President Trump should come visit my neighborhood, and learn how immigration really works in America — and how it has transformed the city where he was born and raised.
Of course he won’t, for many reasons, not least of which that he has no interest in learning the truth about immigration or anything else. Furthermore, as Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center observed in an article we published Friday on Salon, responding to Trump’s vicious anti-immigrant slanders as if they were real arguments only lends them more power.
If progressives or liberals — or actual conservatives, for that matter, or just decent human beings — earnestly rebut the president’s hateful fantasies with bullet-point lists of factual evidence, at least two bad things happen. Trump is made to appear almost legitimate, as if he were presenting a “controversial” debate position about an actual issue rather than channeling incoherent racial and cultural paranoia with no connection to reality. And his opponents are made to look foolish, like the bespectacled homeowner lured into stamping on a flaming bag of dog poop by the neighborhood bully.
This may come as a shock, but the president of the United States is a total troll, on immigration as on everything else. He can be mocked, ignored, marginalized or contained — and should be, because those responses make him angry, and when he’s angry he makes mistakes. He can perhaps be politically defeated, although that’s not as easy or as inevitable as many blue-wave dreamers hope. (Sometimes at Salon editorial meetings, when we’re in an especially cynical mood, we joke that we ought to publish more stories about the Hamilton electors. Those were good times!) But Wilkinson’s point is well taken: Trump cannot be un-trolled.
So forget it: I’ve changed my mind. Trump shouldn’t come to my neighborhood, which is just east of the Bronx Zoo (and a few miles north of his golf club at Ferry Point). It’s the most diverse place I’ve ever lived, by far, and without doubt one of the most diverse places in America. People from all over the world live here in vibrant, funky, congenial intimacy, demonstrating that the promise of America is still very much alive in the 21st century. We don’t want him here anyway: Parking is bad enough as things stand.
He’s missing out on a lot of stuff by not coming here, but I doubt he’d appreciate much of it. Street tacos under the elevated train on White Plains Road in the middle of the night; arroz con pollo at the old-line Puerto Rican diners (the kind that in 2018 still promise “Spanish and American food”); several legendary pizza parlors with the obligatory famed photos of visiting celebrities (members of the Three Stooges, forgotten Yankee players); West Indian goat curry; the only New York restaurant outside Manhattan or Brooklyn ever to win stars in the Michelin Guide; and an Albanian delicacy called the burek, which is more or less a filo-dough pie filled with ground beef, cheese or vegetables.
That was a new one on me, and it’s delicious. (I mean, you definitely need to be in a burek frame of mind.) But I can’t imagine Donald Trump is burek-curious. As I think we’ve established by now, he is not big on new experiences, or on learning things. The ethos of the entire Trump phenomenon, it might be fair to say, is to assume you know everything already, pay no attention to facts or evidence or history, and rely entirely on ingrained, half-baked, outdated prejudices.
That is the Trumpian view of the entire world, and it goes double for the city of his birth, which he views through a scrim of 1980s tabloid headlines. This is the guy, let’s remember, who called for the execution of the Central Park Five, a group of young black and Latino men convicted in a brutal 1989 rape case that seemed to represent New York’s nadir of violent crime.
Although New York’s crime epidemic was real enough — why it happened, and why it then receded so dramatically, remain contentious — what that case really represented was peak racial panic. It became clear years later that the five young men had been railroaded by cops and prosecutors and that a different man, a convicted murderer and serial rapist, had committed the crime. Those original convictions were vacated in 2002, but Donald Trump — along with a specific subset of older, whiter, more conservative New Yorkers — has refused to admit he was wrong or that the Central Park Five were innocent.
In other words, Trump wouldn’t want to come to my neighborhood because he thinks he knows exactly what the Bronx is like: dirty, crime-ridden and tense; frightening and foreign-feeling; pockmarked by vacant buildings and abandoned storefronts; populated by drug dealers, prostitutes, “squeegee men” and other extras from “Bonfire of the Vanities.” He may believe much of it is on fire, as in sportscaster Howard Cosell’s infamous remark to the nation during the 1977 World Series: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.”
I think I’ve already teased, by way of the curried goat and street tacos and Albanian pastry, that none of that is true — except that the president would undoubtedly experience the Bronx as foreign and scary. Crime is down all over New York -- and I'm 100 percent convinced that immigration had a lot do do with that -- but even by those standards this neighborhood is remarkably tranquil.
