An increasing proportion of New York City's South Asian communities are comprised of immigrants from Bangladesh, the impoverished, overcrowded nation that borders India to the west and Myanmar (Burma) to the east. Bangladesh was born in the crucible of the 1971 war of independence which transformed East Pakistan into the new state of Bangladesh. Ever since, fleeing poverty and deprivation, millions of Bangladeshis have migrated to the Middle East, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and elsewhere.
In New York City, they have formed vibrant communities in parts of Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Between 1990 and 2000, the Bangladeshi population in NYC grew more rapidly than that of any other Asian immigrant group, jumping from less than 5,000 to more than 28,000 by 2000. The New York Times reported that at least 74,000 Bangladeshis now call Gotham home. That number is expected to climb rapidly in the years to come, given that Bangladeshis tend to be younger than the rest of the city’s inhabitants and have more children per couple.
Bangladeshis drive taxis, own small diners and restaurants (many so-called 'Indian' eateries are actually run by Bangladeshis), operate news kiosks, run pizzerias, work in bagel shops and are involved in other business enterprises. Some Bangladeshis have even become cops. The New York Times recently reported on a Bangladeshi immigrant named Showkat Khan who has joined the New York Police Department as a traffic enforcement agent, becoming part of a growing presence on the force.
There are now at least 400 Bangladeshi traffic agents, accounting for up to 15 percent of policemen who write up parking tickets in the city, according to Robert Cassar, the president of the agents' union. (In contrast, Bangladeshis account for less than 1 percent of New York City's total population.) “You are here to make money in this country, and to get a better life,” Khan told a crowd of his fellow countrymen at a meeting encouraging them to become city traffic agents.
A career as a traffic agent appeals greatly to many Bangladeshis -- with its generous health care and pension benefits -- while college degrees and U.S. citizenship are not required for the job, which offers a paltry initial salary of some $29,000). “I saw a lot of Bengali people walking around the city, writing tickets,” Sheikh Zaman, a former airport security guard, told the Times. “I was surprised. They told me this was a very easy job to get.” Now, as a traffic agent for five years, Zaman said he loves his job and helps other Bangladeshis prepare for the civil service exam to join the police force.
About 100 of Bangladeshi traffic agents have gone on to become full-fledged police officers. Union leader Cassar noted that the transition was not easy. “Not only was there a language barrier, which is abating, but our Bangladeshi brothers and sisters were very standoffish at the beginning,” he told the Times. Interestingly, given the proliferation of Bangladeshi taxi drivers already on the roads of the city, it is not at all unusual for a fellow countryman to slap a parking violation ticket on the cabbie's windshield, raising their ire.
Data from the Asian-American Foundation (AAF) on the Bangladeshi presence in New York City depicts a community that is highly stratified, entrepreneurial and fruitful, but burdened also by poverty, poor education and English language skills, overcrowded homes and substandard housing. In terms of cold hard numbers, three-fifths of Bangladeshis in New York reside in Queens, with large enclaves in Jamaica, Briarwood, Jackson Heights, Woodside, Elmhurst, Sunnyside and Astoria.
Almost three-quarters (74 percent) of the city’s Bangladeshis were born overseas; half (51 percent) are naturalized U.S. citizens; slightly more than one-third (36.5 percent) hold at least a college bachelor’s degree; but more than one-fifth (22 percent) of adults have no high school diploma.
Bangladeshis also disproportionately live in poverty -- their average per capita income is $13,504, less than half the city-wide average of $30,717; with almost one-third of the community (32.1 percent) living in poverty (versus 20.1 percent for the city). Nearly two-fifths of Bangladeshi children (37.5 percent) are ensnared in poverty (far higher than the 29.1 percent figure for the city as a whole).
One of the most unusual characteristics of the Bangladeshi community is its predominance of males -- females account for 47 percent of the entire population, and only 40 percent of adults between the ages of 35 and 64 (in contrast, women outnumber men in the remainder of the city’s various ethnic groups). This gender imbalance likely reflects migration patterns -- men leave their villages in Bangladesh first, establish themselves in the new country and send for wives later once they can afford them.
The Brooklyn Bureau publication reported on an emerging Bangladeshi enclave in City Line in East New York, on the border between Queens and Brooklyn. One of the poorest neighborhoods in the metropolis, City Line is now home to a community of 2,000 Bangladeshis, having tripled in size in just the past decade. A working-class Jewish-Italian neighborhood until the 1960s, East New York then metamorphosed into a black-Hispanic ghetto; now, the streets are lined with halal groceries, mosques and many Bangladeshis.
“My father moved here in 1982, and then my family followed his steps. It was cheap to buy houses and many Bangladeshis were opening business,” City Line resident Misba Abdin told the New York Daily News. But they are not immune to the ills of the ghetto: crime, violence (at least 10 Bangladeshis have been murdered in City Line since 1982), poor access to education and health care as well as ethnic and racial hostilities. In the wake of 9/11, some Bangladeshis (who overwhelmingly adhere to Islam) were attacked by Hispanic youths, culminating in the murder Bangladeshi photojournalist Mizanur Rahman. In the past decade in City Line, through the efforts of community leaders and public multiethnic events, race relations have improved between Bangladeshis and blacks and Latinos.
“Since they [Bangladeshis] started coming into the area, they opened a lot of business. I think they are doing much more for the neighborhood than my own African-American community is,” Victoria Williams, a long-time resident of City Line, told the Daily News.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.