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Guzzardi: Christmas in New York: A cautionary tale

Traffic makes it's way across 42nd Street in New York City. (Mary Altaffer/AP, File)

Traffic makes it's way across 42nd Street in New York City. (Mary Altaffer/AP, File)

I have seen the major U.S. metropolis’ future, and it is bleak. A New York City Christmas vacation, spawned by nostalgia for the Manhattan where I lived for most of the 1960s and 1970s, was a grave disappointment, and proof that Thomas Wolfe is right — you can’t go home. Happy memories of carefree skaters around the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree were quickly dashed.

Whether walking along Park Avenue’s Upper East Side or downtown around the East Village, the city is an unlivable, overcrowded, filthy mess. Not that the ’60s and ’70s were perfect — far from it. Crime and workers’ strikes were major problems. The city teetered on bankruptcy. But with the passage of a half a century, I expected improvements, but found none.

Good luck getting around, and forget about parking. The only viable method to get from point A to point B is on foot, okay for the ambulatory but only for short distances during which construction debris and scaffolding have to be negotiated. Every building appears to be under construction. Public transportation and private cars are at the mercy of road closures, detours, bicyclists, inattentive pedestrians and double-parked vehicles on narrow streets.

Underground is problematic too. Subways are packed, unreliable and often rodent-infested. Public address messages are unintelligible. New York’s annual 60 million tourists, some who come for an extended stay, exacerbate crowding.

Other U.S. cities — including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago — have similar problems, which proves that once too many people are crammed into too small an area, the quality of life rapidly deteriorates. Proposed solutions like bike lanes and car-free zones can’t offset the relentless flow of more humanity. Once smart growth was all the rage. The smart growth fantasy is that a vertical lifestyle -- apartments and condos -- would minimize congestion. But New York is almost exclusively vertical, and crowding worsens every year.

Basic math proves the point. NYC has about 8.6 million residents distributed over 302 square miles which makes it the nation’s most densely populated major city with more than twice the population of the second largest city, Los Angeles. As well, 38 of the nation’s 50 states each have less population than NYC. Since 2010, New York’s population has increased an unsustainable 5.5 percent.

Approximately 37 percent of the city’s population is foreign born, nearly three times the national average, and more than half of all children are born to immigrant mothers. Among those immigrants, between 2000 and 2010, Asians constituted the fastest-growing segment of the city’s population.

But adding more people hurts already severely suffering New Yorkers. More people mean more competition for jobs, affordable housing, public transportation, quality education, police protection and social services. A report that the Center for Economic Opportunity published found that 45.6 percent of all New Yorkers barely make ends meet, and that the most severely affected are the rapidly growing Asian population, especially the non-English speaking.

Alleviating rampant population growth in New York and elsewhere isn’t a panacea. The controllable variable in the overpopulation equation is immigration. Don’t eliminate it, but instead create manageable immigration policies that help instead of hurt immigrants already in the U.S. and native-born citizens.

Joe Guzzardi is a Progressives for Immigration Reform analyst who has written about immigration for more than 30 years. Contact him at jguzzardi@pfirdc.org.

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