William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Watching the various incidents concerning immigrants in America has driven that home.
I have been reading Tyler Anbinder’s massive book, City of Dreams in my free time. It weighs in at 735 pages, including 156 pages of footnotes, and recounts immigration to New York City from the time of the Dutch settlers to the 20th century. It is for the most part a social history, giving us a front row seat to the massive waves of immigrants, their living and working conditions, and the consistent wave of backlash against the people who come to America looking for a fresh start.
Anbinder starts his book with the story of Annie Moore, the first person to go through Ellis Island and ends with predictions about future immigration to NYC and its suburbs. He shows us where the lived, and which types of job tended to attract which kinds of immigrants, from Irish bartenders to Greek deli owners.
A few things have remained constant over the years. Immigrants were always at best tolerated, and at worst were on the receiving ends of all kinds of discrimination. Countless times the backlash against immigrants turned violent. With every new wave, from the English to the Dutch colonies up to today’s newcomers, there have been no shortage of people who were afraid these new arrivals would upset their apple carts.
I think of this as I see videos of random idiots screaming at people who were not born in this country–a man yelling at a woman wearing a “Puerto Rico t-shirt, a woman berating a Muslim woman, telling her ICE will come get her children, a customer in a coffee shop suddenly going postal about the Hispanic man in line behind him, not to mention tearing Central American parents away from their children (and then losing track of them).
One other thing remains as a constant; the people who come to this country work hard to make a life for themselves here. It is clear from reading City of Dreams that New York City would not be the place we know it as today were it not for those who made long, and sometimes dangerous journeys to get here. Anbinder does not pass easily over the problems that have resulted from immigrants, but he also vividly shows how they improve the brave, new world they have entered.
If you want a good handle on the overall story of immigrants to America, I highly recommend this book!
A map showing immigrant patterns in lower Manhattan based on the 1860 census. Notice that there is only one small area of “Majority born in the U.S.