Speaking for myself, I have made a number of big mistakes in my life, but moving to the Bronx was not one of them. Some of you reading this now are New Yorkers, so I don’t want to get too specific about how much I pay up here for a large, top-floor apartment in a prewar elevator building with 10-foot ceilings and unobstructed light from two directions. I don’t want to ruin the whole place, at least not yet.
There are certainly some early signs of gentrification around here — a new bar that attracts a young, multiethnic crowd opened up around the corner about two months ago — but it’s happening pretty slowly. I think professional-type middle-class people from Manhattan or Brooklyn remain leery of the Bronx for a number of interrelated reasons: cultural groupthink, the long commute and old-fashioned racism. (Since the commute to midtown is no worse than from the southern two-thirds of Brooklyn, I guess that mostly leaves the other two reasons.)
At least five different languages are spoken in my building — not counting English or Spanish, which are the default settings. (Others I have identified include Albanian, Russian, Chinese and Arabic, along with a South Asian language that is probably Urdu. One family speaks something I can only bracket as maybe being Turkish or Pashto or Armenian.) On an almost daily basis, I encounter an experience that confounds everything Trump and his allies believe about immigrants and immigration: A family struggling down the street, laden with shopping bags. Mom, sounding irritated, addresses the kids in a foreign language. Kids, sounding bored (and staring at their iPhones), answer her in English.
Indeed, while there are certainly neighborhoods in the Bronx that are primarily Spanish-speaking, everybody where I live has at least some modest command of English. How else are the guys from the Puerto Rican barbershop going to communicate with a Russian pharmacist or the Korean discount-store proprietor? How else am I going to order Italian bread or Mexican flan from the Albanian lady at the bakery? (None of those examples is invented, by the way.)
The Albanian-born real estate agent who found me this apartment speaks decent Spanish (as well as excellent English) — it’s really necessary to do his job. I recently heard a woman who appeared to be of West Indian origin conversing with the aforementioned Russian pharmacist in Russian — and, no, I probably wouldn’t believe that story if you told it to me either.
I have also heard two people speaking Spanish to each other (at the late-night taco truck) who were struggling to communicate, which points toward another important fact about life in the Bronx. While the borough has a Latino majority, which is unusual among Northern cities and no doubt sounds apocalyptic to the Trumpian crowd, those people have come here from all over the Western Hemisphere and do not constitute anything like a monolithic group. Some identify as white, some as black and many as mixed-race or mestizo. They are Mexicans and Dominicans and Central Americans and Venezuelans and Colombians and Puerto Ricans (who are U.S. citizens, as President Trump was recently told but has since forgotten). Yes, they all speak “Spanish” — but people in Alabama and Jamaica and the Scottish Highlands all speak English, and you can see where I’m going with that one.
Statistics will tell you certain things about the Bronx, and about immigration in America, but they can also be misleading. Roughly one-third of the Bronx population is black, but that is also a remarkably diverse group, about evenly divided between African-Americans with many generations of North American ancestry and recent immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean.
Although the “non-Hispanic white” population of the Bronx has declined for decades, that too is a somewhat deceptive fact. Empirically, I suspect there has been a slight uptick of white folks in recent years -- thanks to the beginnings of gentrification and new arrivals from Eastern Europe -- and every possible subgroup of white Americans can be found somewhere in the borough (even affluent WASPs, if you know where to look). To put it in relative terms, nearly twice as many white people live in the Bronx as live in the famously white liberal bastion of Berkeley, California, where I grew up.
I’m not claiming that the Bronx is an earthly paradise, or that immigration is not a complex phenomenon that causes a certain amount of dislocation and backlash. My neighborhood is remarkably diverse, peaceful and stable, but in many other neighborhoods I travel through on the 2 train to Manhattan, the levels of poverty, economic inequality and racial segregation that still trouble this city and this country are all too obvious. I am aware that my arrival here, for example, signals toward the complicated forces that are driving a renaissance of the Bronx, and that will not necessarily work to the benefit of everyone who lives here now.
I moved here for the reasons people move anywhere: I could afford a decent place, it wasn’t too far from the places I needed to be, and the neighborhood seemed pleasant enough. What I learned by moving here was something enormously important that I halfway understood but had not personally experienced. It's something that for a whole range of historical reasons it is way too easy for Americans to forget: Immigration has always been a dynamic force of renewal in our big cities, and in our nation as a whole. It is not always painless or free of negative consequences. But it is our lifeblood. Those who try to resist that or deny it are not making America great again. They are trying to destroy it.