Nativism is ugly, whether it comes from the right or the left. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams wants to be the next mayor of New York, but he sounded like a tin-pot bigot when he told an audience celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. that fresh arrivals from other states were ruining the city he hopes to lead. “Go back to Iowa, go back to Ohio. New York City belongs to the people that was here and made New York City what it is.” To which I would ask: How long do you have to have lived here to earn a share of that ownership? Two years? Ten years? A lifetime?
It’s a measure of how powerful such rhetoric is that a spokesperson for Bill de Blasio, whose job Adams hopes to inherit, responded with a masterpiece of fecklessness: “The mayor doesn’t agree with how it was said, but the borough president voiced a very real frustration. We need to improve affordability in this city.”
The problem with Adams’s statement is not how but what. Affordability has little to do with which Americans exercise their right to live wherever they damn please. Gentrification is an often cruel fact of life in desirable cities, the product of a burbling economy and national trends toward increasing inequality. Few desirable cities have found effective tools for curbing it, and even de Blasio’s well-intentioned policies, such as up-zonings and affordable housing, sometimes seem to make it worse. Gentrification does not, for instance, always lead to displacement. The same interventions that make marginalized neighborhoods more livable — improving schools, fixing up parks, bringing jobs, and adding housing — also make them more desirable, and eventually more expensive.
The fact that these mechanisms are neither obvious nor simple to manage makes it tempting to attack its signs: a fixed-up garden, a new apartment building, fancy groceries. Adams has been on the receiving end of that anger. Just last week, protesters forced him to shut down a meeting on a rezoning proposal for Industry City, claiming that the process was steamrolling local residents. As with most complicated issues in this climate, the debate has degenerated into a yelling match — or rather it’s become a lopsided gladiator match, with money on one side and megaphones on the other, and everyone clamoring for political clout.
The number of actual Iowans landing in Adams’s borough is vanishingly small: an average of 231 people per year, a trickle made moot by the 211 New Yorkers who moved to the Hawkeye State. (The numbers, which cover the five years from 2013 to 2017, come from the Department of City Planning’s demographers.) Ohio’s huddled masses aren’t jamming our shores either; in fact, that tide runs mostly westward, at a rate of 1,000 people a year. It’s true that tens of thousands of people converge on New York from all over the country every year — but even more leave. In terms of domestic migration, the city is like a bathtub with an open drain and a trickling faucet. Fortunately for New York’s economic health and long-term future, the bathtub is really a spring, fed by natural increase and foreign immigration. If Adams wants to keep New York’s neighborhoods from changing, he should take it up with all the city-born babies who outnumbered deaths by half a million during the past decade, or the streams of new arrivals from the Caribbean, Asia, and Central America.
He won’t, of course. Adams’s hostility to new New Yorkers is narrow and inconsistent. He supported a new state law allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, and his reasoning on that score was sound: “Today, across New York, there are so many fronts on which we are standing tall in support of our immigrant community and its rights, including the push to expand access to driver’s licenses,” Adams said at an rally last spring. “As a matter of public safety, as well as social justice and economic benefit, the time is now to pass this legislation in Albany.”
Apparently aware of the contradiction between welcoming some groups and chasing off others, Adams later elaborated on Twitter: “Let me be clear: Anyone can be a New Yorker, but not everyone comes to our city with the spirit of being part of our city. I have a problem with that.” He doesn’t object to newcomers’ race or birthplace but to their behavior. All he asks in exchange for his blessing is “as simple as saying ‘hello’ to your fellow neighbors. It’s also patronizing local businesses that have been there for years. It’s adopting a local school or shelter and lending a hand. It’s breaking bread with new faces and building bonds.” His real beef, it seems, is with misanthropes and people who shop at Target. (Inconveniently for his bluster, those suburban-style chain stores are some of the most diverse spots in the city.)
To see a political leader issue standards of acceptable conduct for newcomers is almost as appalling as his desire to keep them out in the first place. His position isn’t just divisive and obnoxious; it’s also a profound betrayal of the “spirit” he invokes. New York has a long history of racists, nativists, door-closers, and demagogues trying to control the real-estate market. Over time, they’ve consistently lost out against an ethos of dynamism and change. Communities of color continue to emerge in New York because this is a magnetic city — difficult, crowded, expensive, and exhausting, but not hostile.
Black New Yorkers have seen both sides of that history. A mixture of official policies and standard-issue racism confined them to some neighborhoods, uprooted them from others, and forced them to live in conditions of preventable squalor. The crisis at NYCHA is just one shameful example of that legacy of malign neglect. It’s precisely because of that history that it’s so dismaying to see Adams invoke nativist tropes.
Adams’ outburst suggests that the fight is not just over policy or real estate or public space or transportation, but culture: what a neighborhood sounds, feels, smells, and looks like. The desire to preserve local character against a tide of change is understandable and bipartisan, uniting left-wing activists, preservationists, and conservatives. Honoring the past is a worthy cause when pursued with civil tools and historical sensitivity, but it turns nasty when it’s streaked with dishonesty and rage.