New Lords of Flatbus

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Mun Cha sits in the storage area beneath his large deli on Church Avenue in Flatbush, Brooklyn, talking about his experiences in America. Upstairs, dozens of customers buy a hybrid mix of Caribbean fruits and vegetables and Korean delicacies. A bucketful of blue crabs sits on the floor, not far from shelves stocking Worcester and soy sauces. In the surrounding neighborhood are stores owned by other Koreans, as well as Arabs, Indians, Mexicans, Caribbeans and a plethora of other nationals. Flatbush has become one of the great crossroads of the world.

In Korea, Mun also worked in a shop, but says he couldn’t earn much money there. His sister lived in Chicago, and in 1982 he decided to join her. “My brother-in-law’s older brother had a business in New York. We called him. He said, ‘New York’s got many jobs, but it’s very hard.'” Mun and his wife decided they would take a chance, and moved to Brooklyn to live with his brother-in-law’s relatives. Mun cleaned fish at a local fish market and his wife worked in a fruit market. He worked 12 hour days, six days a week for $250, learning English from the customers.

In five years Mun managed to save enough capital to open his own store in Crown Heights: “No babies, no time for spending money. How to spend money when you’re working twelve hours?!” he explains, as if justifying himself. He rented a house on Ocean Avenue, and, in 1991, bought the deli that he runs today.

Mun and his wife have three young children now. He’s hoping they will one day go to college. He says he finally feels like he may have succeeded, that he may have actually “made it” in America. But life still isn’t easy. “Still working hard!” he laughs. “But it’s better than before. The business is bigger, I make more money. But I’m still working hard. We have to go to market in the early morning, at four or five o’clock, five days a week: Hunts Point Market and Brooklyn Terminal Market. We’re just making money for living.”

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As Mun Cha contemplates success, a new generation of immigrants is once again defining the character of New York City. In the 1990s, newcomers have been arriving at a faster pace than at any time since the 1920s, more than 112,000 a year according to the Department of City Planning. More than half a million immigrants made new homes here between 1990 and 1994, and as of 1995, fully one-third of the city’s population had been born in another country.

While the immigrant tide generates controversy across most of the United States, it generates economic might in New York’s neighborhoods. Despite all the misleading rhetoric about immigrants as a ball and chain dragging down America–and despite new federal laws making them ineligible for major social programs including welfare and food stamps–immigrants have become the middle class backbone of long struggling New York communities.

More than half of the male immigrants to the city in the early 1990s, and nearly two-thirds of the female immigrants, were either white-collar professionals or skilled workers, according to The Newest New Yorkers, 1990-1994, a report released by the city planning department last month. The largest numbers have come from the Dominican Republic, China, the former Soviet Union, Jamaica and the tiny South American country of Guyana.

After nearly two decades of a steady influx of such people, neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Flatbush boast a more highly educated population and a higher rate of homeownership than many neighborhoods populated primarily by native-born Americans. The trend has become even more pronounced since the federal Immigration Act of 1990 created a pool of 140,000 visas per year exclusively reserved for professionals and skilled laborers.

Professor Emanuel Tobier, a senior research associate at New York University’s Taub Urban Research Center who is studying the role of immigrants in the labor force, has calculated that as of the 1990 census, 9.8 percent of New York City’s foreign-born population was self-employed, compared to 8.4 percent of those born in America.

And only two percent of non-refugee immigrants of working age reported receiving welfare throughout the 1980s, compared with 3.7 percent of the home-grown population, according to the Urban Institute’s 1994 report, “Immigration and Immigrants.” Excluding refugees, immigrants’ use of welfare actually fell in the 1980s. Whatever their reasons for avoiding the dole, the evidence is strong that immigrants are more likely than native-born Americans to be economically mobile, quickly driving up their personal incomes after moving to the city.

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Nowhere is the impact of the recent waves of immigration clearer than in Flatbush, home of the most ethnically diverse zip code in the country. Flatbush and Church avenues are a jumble of Korean, Indian, Middle Eastern, Haitian, Jamaican, even Mexican businesses. The customers reflect the same diversity.

The neighborhood’s ethnic composition has changed drastically over the last two decades. According to census figures for Community District 14, more than half of the area’s residents were white in 1980 and about one-third were black, most of them born in the United States. Fifteen years ago, long stretches of the neighborhood’s commercial strips were vacant. Most of the middle class whites and blacks living east of Flatbush Avenue were departing for the suburbs or other neighborhoods.

