NYU Press Author Answers Questions About Immigrants and Housing in NYC

Emily Rosenbaum, author of The Housing Divide: How Generations of Immigrants Fare in New York’s Housing Market, answered readers’ questions all last week at nytimes.com:

Q: Your book suggests that recent immigrants to New York City have moved into significantly better housing than did migrants to the city in the 1940s to 1960s. Is that still true?

A: A better comparison would be between the housing conditions available today versus those that were available to immigrants and other working-class New Yorkers in the late 19th and early 20th century. Conditions then were poorer, in that the housing stock available for the rents new immigrants could pay was very old, and so less likely to provide the basic services that are virtually universal today — like a window in every room, or access to a kitchen and bathroom. Working-class housing built before the end of the 19th century had to be retrofitted with such “modern” conveniences; since the cost was borne by the landlord who had little incentive to make the changes, it wasn’t always done. The tenement laws passed in the very late 19th century and in the opening of the 20th century set higher standards for habitability in newly constructed housing, so housing built for the working class after that (into which later “waves” of immigrants would move) was of markedly better condition.

Q: Do “ethnic” neighborhoods (for example, Spanish Harlem and Washington Heights) slow down the assimilation process to new immigrants?

A: There are many ways that the experiences of immigrants appear to be similar, regardless of whether they arrived during this “modern” period (since the 1970s) or during the last great “waves” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the most important that we find in the book is assimilation. Although many people today are afraid that new immigrants can’t assimilate because of social/cultural differences, or won’t assimilate, we find — as do many other immigration researchers — abundant evidence that assimilation (typically measured in terms of social and economic characteristics) is alive and well. Ethnic neighborhoods today, and those in the past, “cushion” the process of adaptation for the newly arrived, who may be accustomed to a very different environment; in such neighborhoods you may be able to find food and other goods and services that are culturally familiar, using your native language. So living in an ethnic neighborhood can play an important role in the average immigrant’s ability to adapt to life in New York City or in the United States. The term “average” is important here, as there will always be examples of people who never learn English or cannot finish high school or whatever, just as there will always be examples of people who surpass all expectations for learning English, getting a highly paid job, etc. So, I would argue that, based on our findings, if there is any slowing of the assimilation process associated with living in an “ethnic” neighborhood, it isn’t great enough to overwhelm and negate the overall process.

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