Around 3,000 big shots--everyone from Bill Gates to Bono to Hamid Karzai--will be in New York City this week for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. This year the gabfest has decamped from its mountain fastness in Davos, Switzerland, for the charms of midtown Manhattan, where the movers and shakers will discuss the state of the world and glide from one party to another. I'd bet a trayful of caviar canapes that none of them will make it to Canal Street. Too bad; they could learn more there than they ever will in the Waldorf-Astoria.
Canal Street is the clogged artery of lower Manhattan, a pothole-riddled, axle-breaking highway stuffed with trucks belching their way from the Jersey shore to Long Island. I love it. On a visit last week, I wove past Asian markets with windows full of roast ducks and durians, checked out prices in tiny perfume stores with Vietnamese names on the window and peered into that weird place that appears to sell nothing but fans (kitchen ones). I stopped in a tattoo parlor as three teenage girls from Queens, in J. Lo jackets and spray-on jeans, hovered nervously at the counter. I wondered whether to buy a new car radio at Taj Mahal Stereo or at the place that advertises WORLD LARGEST SPEAKER SELECTIONS--SE HABLA ESPANOL. Then lunch: Dim sum, falafel or Tex-Mex tortillas? Hell, let's go for a carnivorous selection from the food cart that sells hot dogs, gyros, shish kebabs and Italian sausages, all of them--so the Egyptian in charge claimed--guaranteed halal. "Food for every nationality!" he told me.
He got that right. Everyone knows New York is a great international city, but few, I think, understand just how international it has become. Around 40% of New York's population is now foreign born; it was less than 18% in 1960. In 1996, according to the city's planning department, 45% of all children born in the city had mothers born overseas. None of the world's other great cities has a mix of cultures anything like so rich.
Where do the new New Yorkers come from? Everywhere. Large numbers of immigrants now arrive not just from such traditional countries of origin as Russia, Ireland and the Dominican Republic but also from Nigeria, Bangladesh and Egypt. To be Hispanic in New York once meant you were Puerto Rican. Not now. In 1990 there were only 62,000 Mexicans in the city; by 2000 there were an estimated 200,000.