Working for freedom

July 4th, 2017

Something a little less buttoned-up for Independence Day this year.

We can work it out

February 4th, 2017

I began this blog in the spirit of celebration of the astonishing array of immigrant cultures that thrive in New York City. It’s not simply the different foods, customs, and architecture that we can experience as home-town tourists; it’s the people to whom their culture means something who make it live and breathe. The neighborhoods I visit are more or less enclaves—though often enclaves interwoven with each other—where new American residents can feel that they belong, and they don’t have to wonder whether they’re doing it right. This feeling of certainty fortifies our souls.

So when I try to understand the point of view of those who feel threatened by immigrants, I imagine that their towns—especially small towns where nearly everyone shares the same background—offer the same sense of certainty as an enclave. And that when seemingly all of a sudden the population starts swelling with people who speak another language, it may feel like an attack on your shared values, your certainty, your security. And there may be real problems, culture clashes, competition for jobs. Lifelong residents have concerns and deserve to be listened to, just like lifelong New Yorkers whose neighborhoods are gentrifying and feel their sense of community threatened. But if we focus on the problems themselves—rather than pledging allegiance to us versus them—we can find solutions.

We are rewarded by a richer world. Whether I’m weaving down the sidewalks of Chinese Flushing, buying Lebanese olive oil in Bay Ridge, or enjoying tacos in Corona—or merging with the Yemeni bodega owners rallying at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, above—I’m cheered by how much we have in common as ordinary humans. It’s not my culture, but I am treated with courtesy. These are all my neighbors, and if I want this to be a neighborly world, it’s up to me to stand with them. Love wins. If it doesn’t, what kind of home are we left with?

Tenement Museum expands

August 13th, 2016


New York’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum has worked hard in recent years to remind visitors that immigrant life is not simply a historical artifact, with walking tours and events that highlight the present-day immigrant lives of the Lower East Side. Now they are filling in the gap between the exhibits at their original museum site, 97 Orchard Street, and the streets of today.

In 2007 the museum purchased a former tenement at 103 Orchard Street (also known as 81 Delancey) and installed their visitors’ center and gift shop on the ground floor. Next year they will open new apartment exhibits in that building, telling the stories of newcomers who arrived after World War II: Holocaust survivors, U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico, and Chinese families, especially after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished the quota system.

Liz Robbins in the New York Times can tell you all about it.

Family reunion

March 31st, 2016

Sam Roberts in the New York Times brings us the latest update on Ellis Island’s first immigrant, Annie Moore, featuring the incomparable genealogist Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak,* who identified two family descendants, Paul Linehan of County Kildare, Ireland, and Michael Shulman of Maryland, and brought them together in New York. Shulman’s take on the United States’ current immigration debate: “As a financial analyst I can say, Do you have any idea of what this country would be like without immigration?”

*Curious about her name? See Ancestry magazine, Sept/Oct 2006, page 28.

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!