The writer E.B. White famously defined, in 1948, the three kinds of New Yorkers: the native, the commuter, and the person from elsewhere who comes in quest of something.
Today there are three different kinds of New Yorkers: the people who act as if they were born here, who have a sense of entitlement about the city even if they arrived here after college; the people who are here and wish to be elsewhere, so toxic has it become for them; and the collection of virtual New Yorkers all over the world, in cities from Sarajevo to Santiago, who wish they were living in New York. These are the three New York states of mind, and what they have in common are longing and a quantity of delusion. It’s a city of dreamers and insomniacs.
They come because any newcomer stepping off the plane at JFK can find a place in the hierarchy of New York. If you look at a New York City restaurant, for example, the chef might be French, the people washing dishes might be Mexican, the hostess might be Russian, the taxi driver bringing the customers might be Pakistani, the owner might be British. They are not all equal. They earn different rates. But they work together, to get food to hungry people. It’s like the Hindu caste system: it’s not equitable, but everybody has a place.
What New York demonstrates, the lesson it has for its fellow rich cities such as Amsterdam or Paris or Tokyo, is this: immigration works. The city can use its immigrants, even the illegal ones. “Although they broke the law by illegally crossing our borders,” observed Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “our city’s economy would be a shell of itself had they not, and it would collapse if they were deported.” Each immigrant is an epic in the making. Enticed here by the founding myth of the city, he is seeking to escape from history, personal and political. For him, New York is the city of the second chance.