Three New Books Explore New York City’s Immigrant History


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I am always on the lookout for new scholarship on immigrant history. Luckily, we have three new books on immigration to the world capital of immigration, New York City. One is a magisterial history of the city’s four hundred years of immigration. The second looks at the city during the Civil War. The third tells the story of the creation of immigration laws in New York to expel the Irish poor who fled here during the Great Famine.

Historian Tyler Anbinder has built an excellent body of work on 19th Century immigrant history. Over the last two decades, he has published important books on the old Irish neighborhood of Five Points which is today’s Chinatown and the politics of the Know Nothing Party in the 1850s. His publication of City of Dreams: The 400 Year Epic History of Immigrant New York cements his standing as one of the leading historians of the immigrant experience.

City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York by Tyler Anbinder published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 771 pages (2016)

This massive book must be read by anyone who loves New York City and wants to know how it got to be the way it is. Based on years of research, it provides an intimate look into the lives of men and women from distant shores who came in pursuit of their own American Dream. Newly arrived, these immigrants not only had to learn how to cope with America, but also how to come to terms with the dozens of cultures they encountered in every borough of their new city.

Anbinder begins his book by quoting an early 20th Century immigrant on the transformative power of immigrant New York: “Hating one another, loving one another, agreeing and disagreeing in a hundred different languages, a hundred different dialects, a hundred different religions. Crowding one another, and fusing against their wills slowly with one another.” The impressive thing about immigrant New York is not the predictable conflict and strains, but the fact that people so seemingly different could so often come together and fuse families, politics, and cultures.1

While America is a nation of immigrants, it is also a nation of immigrant-haters. This hatred manifested itself in the area before “New York” even existed. In 1654, the Dutch colonial governor Peter Stuyvesant spoke out against Jewish refugees from Brazil settling in New Amsterdam. He argued that they stole jobs from the Dutch, that they would need to be supported by the government because of their poverty, and that they were a “deceitful race— such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ.”2

The city’s Dutch Reformed minister Johannes Megapolensis agreed that the Jews should be excluded, saying, “We have here Papists [Catholics], Mennonites and Lutherans among the Dutch; also many Puritans or Independents, and many Atheists and various other servants of Baal among the English. It would create a still greater confusion, if the obstinate and immovable Jews came to settle here.”  In other words, the minister was saying that the city, with only a few thousand inhabitants, was already a pretty diverse place.3

Fortunately, the Jews were given refuge, though more for commercial reasons than out of a sense of humanity. This experience would set a pattern for later history: New York often did the right thing by immigrants, though not always for the best reasons.

Immigrants helped build the Dutch and later English city, but immigrants would always be suspect to some. In 1741, white New Yorkers became suspicious that black slaves were setting a series of fires in the city as a political protest. It appears that several slaves did, in fact, set fires as acts of revenge against masters who had mistreated them. The prosecutor decided that blacks would only have taken such actions as a result of a plot by the Pope to attack the city. White New Yorkers, mostly Irish immigrants, were arrested along with the blacks. Thirty blacks were executed as were four whites suspected of being Catholics.

A generation later, the Irish would form the backbone of the revolutionary mobs in the city, according to no less an authority than Ben Franklin. A British officer in the army that captured New York wrote that “the chief strength of the rebel army at present consists of natives of Europe, particularly Irishmen:— many of their regiments are composed principally of these men.” The Irish were not the only revolutionists. The author shows the centrality of immigrants like Alexander Hamilton to the Patriot cause.4

Tyler Anbinder does a good job recalling the stories of the immigrants who made it big in post-Revolutionary New York. Men like Jacob Astor of Walldorf, Germany. Astor started out as a young immigrant “baker’s boy,” became a kingpin in the fur trade, invested his profits in Manhattan land, and became the city’s biggest real estate developer. In modern dollars, his fortune was bigger than that of Bill Gates. But Anbinder’s biggest contribution is in disclosing the lives of the previously unknown poor and struggling immigrants whose descendants now populate this country.5

Irish poor during the Great Hunger.

