The Myth of The Diverse City

Solve this riddle: New York has an unequaled reputation for diversity in the US, but at the same time ranks as "hyper-segregated" in measures of Black-white racial segregation. How do we unravel this contradiction, and what does it say about what diversity really is?

The Columbia Encyclopedia provides the prevailing view: "New York City is also famous for its ethnic diversity, manifesting itself in scores of communities representing virtually every nation on earth, each preserving its identity."

In contrast, Massey and Denton's landmark work on segregation found New York's segregation index in 1980 was 82 percent (which hasn't changed much since), meaning that 82 out of every 100 African Americans living in the city would have to move to achieve integration. That number, incidentally, was higher than for any Southern city, from Atlanta to Houston.

New York is diverse and segregated, but it depends on where you look. As part of class assignments, my students have done hundreds of "race counts" in which they categorize by race the first fifty people to walk past. They find the public spaces of white and Black neighborhoods are often homogeneous. (Latinos and Asians tend to live more integrated lives.) Walk down Broadway on the Upper West Side of New York City, and you'll find the street or the Starbucks as white as most suburbs.

Nor do things seem to be different underground. Subways pull into in Manhattan after picking people up from segregated neighborhoods. The number 2 train comes from predominantly Black parts of Brooklyn. The N train comes from Brooklyn, too, but its riders include many from the Chinese neighborhood of Sunset Park. (Ethnic diversity is different than racial diversity: half of all Black New Yorkers, for instance, are Caribbean-American, so the 2 train is hardly homogeneous.) The Taking of Pelham 123 notwithstanding, subways can be boring monochromes.

Where's the diversity? When these lines all meet in a central station like Times Square, you hit the diversity jackpot. Spilling out of the cars like coins from an old-time slot machine are people from every nation of the world and of every color. The musicians at Times Square reflect that diversity: The Ebony Hillbillies are Black New Yorkers who play fiddle-and-banjo bluegrass. Andean groups play American pop songs. A Chinese musician plays nursery rhymes on a dulcimer.

What does this say about diversity? "Diversity" doesn't mean you never know who'll come around the corner next. It's patterned, and it's spatial, and there are multiple opportunities to express or repress it. New York is hardly a model, but most places are similarly segregated, and the city shows that you can create a sense of racial diversity in a community by fostering it in central places and important institutions like parks, schools, and public transit. Public spaces matter a great deal for a city's sense of diversity. Rush hour is diverse in plenty of cities, but in their own private car on the highway, no one can tell. Building diverse communities is not a matter of luck, and it doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Planning diverse central places is a first step to giving communities the diversity they need.

Gregory Smithsimon is an assistant professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.



diverse cities

Hooray. Let's hear it for mixed-income neighborhoods. If we can get there, racial diversity should solve itself.

New York though, is so different from the rest of the US.

Racial diversity in cities

Mr. Smithsimon's comments brings to mind this quote from Frederick Law Olmsted (taken, I think, from one of his letters during his pre-Civil War travels in the South):

"[We should] get up parks, gardens, music, dancing schools, reunions which will be so attractive as to force into contact the good and bad, the gentlemanly and the rowdy…. There need to be places and times for re-unions, which shall be so attractive to the nature of all but the most depraved men, that the rich and the poor, the cultivated and well-bred, and the sturdy and self-made people shall be attracted together and encouraged to assimilate.”

This is a ringing tribute to the power that certain places have to serve as a genuine public realm.

David Lever

Well said and quite an

Well said and quite an insight. I'll have to agree with the other two posters here. NYC is a very different city but your comments on the situation are well-received, at least as far as I'm concerned.

Diverse central places miss the mark

The dissimilarity index is a measure of residential segregation, and does not relate to where people work. Massey and Denton contend that residential black segregation is the underlying root cause of the "urban underclass". I'm not sure that a sense of diversity in Times Square or Grand Central Station is anything more than that.....a "sense". Because it has nothing to do with where people put their heads at night....and where their children go to school. As you said:

"New York is diverse and segregated, but it depends on where you look"

I would contend that it depends on when you look.....during the day, when people are forced to mix due to their job location....or at night, when people return to their hyper-segregated neighborhoods.

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