Setting the table

Ellis Island, of course, is the great symbol of immigration to New York. It’s a terrific museum. Standing in the great hall where new arrivals waited for processing, you can imagine. (There’s an extensive sequence set there in the 2007 movie The Golden Door, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the experience of early-20th-century immigrants.)

Approximately 20 million immigrants went through Ellis Island. But it was open for a short time only, 1892 to 1924, and while this was the peak of immigration, there are many other stories. Millions entered the country somewhere other than New York (Philadelphia, Boston, or other ports or borders), and incipient Americans had been flowing in for hundreds of years already, as they still are. I recommend the Ellis Island website’s timeline for a quick history.

Focusing on New York, as briefly as I can manage: The Dutch West India Company sent Walloon families to settle New Amsterdam in 1624. The town diversified fast—by 1643, the 500 residents spoke 18 different languages—and grew rapidly. Still, the first census, in 1790, counted most New Yorkers to be of English or Dutch descent, followed by other British, German, and French. I’m not sure where the African population fits in among those, but it was more than 20% of the city in 1746.

Between 1815 and 1915, about 24 million people immigrated through the port of New York, often fleeing famine, revolution, or religious persecution in Europe. The arrival of many Irish Catholics and German Catholics led to decades of conflict with staunchly Protestant and nativist New Yorkers (more on that another day).

From 1856 to 1892, immigrants came through Castle Garden (now Castle Clinton National Monument in Battery Park, where you buy your tickets to the Liberty Island and Ellis Island ferries; they also have free concerts there in the summer). Around this time the state got its act together and established procedures against the fraud and extortion that new arrivals had commonly faced.

Foreign-born population from 1860 to 1900 hovered around 39-47% in Manhattan; 31-39% in Brooklyn; and 25% in Queens.

In the late 1880s, a new surge came from southern and eastern Europe, especially Russian Jews and Italians. While many earlier immigrants had continued west, a good portion of this wave settled in New York. Their stories can be heard—and their surroundings seen and touched—at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Ellis Island shifted to other uses in 1924, when Congress passed laws establishing strict immigration quotas. Since then, hopeful immigrants go through their tests in overseas consulates, before making the trip (which does seem like a better system to me). The new rules allowed each country a percentage of its current contribution to the U.S. population—diversity was definitely not the intent. Significantly, though, the quotas included colonial possessions, so people from Jamaica and the British West Indies counted in England’s quota; about 150,000 settled in New York City from 1900 to 1930, mostly in Harlem.

The Hart-Celler Act of 1965 attempted to correct the discrimination; immigration from western Europe was restricted, and quotas of 20,000 were opened for each country in the eastern hemisphere. Besides an influx of Cold War refugees, Caribbean arrivals in the city increased, as did Chinese, Indians, Filipinos, and Koreans. South Americans and Central Americans began arriving in greater numbers after 1970.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 36% of New York City residents were foreign-born in 2000 (46.6% in Queens), led by Dominicans, Chinese, and Jamaicans. Since then, Mexicans have been gaining, but I haven’t found current numbers.

Touring New York City is a little like touring the world, and its history tells some of the story of who we are as a nation. This blog could go on forever.

Sources: Kenneth T. Jackson, The Encyclopedia of New York City (Yale University Press), U.S. Census Bureau

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