The 19th Century saw New York’s rise as the entrepôt of immigrants. By 1830, New York had four times as many immigrants as Philadelphia and five times as many as Boston. The city was already multicultural and multilingual, with business conducted in English, German, French, Italian and Spanish in the different parts of the city. James Fenimore Cooper observed that the city’s immigrants came from “all the countries of christendom.”6

As the number of immigrants grew, so did opposition to their arrival. Resentment against immigrants built steadily in the 1830s and 1840s. Much of the negative feelings were focused on the Irish, who seemed unwilling to spend their lives thanking the native-born for giving them the opportunity to slave for them. In many cases, the source of resentment was in the Irish acting “too American.” Anbinder writes that, “Any attempt to reprimand an Irish employee, it was said, would be met with “We’re all equal here!” and a threat to quit. Irish “servant girls” in particular, were notorious for resigning on the slightest provocation. As a result, many employers would not hire them.” Some even tried to insert “No Irish need apply” into want ads.7

From: City of Dreams

Even without the nativists and bigots, life was hard for the newly arrived immigrant. Anbinder’s book does a magnificent job of bringing the reader to the docks along South Street where disembarking immigrants in the 1850s were met by “runners,” sharks who momentarily befriended immigrants in order to rob them or con them. An investigative committee reported on this danger, saying that “We find the German preying upon the German— the Irish upon the Irish— the English upon the English.” Immigrant communities each set up their own immigrant aid societies to try to protect newcomers from the old country from becoming prey to these thieves.8

Anbinder devotes a substantial part of City of Dreams to New York during the Civil War Era. From the huge influx of Irish and German immigrants during the thirteen years before the war to the recruiting of immigrant regiments, the Draft Riots, and the Post-War world created by the conflict, this is the best account that I have ever read of the ways immigrants experienced the war in the city.

The book also forces the reader to re-examine old beliefs. For example, we often hear that American women in the “Victorian Age” rarely worked outside the home. That might have been true of the native-born, but more than a third of Irish women worked for pay by the time of the Civil War. Immigrant women, German, Irish, or Jewish, also defied American conventions by starting their own businesses, taking in entertainments without a chaperone, and controlling their own money. Out of necessity and desire, immigrant women were pioneering changes in gender roles 160 years ago.

The city’s immigrant population went through tremendous changes after the 1880s. Irish immigration declined, even as the children of the Famine Irish rose in power, wealth, and prominence. New streams of immigrants from all parts of the world filled the docks.

Anbinder reminds us that in spite of growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the early 1900s, the city was incredibly diverse. There were Syrian and Lebanese enclaves south of where the Freedom Tower is now, and neighborhoods that were distinctly Afro-Caribbean, Armenian, Bulgarian, Chinese, “Croatian, Czech, French, German, ‘Gipsy,’ Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Jewish, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Scandinavian, Scotch, Serb, Slovak, Slovene, and Spanish.” While the immigrants changed, the neighborhoods they inhabited sometimes stayed the same. What had once been the Irish Five Points became Chinatown 50 years later and Little Germany became the Jewish Lower East Side. The Lower East Side of the Jews was the most densely populated neighborhood in the world.9

When the famed reporter Nellie Bly wrote about her visit to the Jewish Lower East Side, she presented a harrowing picture says Anbinder:

[D]angerous pitch-black hallways and stairwells, unbearable noise, “vile stench,” and stifling heat. “Oh, the smell of it!” Bly exclaimed upon opening the door of her third-floor apartment. “It seemed to me that more than a million kinds of smell rushed out to embrace me in strong, if unseen, arms.” A good portion of the stench came from the tenement inhabitants themselves. Lower East Siders bathed just a few times a year because only 8 percent of them had bathtubs. Bly also discovered that with 3,500 people living on her block, there was no escaping “the constant sound of voices which rose in one unbroken buzz from the street,” all day and all night. That noise, plus the endless cacophony of crying babies, stairwell traffic, and other loud sounds produced inside her own building, made it impossible for Bly to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time.10

Italian immigrants crowded together on Bayard St.

When Italians immigrated by the hundreds of thousands in the early 20th Century, overcrowding only increased. Today SoHo and the West Village are fashionable neighborhoods, but 100 years ago they were Italian enclaves nearly as crowded as the Lower East Side. Anbinder describes the scene: “Rather than take in a boarder or two as the Irish had done to help make ends meet, Italians tended to share their apartments with an entire second family. In the district’s typical three-room apartments, one family might occupy one room while the boarding family slept in the second. The third room— the kitchen— would be used by both. In some three- and four-room apartments, three families might share the space.”11

City of Dreams, although a history, is not locked in the past. It fully covers the new immigration sparked by the repeal of the racist national origins quotas in 1965. This removed the prohibitions on immigration from Asia and turned the most diverse city in the world into the first truly multicultural one. South Asian, Chinese, Korean, Muslim, and African immigrants have joined immigrants from throughout Latin America as the new immigrant pioneers of the emerging New York City.

