Joseph Salvo, whose impossible job it is to count every New Yorker, sits in a Jamaican restaurant on Flatbush Avenue, ignoring his cup of cooling coffee and waving maps that show how rapidly Brooklyn is changing. The first 2010 Census results will be released by the end of the month, and Salvo, the city’s chief demographer, treats the numbers as if they were his children: full of promise but capable of letting him down. “New York had better hit 8.4 million, or I don’t know what I’m going to do!” he frets. “The Asian population should top a million for the first time … It’d better.”
We are in Brooklyn to see firsthand what those data already indicate: that Kings is gaining on Queens for the title of most diverse county in the nation, and possibly the world. Its variety can be more difficult to detect than in Queens, where different populations interlace along polyglot cuisine bazaars like Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights. Brooklyn’s ethnic blocs are larger and more monolithic. Along Coney Island Avenue, markers of ethnic variety—halal butchers, the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts, a bookstore offering the oddity of “English books”—are interspersed with auto-parts suppliers. Away from the commercial strip, the residential architecture is mute about which ethnic groups live where.
The textural change in Brooklyn is driven by “churn,” or the constant inflow of immigrants that offsets the steady leak of New Yorkers to other parts of the country. Without that foreign-born influx, Brooklyn would have lost more than 300,000 people in the past decade, instead of gaining 100,000 as it did. And some astonishingly fertile pockets of the borough, especially the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Borough Park, are producing native Brooklynites at a gallop. “The natural increase is very high here,” says Salvo. “I’m talking about populations of about 100,000 where I’m picking up an increase of 20,000. Big!”
As more-established groups go hunting for better real estate and newer groups replace them, the cultural map of Brooklyn we carry around in our heads quickly goes out of date. Sunset Park is becoming less Chinese and more Mexican, Bensonhurst less Italian and more Chinese, Flatbush more Jewish and more Muslim at the same time. The South Asian enclave in Kensington is expanding into Midwood and down to Brighton Beach.
“Anytime there’s a vacancy, it’s a South Asian family that’s moving in,” says Mohammed Razvi, executive director of the Council of Peoples Organization, a nonprofit group that helps new immigrants from its office on Coney Island Avenue. “Brooklyn is the Lower East Side for the South Asian community: As soon as they get out of JFK, they head here.”
“Bangladesh is huge,” Salvo confirms. “It’s now a top-ten source for U.S. immigration.” He takes me to the corner of Coney Island and Newkirk Avenues, where he once spent an afternoon sitting in Famous Pita, watching parents pick up their kids from P.S. 217, near the epicenter of Brooklyn’s population evolution. To the north and east, along Nostrand Avenue, lies the country’s largest West Indian enclave, itself a salad of languages and religions. A few blocks south, an old-line Jewish neighborhood along Ocean Avenue borders the expanding turf of ultra-Orthodox, mostly Yiddish-speaking Jews. To the west of the school are Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. And scattered across those areas is a growing overlay of Mexicans and Central Americans. Salvo says that when school lets out, it’s a riot of languages and traditional headgear. “This is the epitome of what our data tells us about the neighborhood. When you see the children, it’s the most inspiring thing you could ever see.”
The data streams don’t reveal much about the borough’s spiritual life, but this deceptively dull intersection anchors a rich religious ecosystem. The gorgeous eighteenth-century Flatbush Reformed Church hosts a Ghanaian Presbyterian congregation and also offers services in Spanish. Over on Coney Island Avenue, Makki Masjid, Brooklyn’s largest mosque, is undergoing a renovation to merge three buildings and accommodate 3,000 worshippers at once. A few blocks south, a Jewish girls’ school, Bet Yaakov Ateret Torah, has added new quarters.
Nowhere outside of Jerusalem do so many Jews and Muslims live in such intense proximity, observes Rabbi Bob Kaplan of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York—and here they enjoy a more uneventful coexistence. “No group is in control here,” says Kaplan. “They’re all here to participate in the American lifestyle.”
We head south toward Neptune Avenue in Brighton Beach, where the data show a surge of Mexicans and Bangladeshis among the Russians, whose children have been settling in Bensonhurst. Sure enough, several Spanish-speaking women are herding preschoolers into a doorway marked “Young Israel of Brighton Beach,” which houses a Head Start program. Across the street is the neighborhood Islamic Center. Just up the block a store advertises “Asian, Mexican, and Russian groceries.” Salvo chortles. “It’s nice when you can see the data. This is the future.”