Telling the History of New York’s Immigrants in ‘City of Dreams’

Tyler Anbinder, professor of history at George Washington University and author of the recently published "City of Dreams. The 40-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York" (Photo by Karen Pennar for Voices of NY)

Tyler Anbinder, professor of history at George Washington University and author of the recently published “City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York” (Photo by Karen Pennar for Voices of NY)

For many immigrants in America, the weeks since the election of Donald J. Trump to become the 45th president of the United States have been a time of uncertainty and stress. Hate crimes and discrimination are on the rise, and what the future president’s policies may mean for the safety and well-being of many immigrants in this country is unknown.

Against this troubling backdrop, it’s helpful to have a sense of perspective, and to understand the broad historical sweep of immigrant history in America. Several years in the making, the new book “City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York,” by George Washington University professor of history Tyler Anbinder, could not have arrived at a more opportune time.

Book Beat“It certainly seems to have more resonance for more people,” since the election, Anbinder said, speaking of a recent book signing in Washington, D.C. But some of the response he’s received, including email comments following interviews and newspaper articles, suggest to him that certain closely-held views are unlikely to change any time soon. Said Anbinder: “Some people say, ‘how dare you compare Italian immigrants to today’s Muslim immigrants? My grandparents came here to make America great and Muslims come here to destroy America.’”

Touching only glancingly on recent immigrant trends, Anbinder’s 738-page tome (including more than 100 pages of footnotes) traces the waves of immigration to New York’s shores, beginning with the Dutch and the English, moving on to the Irish and the Germans, then the Italians, the Russian and Eastern European Jews and eventually, the Chinese, the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, and other Caribbean, African and Asian migrants.

The unmistakable message is that the drumbeat of nativism, discrimination, and hate crimes has confronted each new group of arrivals since before the founding of the republic, and that immigrants of all backgrounds have suffered their effects. “‘Twas ever thus” is a refrain that echoes through the pages of Anbinder’s book.

It was more than two decades ago that Anbinder first considered telling the story of immigrants and their role in the city. He was researching and writing a history of Five Points – the notoriously dense, dangerous and disease-ridden neighborhood in Lower Manhattan made famous in Martin Scorsese’s movie “The Gangs of New York” – and kept running across stories and documents that formed part of a much larger story.

And as he taught immigration history to college students, he heard them repeatedly argue that “today’s immigrants” were so different from their grandparents. Yet Anbinder said he consistently tried to show that, while superficially today’s immigrants may seem very different, “at their core” they are “pretty much the same, and their story is pretty much the same.” The challenge for Anbinder was to tell that story in a compelling way and to fashion a convincing narrative.

cityofdreamsHis account is selective rather than encyclopedic – some immigrant groups, such as the Greeks and the Arabs, didn’t make the cut. A separate chapter on immigrant food had to be cut, although some details did make it into the chapter on Jewish Eastern European immigrants. And Anbinder wove lots of immigrant sports trivia into various chapters, writing about Jewish immigrant basketball players, Irish track and field athletes and Italian baseball players.

To keep the narrative moving, the historian employed a pointillist technique, highlighting the personal experiences of individuals through recollections drawn from memoirs, books and documents of various periods.

Readers are introduced to the Malatesta family from Genoa, whose every member, including 4-year-old Lizzie, in 1908 made artificial flowers at the kitchen table in their Sullivan Street apartment. Better known names, like the Danish-born Jacob Riis, who chronicled and photographed the lives of tenement residents on the Lower East Side, or Lillian Wald, who founded the Henry Street Settlement, get more detailed treatment. Anbinder’s own forebears, who came from Ukraine, entered the garment trade and eventually settled in East New York, also make an appearance.

Surprises abound: Irish immigrant Felix Brannigan, famous for his racist remarks on the eve of the Civil War, ended up commanding a regiment of freed slaves and after the war prosecuted the Klan in Mississippi. Anbinder writes that there is simply no evidence that, contrary to widely held belief, immigration officials changed people’s names at Ellis Island. Italian immigrants, especially those arriving in the early waves from that country, frequently made return trips to Italy, and had little intention of staying in the U.S.

For Anbinder, the most important way in which he hopes his book will set the record straight is in convincing people that immigrants “just are not that much different than they were 100 or 150 years ago.” When people insist they’re not the same, Anbinder says, the implicit message is that immigrants don’t assimilate the way earlier generations of immigrants did.

The truth is, he says, that it’s never been said about any group of immigrants “oh, they assimilate so nicely.” There was a time when the English looked at the Scots, then the Scots looked at the Irish, and one group said of the next: “These people are going to ruin America.” Worries about immigrants disrupting national security similarly have been a recurrent theme – from concerns about Jewish anarchists after Alexander Berkman attempted to assassinate the industrialist Henry Clay Frick, to Italian anarchists being implicated in the Wall Street bombing of 1920. The idea that immigrants of an earlier age didn’t take handouts is similarly unfounded, says Anbinder: “For 200 years, there have been all sorts of ways in which government has helped indigent immigrants.” Boss Tweed figured out a way to set up a quasi-governmental fund to help victims of the Irish famine who’d made their way to New York City.

Even arguing that today’s immigrants are disproportionately people of color and that race figures in the immigration discussion in ways it didn’t a century ago is wrong, says Anbinder. Italians and Jews and even, at one time, the Irish, were deemed by nativists to be a different race, incapable of becoming Americans. “Americans,” said Anbinder, “constantly change their definition of who is white and who is not.”

For now, the historian acknowledges, people interested in the immigration debate are looking to the policy experts for guidance. “Eventually, they will look for the historical perspective,” said Anbinder. His book “Five Points” has gotten a loyal and growing readership over the years, and he’s optimistic that the same will happen with “City of Dreams.” “Good books,” he said,”eventually make their way to the forefront of public attention.”


City of Dreams. The 400 Year Epic History of Immigrant New York by Tyler Anbinder.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35.00.  768 pages.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *