between
middle America and this city of foreigners. John Beam captures the
flavour of different cultures trying to stay afloat in the American melting pot.

I get off the subway train and buy tickets for tomorrow from the Jamaican teller. The stairs lead up to the street by the Greek restaurant. I saunter past a bar with an Irish name and another American style (whatever that means) restaurant run by Greeks. I resist the pizza cooked by the Italian because I had pizza cooked by a Puerto Rican for lunch and besides we'll probably have Sechuan or Hunan or Cantonese delivered tonight, if we don't jump in a taxi driven by a Haitian and go over to the Ukrainian part of the Lower East Side to eat Indian food.

I pick up a Village Voice from the Pakistani newsstand. And we need bananas for breakfast so I stop in at the Korean deli. Rounding the corner, I catch our building's Dominican maintenance man and complain about a broken lock on the front door which he blames on the Spaniard who lives across the hall from us. Three blocks, five flights of stairs, and several cultures later and I'm home in New York City.

Nearly 20 per cent of the foreign-born population of the United States lives in the immediate New York area. One out of four of the nearly eight million residents of New York City are foreign born. Because changes in American immigration policy in 1964 and 1976 eliminated quotas that had discriminated against most Third World nations, New York (always a multi-ethnic city) is now much more obviously multiracial and multicultural.

The metropolitan region has 24 per cent of the Chinese born nationals in the US, 21 per cent of the Indians, 44 per cent of the West Indians and 42 per cent of the non-Mexican Latin Americans. (Over half of the immigrants to the city are Hispanic.) In short New York is the place where the United States meets the world.

Moving to New York was our second experience with culture shock in less than two years. The first came when we moved to Quito, Ecuador from New Orleans. The frenetic pace and highly charged energy of New York were unnerving after years in a culture that understood the value of the siesta. But as we got used to Manhattan life we came to realize that we weren't completely back in North America.

The way officials behave, the process of buying and selling and just the way people relate to one another has more in common with the Third World than with middle America.

My trip to the drivers' license bureau to get information that should have been available over the phone gives a bit of the flavour. They didn't tell me the first day that they were closed after lunch. So I had to go back another day for the examination. On my third trip I was given a multiple-choice test followed by an hour and 15 minute wait in line to give them my money and yet another wait in one more line to have a photograph taken and my name misspelled on the driver's license.

Maddening? Infuriating? Not at all. Early on in the process, I had adopted my most stoic Ecuadorian mood and survived the experience with little or no elevation of blood pressure or aggravation of ulcers.

The disparate and desperate ways people work at making a living in New York also conjure up visions of almost anywhere but the land that invented the Big Mac. Chinese furniture salesmen, aging Yiddish clothing merchants and Italian drivers in gypsy cabs (i.e. without a meter) will all bargain to make a sale. Families of Ecuadorian Indians sell textiles. Teams of young men from Senegal offer watches, scarves, purses and jewelry. Puerto Rican vendors with homemade syrups shave ice for snow cones and Greeks sell shishkebab from elaborate carts.

New York never really had the unique North American ability to render the poorest citizens invisible by shoving them into ghettos. Here, it is possible to be approached by beggars half a dozen times in two blocks. Others wash car windows at intersections or try to peddle items they have scavenged from the trash or shoplifted at the novelty store. Thousands of people sleep in subways and parks and on bus and train stations. Up to now we haven't seen anyone imitating the young men in Mexico who stand at intersections, swigging gasoline and exhaling three foot blasts of fire in exchange for spare change from passing drivers. But it will come.

Few of these dispossessed are jobless immigrants. New York's economy has always existed (if not prospered) in symbiosis with waves of foreigners willing to take on unpleasant, low-wage work. Their options were often limited by poor English, a lack of education and contacts or plain old racism. Often the jobs they took were really no worse than work at home and paid relatively much better.

As earlier immigrant generations retire, niches in New York's burgeoning service economy open up to newcomers. Ten years ago greengrocers were Italian. Today, Koreans clearly dominate that business.

Sociologist Roger Waldinger feels the jobs each ethnic group takes are based on the economic opportunities at their particular time of arrival. The newly arrived East Indian or Jamaican is highly dependent on her own community to provide the capital, contacts and workers for a new small business to prosper.

This networking mechanism is also useful for immigrants who want to sell their labour. So Albanian apartment superintendents often find jobs for fellow Albanians or West Indian women let their friends know about clerical jobs in the Manhattan banks and insurance companies where they work.

My wife and I decided to live in New York for many of the same reasons that brought the Korean greengrocer or the East Indian newsagent here. We had family in the area. We had friends who had move here a year or two before we did. We had some savings. And, like many migrants and immigrants to New York, we were attracted by the incredible diversity and the amazing array of options that it offers.

To young art students from Des Moines or Calgary or Sydney, that may mean the 92 museums and approximately 1,500 galleries. To a Pakistani cabby with whom I once rode, it was the freedom to drink a beer when he wanted one. To a young woman from Latin America, it may mean the freedom not to have babies. The diversity and complexity of New York generates the space and energy to escape the confinements of tradition and a dizzying variety of ways to spend your days.

But this freedom is not absolute. Even polyglot New York is not without the restraint of one's financial position and class interest.

According to the President of the Korean Produce Retailers Association: 'We should be especially cautious in employing Americans because union officials may encourage them to become union members. Once they belong to the union, extra expenses such as overtime payments, the hourly minimum wage and social security taxes follow. South Korean fruit and vegetable stores cannot afford to pay all these extra costs.'

John Beam is a New York-based writer.

Doug Thretsky explores life amongst New York's Street vendors.

Photo: Beverly Cheuvront
Street peddler Minh Phan:
12-hour days

'One dollar! Check it out!' calls Elvira in a halting, heavily accented patter. Her voice is barely audible above the din of traffic along downtown Broadway. On a cardboard box sit several brightly colored 'UFO Tops.' Elvira keeps at least one of these saucer-shaped tops spinning while calling to passersby.

Elvira is from Ecuador - 'the middle of the world' she says. Her ten-year old daughter Margie and cousin Fernando help. The threesome come out together twice a week during the summers to sell low-priced goods on New York street corners.

Elvira is one of a legion of street peddlers who have appeared on the city's streets in recent years. Selling anything from socks to sunglasses, t-shirts to telephones, these street-corner merchants, most of whom are immigrants, squeeze out a living from the streets.

Most peddlers conduct their business outside the law. Fewer than 1000 have licenses. As complaints grow from store owners (and even some licensed vendors), the peddlers face increasing pressure from the police. In midtown Manhattan, Fifth Avenue was long a favorite venue for the peddlers. But that changed when influential real estate developer Donald Trump pressured the city to clear the avenue of peddlers this past summer.

Being kicked off a prime sales spot means a loss of income. But unlicensed peddlers also risk having their merchandise confiscated by police and they can be fined up to $1,000. Elvira complains that the police once took $100 worth of her merchandise and never gave it back. Such tales are common among the unlicensed peddlers. 'The cops are no good here,' one Senegalese peddler adds. 'In West Africa there's no problem.'

Licensed peddlers don't have to worry about their merchandise being confiscated by the police but like the others they face long hours on the street. New York's blistering hot summers and frozen wind-swept winters treat all peddlers equally.

Vietnamese immigrant Minh Phan got his peddler license two years ago. He has several large folding tables with plastic racks and sells more than a dozen different items. He's on the street 12 hours a day, seven days a week and hauls in around $1,000 a month. Minh is resigned to life as a peddler.

'My English is not good enough for another job,' he says, 'I have to do this.' He does not have a family but Minh knows the job offers little security. What if he gets sick? 'I'm scared to think about that problem,' he laughs.

Minh's set-up would look good to two Senegalese peddlers working in Greenwich Village. Selling wallets and sunglasses, they claim to earn $20 a day. The Senegalese peddlers cannot afford an elaborate set-up, and must keep a wary eye out for the police. Like most illegal peddlers they pack their stock in nylon shoulder bags ready for a fast getaway. Their displays usually consist of' nothing more than a few samples on a cardboard carton or a blanket spread on the pavement.

But most of the unlicensed peddlers remain undaunted. Licences cost $200 a year and there's a long waiting list (and sales tax to pay if you do get a license). So it's unlikely these vendors will suddenly drop what they are doing and wait to become legal.

Like the two Senegalese peddlers selling sunglasses and wallets, most will endure the hassles or eventually find another spot ripe for business. New York's streets may not be paved with gold, but they still offer a chance for survival.

Doug Turetsky works with New York's alternative monthly City Limits.

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New Internationalist issue 178 magazine cover This article is from the December 1987 issue of New Internationalist.
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