In his conclusion, Anbinder dispels the myths of a one-time “Golden Age” of immigrant, whom today’s immigrants cannot live up to. He reminds us that while today’s immigrants study English and civics to become citizens, “From 1820 to 1920…when the immigrant ancestors of most of today’s native-born Americans arrived in the United States, an immigrant could become a citizen without knowing a single word of English or answering a single question about American history or government.” While modern immigrants begin participating in American life almost from the time they arrive here, the old immigrants often spent decades in isolated ethnic enclaves. Anbinder says that “When pundits complain that today’s immigrants don’t assimilate like those from the past, they are harking back to a golden era that never actually existed.”12

The one criticism I have of the book is that it misses the story of cross-ethnic immigrant cooperation. Groups like the New York Immigration Coalition (of which I am Past-Chairperson) have worked to create a unifying agenda for immigrants regardless of their country of origin. Immigrant organizations no longer work in isolation from one another. They now work together, rally together, and move forward together.

That said, City of Dreams is the must-have book on immigrant New York this year. It is one of the best books on immigration that I have ever read.

City of Sedition: The History of New York City during the Civil War by John Strausbaugh 432 pages (2016)

The same year that brought us City of Dreams also provided City of Sedition: The History of New York City During the Civil War by John Strausbaugh. If City of Dreams devotes a quarter of its pages to the Civil War Era, then City of Sedition spends a quarter of its space on immigrants.

In the pages of this book, you will meet the immigrants who helped create modern journalism, machine politics, and popular culture in New York. You will also find out about the militant abolitionists, political revolutionaries, and potential cannon fodder for the all-consuming war who sprang from the city’s immigrant neighborhoods.

The final book I am reviewing this week, Expelling the Poor:Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy by Hidetaka Hirota, proves that one of my long-standing beliefs was wrong. I thought that before the 1880s, almost no one was deported from the United States. I had accepted the idea that repressive immigration laws had only come in with the racially motivated exclusion of the Chinese in the 1880s. As this book makes clear, deportations really began with antagonism towards the Irish in Massachusetts and New York.

Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy by Hidetaka Hirota published by Oxford University Press 409 pages (2016)

The author, Hidetaka Hirota, writes that, “During the first half of the nineteenth century, New York and Massachusetts received a growing influx of poor Catholic Irish immigrants. The newcomers’ religion triggered an outburst of anti-Irish nativism in these states, but so too did the immigrants’ poverty. Impoverished at home and sickened during the transatlantic passage, a “significant portion of the Irish arrived in the United States without the physical strength and financial resources to support themselves and thus had to enter almshouses.” The almshouses were the 19th Century’s welfare aid program for the poor.13

Between the 1830s and the 1880s, approximately  50,000 people, mostly Irish, were removed from Massachusetts alone. While the absolute number is large, about 1,000 people per year, it was not a large percentage of total immigrants. Still, the book contains a depressing recitation of American prejudices against the sorts of poor people that Famine Era Ireland was sending to America – the starving, the grief stricken, and the infirm. Although New York was never as harsh as Massachusetts, it was second in the number of state-ordered deportations.

Even more distressing is the treatment of those who were deported. In some cases, the deportees were Irish who had lived and worked productively for decades in the United States, but who were then deported when, later in life, they developed what we would recognize as dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. The immigrants were then shipped back to Liverpool or Ireland with little concern for whether these mentally disabled people made it alive.

Immigration history, like women’s and African American history, was largely ignored for generations. These books place immigrants in the forefront of their assessments of New York.


  1. Anbinder, Tyler. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York (Kindle Locations 303-305). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  2. Anbinder, Tyler. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York (Kindle Location 867). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  3. Anbinder, Tyler. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York (Kindle Locations 871-873). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  4. Anbinder, Tyler. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York (Kindle Locations 2204-2205). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  5. Anbinder, Tyler. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York (Kindle Locations 2463). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  6. Anbinder, Tyler. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York (Kindle Locations 2580). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  7. Anbinder, Tyler. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York (Kindle Locations 2706-2708). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.\
  8. Anbinder, Tyler. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York (Kindle Locations 3076-3077). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  9. Anbinder, Tyler. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York (Kindle Locations 7043-7045). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  10. Anbinder, Tyler. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York (Kindle Locations 7142-7144). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  11. Anbinder, Tyler. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York (Kindle Locations 7748-7751). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  12. Anbinder, Tyler. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York (Kindle Locations 11235-11240). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  13. Hirota, Hidetaka. Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy (Kindle Locations 137-141). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.