American growth

July 4th, 2015

According to Liz Robbins in the New York Times, New York City has a three-month program that helps immigrants adapt their farming experience to their new home. She talks to Jacob Okam, who is growing Nigerian vegetables on a plot leased from Kean University in New Jersey. He is thankful for the kind of assistance he didn’t receive in Nigeria, and says: “If I put the two things together, if I take the good part of America and what I inherited, then I will move forward.”

I can’t think of a better way to express what I consider the American ideal—not only how immigrants can thrive, but how immigration can continue to enrich the United States and help us grow in ways we certainly could not if we were to close our borders.

Happy Independence Day to all—and courage and strength to everyone still fighting for it.

Brazil 2014

June 15th, 2014


I’m a few days late, but we’ve still got 56 World Cup matches left. Liz Robbins and Marc Santora in the New York Times offer some suggestions about where to watch among compatriots or simply fellow fans. Of course, my assumption is that anyplace that has been recommended for Cup-watching in the Times will be too crowded. Friends and I went to Der Schwarze Kölner in Fort Greene for the 10 a.m. Germany-Argentina match in 2010, and despite arriving early and grabbing a table, by halftime we found our view totally blocked by tall Germans, and we had to take our diminutive personages elsewhere to watch the second half.

Where else–any suggestions? Walking down 33rd St from Sixth Avenue to Park on Thursday afternoon, I must have passed at least eight places showing the opening match, and for generic options, Third Avenue has no shortage of pubs with screens. I’m hoping to get to Woodwork in Brooklyn. Sad to say, I don’t spend much of my life watching football/soccer in bars.

Then there’s the question: USA or not USA? I understand the “anyone but USA” impulse—few populations care less about the sport than we do, so what gives us the right to be no. 1?—but rooting for your country in the World Cup is what it’s all about. Besides, we’re getting better as both players & spectators, and I’m a big believer in Jürgen Klinsmann. But after we’re eliminated, I have to go with Germany, for ancestral reasons.

Give me your tired, your poor, your gorgeous

May 29th, 2014

I remember an early David Letterman show where he recruited a dentist to review some current movie, and the dentist only talked about the actors’ teeth. That’s how I’m looking at The Immigrant—as a story of immigration. That’s why I went to see it—when I see so few movies these days—and I’m glad I did. But my focus was also a source of dissatisfaction, because to some degree the story of immigration felt like a backdrop, especially at first, when the score swells to fill the Guastavino arches of Ellis Island’s Registry Room.

It’s 1921, and Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and her sister are newly arrived from Poland, where they have no family left. It has been a cruel trip, and her sister has an ominous cough. In no time the sister has been whisked off to the infirmary and Ewa is told that due to her lack of money and rumored low morals, she will be deported. Their aunt and uncle are nowhere to be found. Frantic, she accepts the spurious custody of Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who runs a girlie show, and tries to safeguard her body while seeking a way to get her sister off the island—either through Bruno or his rival and cousin, the magician Emil (Jeremy Renner). Emotions run high, and one unfortunate event leads to another.

I liked the period feel, Ellis Island, the tenements, Central Park. And the film does a good job of underlining what a risk steerage-level immigrants were taking, especially women on their own. It was easy to understand why going back was not an option for Ewa and her sister. But for me, with my immigrant-experience focus, the problem is that Ewa’s such an exception: English-speaking and beautiful. Her desirability, besides her devotion to her sister, is what the drama revolves around. I couldn’t help wanting to know more about everyone else—the regular arrivals. While I applaud director James Gray for telling a story that is not what you might expect, it’s not a story that would have held much interest for me had it not concerned an immigrant. (And I must admit, as a public health student, I wasn’t entirely sympathetic with the idea that she should break her tubercular sister out of quarantine.)

So go for the performances, the atmosphere, the melodrama, and maybe the feeling of loneliness these new arrivals convey. Don’t expect revelations of what it was like for your ancestors. As for the teeth . . . I didn’t notice them.

Transitions in Bay Ridge

February 16th, 2014

Tim McLoughlin in the New York Times writes about the Danish Athletic Club on 65th Street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. As the Scandinavian population in Bay Ridge dwindles, the club is finding a new clientele among Mexican immigrant families. Manager Reidun Thompson says, “They are like the Norwegians. They work hard, they play hard.”

Brooklyn’s Scandinavian history also lives on in the Scandinavian East Coast Museum. This project, incorporated in 1996 by the dynamo Victoria Hofmo, is still seeking a permanent home, but its website offers histories (written & oral), genealogical information, photos and videos, and a terrific map of old 8th Avenue from 54th to 60th St.

In the meantime they will be celebrating Fastelavn, the Danish Mardi Gras, on Sunday, February 23, and Viking Fest on May 17. Show them some love!

Imagine yourself drinking beer in 1870

January 19th, 2013
Lower East Side Tenement Museum

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum has a new tour: Shop Life, which includes the re-creation of an 1870s German saloon along with stories and pictures from other retail businesses that have been part of 97 Orchard Street over the decades.

The saloon is a beautiful warm space, although dimly lit—and, our guide Claudia told us, in the days of kerosene lanterns it probably would have been dimmer still. Besides a fine wooden bar and nice furniture, there’s a table in the corner laid out with the same food you find in Germany today—sausage, eggs, bread. (Unfortunately the repast was only a model—while it would be wonderful to have a live experience in the saloon, with food and drink and music, that would be too much to ask of the museum. But you can find Germans drinking beer at Der Schwarze Kölner in Fort Greene.) Beyond the saloon is a little office room, then a tiny kitchen, then a well-furnished small bedroom. 

