Brooklyn Enclave Helps New York Top L.A. as Diversity Capital

Brooklyn Helps New York Top L.A. as Diversity Capital
New York’s population grew 2.1 percent during the decade, to 8,175,133, while Los Angeles increased by 2.6 percent to 3,792,621, census figures show. Both cities saw gains in Asians and Hispanics and declines in whites and blacks. Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

New York wrested the title of ethnic-diversity capital of the U.S. from Los Angeles over the past decade, census figures show. That change may be best illustrated in a single census tract in Brooklyn.

The section of Dyker Heights in southwest Brooklyn, long dominated by Italian-Americans, had one of the biggest increases in diversity of any census tract in the nation’s most-populous city. The area of 1,133 people has seen an inflow of Asian residents, a group that is helping to transform the profile of New York, along with those of other major municipalities throughout the U.S.

“Some of the residents here were so concerned about blacks moving in, they didn’t even notice the influx of Asians,” said Nick Venezia, 33, manager of Ben Bay Realty Co. in Brooklyn.

What is happening in Dyker Heights and the rest of New York reflects a nationwide trend that the 2010 figures being released this year by the U.S. Census Bureau are underlining. A Brookings Institution study of the data found that more than 50 percent of U.S. cities are now composed of non-white majorities.

New York is the most diverse of all cities with more than 500,000 residents, according to a separate analysis of census data by Bloomberg. In 2000, Los Angeles, the second-biggest city by population, ranked highest in the diversity gauge.

“Almost half of Los Angeles’ population is Hispanic, but in New York there’s no group that has that same monopoly,” said William Frey, a senior fellow and demographer at Brookings in Washington. “New York has a history of being kind of an assimilator of different groups.”

31.8% Jump

New York’s population grew 2.1 percent during the decade, to 8,175,133, while Los Angeles increased by 2.6 percent to 3,792,621, census figures show. Both cities saw gains in Asians and Hispanics and declines in whites and blacks.

New York’s Asian population jumped 31.8 percent and accounts for 12.6 percent of city residents; whites declined by 2.8 percent and make up 33.3 percent of the city, and blacks decreased by 5.1 percent to 22.8 percent. Hispanics grew by 8.1 percent and comprise 28.6 percent of the city’s population.

The diversity gauge illustrates the extent to which neighborhoods are integrated by race and ethnicity, as opposed to being concentrated in pockets across a city. It measures the likelihood that two residents selected at random in the same census tract will be of a different race or ethnicity. New York climbed to 78.5 on the index in 2010, from 77.4 a decade earlier. Los Angeles fell to 76.7, from 77.9 in 2000.

Microcosm of Change

Census tract 148 in Dyker Heights, a neighborhood of 42,419 people about two miles from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge that connects Staten Island and Brooklyn, is a microcosm of that change. While the area is far from the city’s most diverse section, the tract’s diversity gauge almost tripled from 9.4 in from 2000 to 26.2 a decade later. It now has 1,042 whites, 83 Asians, five blacks and three multiracials. In 2000, it had 1,161 whites, 32 Asians, no blacks and five multiracials.

Census tract 148’s housing along its tree-lined streets ranges from mansions near 11th Avenue in the blocks between 79th and 86th Streets, which sell in the $1 million and $2 million range, to the more common two-, three- and four-family homes between 12th Avenue and 13th Avenue and 79th Street and 86th Street.

The presence of Asians is most striking along 13th Avenue. The commercial corridor’s Italian pork stores, barber shops, bakeries and salumeria have been joined by storefronts with yellow awnings signifying Asian-owned groceries, nail salons, candy stores and Chinese takeout spots.

‘Their Own Culture’

“For many who arrive here from China, their first home is a small apartment in a crowded neighborhood,” said resident Paul Mak, who moved to the U.S. from Hong Kong 33 years ago.

“When they are able to purchase a home, Dyker Heights represents a neighborhood with schools which is near to all the shops and Chinese supermarkets and people of their own culture,” said Mak, president of the Brooklyn Chinese-American Association.

About half the home purchases in Dyker Heights since 2007 have been by Asians, Venezia said, mostly second- and third-generation Chinese-American professionals. That drove him to hire four more Chinese-speaking workers, who are among the 20 employees working in his office, he said.

At Torregrossa funeral home, a building on 79th Street decorated with European tapestries and furniture, Andrew Torregrossa, 30, the third generation of the family in the business, said he is contemplating a future in which the home includes a chapel dedicated to Chinese funerals.

‘We Have Adapted’

The company built a chapel at another funeral home it owns in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood to serve the Haitian community, he said. “We have adapted to tend to their needs, and we will do the same thing here with the Asians,” he said.

“The most important color in New York is green,” said Kenneth T. Jackson, a Columbia University historian and editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of New York City.

The Chinese are moving into Dyker Heights for its schools, said Harry Lam, who was hired by Four Seasons Realty in 2009 after its owner saw Chinese families moving into at least half of the vacant housing in the neighborhood. The elementary and junior high schools each have gifted-student programs and a reputation for helping students get accepted at the city’s elite magnet high schools, said Lam.

The new neighborhood residents aren’t new immigrants, said Lam, 53.

“They’re professionals -- doctors, lawyers, accountants, IT,” he said. “They may have grown up along 8th Avenue, which is our little Chinatown, and their parents still live there, but they want something a little bigger and better, maybe with a yard.”

Highest Test Scores

Public School 229, which serves Dyker Heights, has “the highest test scores in the district and among the very top in the city,” according to, which tracks the school system. The student body is 45 percent white, 44 percent Asian, 10 percent Hispanic and 1 percent black, according to the website.

“I talk to the older realtors and they tell me that 10 years ago, they never took Chinese people to Dyker Heights,” Lam said. “Now, it’s the Chinese who are moving in when the current residents die.”

At the Mona Lisa Pastry Shop on 86th Street, Italians have been buying freshly baked bread and cakes since 1963. These days, owner Richard Canastra, 51, feels the squeeze of increased wheat prices and a decreased customer base.

“I went from a busy place Monday through Friday to a situation where I stand here and wonder, ‘Where are the people?’” he said.

Canastra said he relies on weekend and holiday business, when children who live in Staten Island, New Jersey or Long Island visit their aging parents and want a taste of their childhood treats.

“They come to me from what they remember,” he said.

“The generation now, the Italians who are the sons and daughters of people in their 70s and 80s, they are moving,” Joseph Gallo, 64, a retired financial consultant, said as he waited to get a haircut from an Ecuadorean stylist at A & S Barber Shop at 86th Street and 12th Avenue. “They move out and the Asians move in.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE