This aptly named book promises to be the definitive history of immigrants and immigration in New York City. New York has always been a city of immigrants, from its beginnings as a multicultural commercial center under the Dutch to its current role as a post-industrial global city. Its attitudes toward immigrants have been complex: at once providing opportunities but also barriers for the skilled and for the disadvantaged who have come here to make better lives for themselves and their children.
The book focuses on three themes: ambivalence, resistance, and incorporation. From the city’s earliest days the Dutch, who established a trading outpost in New Amsterdam, barely tolerated the small group of Portuguese Jews escaping Brazil who might “infect” the residents, banned public religious services by Lutherans, and “encouraged” a group of Quakers to settle in Rhode Island, fearing that New York “would become a receptacle for all sorts of heretics and fanatics.” This pattern of ambivalence continued into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with anti-German temperance restrictions and draft policies during the Civil War discriminating against the Irish, which led to a major riot.
In turn, each wave of immigrants resisted and challenged these constraints, building ethnic enclaves and establishing mutual benefit and self help groups that resisted restrictions. The Irish contemplated and the Jews established provisions for dispersing newcomers to other parts of the country as a way of reducing their demographic impact and promoting more rapid incorporation. Groups became integrated economically and politically, and each adapted to changing realities as the city’s economy expanded from being a major port, becoming a manufacturing center and more recently a global financial center with a growing service economy. There have been dramatic changes but also continuity: the conditions of today’s Chinese garment workers are not very different from those of the Eastern European Jewish and Italian workers of a century ago. Despite the fact that each arriving group is thought to be too different to be able to enter the mainstream, various strategies described in this book resulted in their incorporation and economic mobility. As it was in the past, New York continues to be a “city of dreams.’”