“A place in the generous heart of America”: Reflecting on New York’s immigrant history through Tyler Anbinder’s City of Dreams

9780544103856_p0_v4_s192x300I moved to New York City seven months ago, and I’ve spent the last several weeks lugging an extra heavy bag onto the subway during my commutes. Besides my laptop, the main culprit is a 735-page hardcover book – Tyler Anbinder’s City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York. When I manage to get a seat on the train, the book is so heavy that I inevitably end up resting it on my lap and elbowing my neighbors as I turn the pages. I’ve attempted to read it standing up, but since I have to hold a subway pole with one hand to keep from falling over, my wrist usually gets so tired that I eventually give up.

The hardcopy version may not be an ideal subway read, but Anbinder’s new book is certainly worth the extra weight. City of Dreams ambitiously traces the history of New York City’s immigrants from the arrival of a small group of Dutch Walloons in “New Amsterdam” to the present day. Anbinder, a historian and professor at George Washington University, manages to tell a sweeping story – one that reflects both the striking continuities in the New York immigrant experience and the contrasting realities faced by newcomers whose arrivals have always been shaped by the city’s changing political and economic landscape. The story of New York’s immigration is much more than Ellis Island.

Throughout City of Dreams, Anbinder deftly weaves first-hand accounts in with broader historical analyses. These accounts – constructed from letters home, quotes from newspaper articles, and diary entries – allow the voices of immigrants to emerge with intimacy and specificity. And while City of Dreams mainly focuses on the immigrant groups that have historically constituted larger shares of the city’s population – the English, Dutch, Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews, Chinese and Dominicans – he still manages to be inclusive, taking time to consider the experiences of immigrant women and smaller immigrant groups.

For someone like me, who hasn’t spent a lot of time reading about the Civil War or the Gilded Age beyond what I learned from a dreamy high school teacher (to his credit, what I do remember, I remember very fondly), the book serves as both a welcome refresher course on American history and a critical reflection on New York’s immigrant identity. Anbinder challenges and dispels many of our assumptions about just how welcoming and tolerant New York City has been to immigrants in its past and present. This city has constructed an identity that is in part based on values of diversity and inclusion, and yet oft-violent racial tensions, competition between immigrant groups, and openly xenophobic politicians played roles in its history.

 Post-it notes cover the walls in Manhattan's Union Square subway station. Photo by author.

Post-it notes cover the walls in Manhattan’s Union Square subway station. Photo by author.

The crafting of this identity as a city open to immigrants has not always been so intentional. City of Dreams dispels the myth that the Statue of Liberty, often viewed as the most visible expression of the city’s welcoming spirit towards immigrants, was placed in New York harbor with the intention of representing this sentiment. In fact, the Americans who funded the statue’s move from a French warehouse to the city did so in attempts to create a lasting monument to the emancipation of American slaves during the Civil War. The inscription on Lady Liberty was taken from a poem by a young, wealthy Jewish woman named Emma Lazarus, who was the first to draw the connection between the statue and the immigrants and refugees streaming into New York from Eastern Europe at the time. No one at the statue’s dedication mentioned immigration, and was only later that the statue came to be widely viewed as a representation of the city’s attitude towards harboring newcomers.

It was stories like this one that led me to nearly miss my subway stop several times while reading City of Dreams. Sitting on the living room couch of my apartment on a recent evening, I peppered my roommates with questions.

“Did you know that the Draft Riots were the deadliest episode of civil unrest in U.S. history?”

“Did you know that people didn’t actually have their names changed at Ellis Island? The officials there definitely didn’t have enough time to be making up new names.”

“Did you know that Emma Goldman, a young immigrant woman from Russia, was one of the country’s most famous advocates of free love? Or that she and her anarchist friends opened an ice cream shop before attempting to assassinate industrialist Henry Clay Frick?”

My roommates didn’t know most of these stories, because our history books seldom consider the perspectives of immigrants. It’s as if Anbinder is traveling through American history and pausing along the way, and instead of focusing on the usual suspects, he stops to ask new questions I’d seldom considered: Who were the immigrants fighting in the Civil War? What role did Irish Catholics play in the Tammany Hall political machine? How did immigrant women view the labor union movement? These questions are answered not just through analysis but through storytelling, with a voice that is at times poignant, at times funny, and always thoughtfully nuanced.

Given the current political climate, with frequent discussions amongst activists about how to support and protect immigrant communities that may be under threat during a Trump presidency, City of Dreams feels especially relevant. It serves as a reminder of the centrality of immigrants to New York’s identity, but also of the conflicting, and at times simultaneous, embrace and rebuke felt by newcomers. It’s the same feeling so many Irish immigrants wrote home about after immigrating during the Potato Famine- living situations were crowded and dirty, work was hard to come by and the Irish faced discrimination and political manipulation, but many immigrants still gushed to their loved ones about the unparalleled opportunities of their new home. It’s the conflicting emotions of relief and fear so many immigrants felt as they crowded the decks of ships to see a first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty looming above the harbor.

Despite the economic opportunity and freedoms that have been afforded to massive numbers of immigrants in New York City, there has always been a limit to city’s willingness to welcome newcomers. It has never been difficult for New Yorkers to justify using laws, social pressure or elections to ensure that certain immigrant groups are prevented from fully participating. City of Dreams underscores our collective inability to learn from history, and furthermore, just how quickly the rules change when one immigrant group is deemed to have sufficiently assimilated. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, whenever one immigrant group became wealthy enough to move out of the worst of the city’s tenements, they were quickly filled by a newer group of immigrants who lived under similarly harsh conditions. Anbinder describes how Italians in the 1940s criticized newly arrived Puerto Ricans using the same disparaging language that the Irish had used to denigrate Italians just a few years earlier. Divisiveness between immigrant groups, often a weapon of the American-born elites used to reinforce power, is nothing new at all.

When we hear about surging hate crimes and fret about potential anti-immigrant legislation today, it’s important to remember that these sentiments and laws have a history and aren’t emerging out of nowhere. Just like the Federalists’ Alien and Sedition Acts, or even Roosevelt’s initial support of the use of economic and educational tests to admit immigrants, politicians have and will continue to use immigration laws and xenophobic rhetoric as political tools, pitting communities against one another in the process. Similarly, when activists speak out in protest, and civil society groups mobilize to protect vulnerable minorities, New Yorkers might in turn reflect upon this city’s long history of pro-immigrant charity, community resilience and fierce grassroots resistance.

I’ve moved on to other subway reading, but City of Dreams has given me a new way to look at my new home – through the voices of the immigrants who have shaped this city’s history.

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