By 1990 30,000 West Indians had moved into the district, along with thousands of Africans and Haitians–as well as approximately 1,500 Arabs. In the early 1990s, the trend continued with more than 10,000 new immigrants from Jamaica, Haiti, Guyana and Trinidad. By 1993, out of a total population of 153,000, more than 60 percent were foreign-born. That same year, the neighboring district of East Flatbush was 71 percent foreign-born.

“Immigration has just really turned around this area,” says Carol Lutger, who runs the Business Outreach Center of the Church Avenue Merchants and Block Association (CAMBA). “The stores are full, the rents are high, there’s so much street activity, there’s a tremendous variety of stores. Because it’s crowded on the streets, people feel safe.”

Like Mun Cha, many immigrants arrive in America determined to buy their own businesses and houses as soon as possible, researchers say. “Neighborhood rejuvenation requires entrepreneurship,” Tobier explains. “The newcomers rejuvenated those communities by starting businesses, buying up property.” To that end, family members often pool their savings with other immigrants who have joined together into informal credit associations–“Susus,” “Box,” or “Partners” in the Caribbean communities, “Kehs” in the Korean–which help members make downpayments on homes and businesses.

In Flatbush, according to the city’s 1993 Housing and Vacancy Survey, nearly one in four households owns their home. In East Flatbush, the rate is one in three. Rates are similar in several other neighborhoods where immigrants are a majority: In Sunset Park, close to 30 percent are homeowners; in Flushing, more than 44 percent; in Jamaica, Queens, the figure is above 40 percent and in Jackson Heights, it is 35 percent. And trends suggest these figures are rising. Although no studies have determined how much money circulates through the rotating credit bodies, at least two major banks–Chase and Republic–now consider “susu” membership a valuable qualification in deciding whether to approve mortgage applications.

The recovery in Flatbush has been nurtured by a network of business groups, community centers and immigrant-aid agencies established over the course of the past two decades. Organizations such as CAMBA, the Flatbush Development Corporation (FDC) and the Caribbean-American Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CACCI) offer language courses and legal services to immigrants, provide healthcare information and social services, and help would-be entrepreneurs develop business plans. They also channel small-scale loans to new Americans to help them set up their businesses. Staff members counsel locals, helping them through business problems and potential cultural misunderstandings. And they arrange meetings designed to bring together representatives from the various nationalities present in the area.

The economic expansion within the community feeds on itself, explains Dan Schachter of the FDC. “Part of the corporation’s role is to create that transition point so that when immigrants have saved enough they don’t go to New Jersey, but buy from our existing housing stock.”

The average age of immigrants at the time they arrive in New York, according to the new city planning report, is barely 27. “They’re in their prime working and child-bearing years,” says Frank Vardy, one of the authors of the report. “They patronize family stores that didn’t exist in old neighborhoods” before they arrived.

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The 1993 Housing and Vacancy Survey also found that in Flatbush, 24,039 residents had sixteen or more years of education-making the district one of the most well-educated communities in Brooklyn. In many immigrant populations, more than 30 percent of the arrivals have college degrees, says Tobier. “And when you’re talking about Indians, it’s 40 to 45percent. The [educated immigrants] may not all be professionals here, but they do all right economically.”

Lesley Jules, a 31-year-old Haitian artist, uses his education to run a translation agency out of the second floor of one of the late-Victorian, colonnaded mansions that serve as beautiful reminders of a time when Flatbush was a suburban outpost of the city. The floors are varnished wood, the walls adorned with several of Jules’ pastoral interpretations of Haiti’s countryside.

A dapper man wearing a well-tailored suit and a flowered tie, Jules has lived in the United States since his departure from Port-au-Prince in 1982. Two years ago, with a partner, he invested $9,000 in advertising spots and other publicity, and started up a company, Jitts Incorporated. The firm now has 75 translators and interpreters available on call. They charge flat rates to corporate clients, less to immigrants who come seeking help. It is a successful enterprise, but after the overhead, Jules says, he is left with less than $4,000 a month to split with his partner. Nevertheless, he considers himself part of the immigrant middle class.

Jules is scornful of the notion that immigrants come to America to live off the country’s welfare system. In his experience he has found that immigrants, even when they are near-penniless, are generally reluctant to apply for public help.

“When someone is an immigrant, the first thing in your mind is, this country gives you a lot of opportunity. You always know what you left, in what situation you were in.” And as hard as New York can be, he says, it’s got more to offer financially than most immigrants’ home towns. “You have to fight for it,” he adds.

Then he remarks on his personal motivation: “I want it. It’ll take me time, but what I want, I’ll get. I don’t care how long it takes me to reach my goal. I’m going to be a success.”

Sasha Abramsky is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.