Suzanne Fields
New York -- New York, New York, a wonderful town. (The Bronx is up, and the Battery's down.)

Sometimes derided in what New Yorkers call "flyover country," Gotham is nevertheless a microcosm of America with its many immigrant and ethnic cultures, the work of immigrants who first clung together in self-made ghettos with shops, stores and restaurants to recall the places left behind. When these immigrants make enough money, they usually move out to more inclusive neighborhoods.

New York was built by legal immigrants. At Ellis Island, where more than 12 million immigrants made their first stop in America between 1892 and 1954, a tour guide tells the story -- perhaps apocryphal, but it could be true -- about an arriving immigrant who wore a signboard because he spoke no English, saying he wanted to go to Houston, meaning the street on the Lower East Side, then a Jewish neighborhood. He was by mistake put on a train to Houston, Texas -- where he settled and struck oil.

These were the days and years of happier immigration. There was no chaos on the border, few questions about who was legal and who was not. It was difficult for those immigrants to get here and difficult to go back. Everyone came to stay, climb into the melting pot and become an American. New York is a city in constant change, swinging between the pride of e pluribus unum -- "out of many, one" -- and the discomfort that accompanies multicultural and economic differences. The roiling debate over illegal immigration sometimes leads us to forget that we are all immigrants. Ronald Reagan once remarked that America is the only country in the world where a new citizen is as American as a citizen descended from a forebear who arrived two or three centuries ago.

But New York is also different from the rest of America, with its sophisticated culture in avant-garde art galleries, museums, expensive couturiers, gourmet restaurants and an abundance of upscale organic, vegan and gluten-free markets to suit the precious and the trendy. On the upper reaches of income, the 1-percenters are status-conscious, acquisitive consumers who can afford almost any luxury the city offers.

New York is the melting pot that never quite melts, with some of the poorest driven by hope of "moving on up," to achieve and become rich in the way of the millions who did it before, and with a shrinking middle class of young people moving away when they want to start families because they can't afford Manhattan rents.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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