Claudia raised some good points about the importance of the wife’s unpaid labor (a great book about female lives & labor back in the day, if you’re interested, is Olwen Hufton’s The Prospect Before Her) and the controversy about New York’s blue laws, which forbade alcohol sales on Sunday—in German culture, the day the families liked to enjoy a few beers together after church.

The last room features an interactive exhibit that offers a variety of information and stories to read and listen to. I would have liked to meet the 15-year-old girl who mastered the new typewriter model in 1900, opening up her career horizons. The onward pace of the generations comes through in this exhibit; by the 1930s, many of the Lower East Side shopkeepers no longer lived in a room behind their business, but in Brooklyn or elsewhere. In many cases, America was indeed a springboard to the middle class.

As with the other tours at the museum, it’s about putting yourself in a space and hearing stories to help you imagine. The guides are good about reminding us of things affecting life for nineteenth-century immigrants that might never occur to us today.


We had a great time at Shop Life, and then went for soup in Chinatown.




Bringing Indonesians together

October 21st, 2012

I’m interested in how groups (ethnic or otherwise) find their center, a place to congregate—what is the magic ingredient? For Indonesians in New York, it’s Upi Jaya restaurant in Elmhurst, Queens, at least according to Doug Clark in the New York Times. According to this, “What draws everyone is the cooking of Upi Yuliastuti, 57, the owner of the restaurant, as well as its only cook.”

Folk artists share performances in Queens garden

August 23rd, 2012

The Gift of Wisdom, part of the Locating the Sacred Festival, is a collaboration among immigrant artists who are masters of their respective traditions. Artists from the New York Foundation for the Arts Folk Artist Development Program will perform from 2 to 4:30 pm Saturday, Sept. 15, at the Queens Botanical Garden in Flushing. This sounds like a wonderful opportunity to learn about the spirit of these traditions, in a beautiful place to boot.

Performances, according to the website, include “a devotional Odissi dance (classical dance form of India) by Mala Desai, a Hindustani classical composition on sitar by Ikhlaq Hussain, powerful songs of praise for elders on the kora (African harp-lute) by Alhaji Papa Susso, and a seasonal improvisation on the kayagum (Korean zither) by Yoon Soon Park.” RSVPs are requested but not required.

The Locating the Sacred Festival, which involves more than 300 artists, is a 12-day, 25-event arts festival coordinated by the Asian American Arts Alliance.

They came, they built, they persevered

May 24th, 2012

Time for a long-belated report on the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), which I visited in October 2010. The museum, which was created in 1980 but expanded a few years ago at 215 Centre Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown, offers a fresh perspective for those who are used to thinking about 19th- and 20th-century immigration as an Ellis Island–based experience involving Europeans coming to New York.

Among other things, the museum’s permanent exhibition “With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America” tells how immigrants came to America to earn money for their families in the California Gold Rush and the building of the transcontinental railroad. A poem from the 1840s tells of someone going to America “to fight my family’s hunger. / To make them proud.” As is typically the case with new immigrants, Chinese laborers encountered a fair amount of hatred here, especially when they were hired as strikebreakers in the 1870s.

General store, Museum of Chinese in America

General store, Museum of Chinese in America

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 essentially banned immigration except for merchants, diplomats, and students, and led to the creation of a “bachelor society,” as any laborers who did get into the Land of Liberty, or were already here, were forbidden to bring wives or marry white women. This was particularly cruel for a culture where family is everything. In the meantime, as illustrated by the re-creation of a Chinese general store (above), merchants served as a post office for laborers and a tie to the traditions of their homeland, some of which were maintained in this setting even after they had died out in China. 

The act was finally repealed in 1943, when the war with Japan created a powerful incentive to befriend China. It’s jarring to see a Life magazine page from December 1941 with instructions on “How to Tell Japs from the Chinese”—a public service to keep Chinese people from being attacked by Japanese haters. (Life calls this “a distressing ignorance,” but as far as I could tell, it didn’t protest the assault of Japanese Americans.)

I don’t want to give the impression that the museum is a rebuke to Americans. The Chinese immigrants’ experience was similar, in many ways, to those of the ancestors of most Americans today. The degree of unwelcome was much worse because of the undeniable component of racism. But the sense that I got while touring the museum by myself is that it was created by Americans of Chinese descent who are proud to tell the story of how they came to be part of this country, helping to build it in the process. Becoming an American is still an aspiration, but, significantly, it is not one that requires, or should require, giving up your cultural heritage. We are all enriched by this.

The museum also enlightened me on historical matters of which I was shamefully ignorant: for instance, the Opium Wars. (I had never before seen John Jacob Astor referred to as a “fur and opium millionaire.”) China was a booming exporter in the mid-19th century, interested only in collecting silver in return, and the British Empire became frustrated with the trade imbalance. (This may sound familiar.) The Opium Wars were fought because Britain was trying to force opium into China to create a market for something they could supply. China, not unreasonably, objected.

This is not an immigration issue, but it is illustrative of how much of world history we don’t know about if we don’t seek it out. Seeking it out at MOCA is definitely worth the trip.