Mae Ngai a professor of history and Asian-American studies at Columbia University.
Tyler Anbinder probably didn’t know just how timely the publication of his book would be. As we prepare to inaugurate a president who has espoused nativist views, Anbinder’s “City of Dreams” is a welcome reminder that America is a nation of immigrants and that New York is its quintessential immigrant city.
Beginning with the first Dutch settlement in the 17th century and ending with immigration in our own time, “City of Dreams” is a sweeping narrative of the people from around the world who, over the course of 400 years, made New York. Anbinder, a professor of history at George Washington University, is a masterful guide. He moves seamlessly from details of place and daily life to politics and larger themes as he vividly recounts the successive waves of migrants who continually transformed the city’s economy and culture.
Anbinder’s gifts as a writer are most evident in the stories he tells of individuals, both ordinary and famous. The details of their lives and actions bring history to life. Anbinder shows us both what was distinctive about each group of immigrant New Yorkers — Irish, Germans, Jews, Italians, Dominicans, Chinese — and what they have in common.
But “City of Dreams” is not a cliched celebration of multiculturalism. Although some readers will be happy to find “their people” in it, this is not a book about ethnic culture or identity. Rather, Anbinder helps us understand the historical conditions that prompted people to leave their homelands and shape their opportunities in America.
We learn about Annie Moore, a 17-year-old Irish girl, and her little brothers, who were the first to land at Ellis Island station when it opened on Jan. 1, 1892. If you thought you knew this story — its simple arrival narrative is part of Ellis Island lore — Anbinder demonstrates that there’s more to it. He tells us about the public relations efforts involved in moving the girl to the front of the queue coming off the SS Nevada. He also relays the poignant details of Annie’s life upon settling in New York and her marriage to a German American named Gus Schayer, the son of an immigrant baker. They had 11 children, but only five survived to adulthood. Anbinder recounts the causes of death of Annie’s babies — “exhaustion w/tubercular pneumonia,” “diphtheria and broncho-pnemonia,” “entercolitis for 24 days” and m[a]rasmus,” or starvation caused by an inability to gain weight — giving us a glimpse of the human toll of poverty and poor housing conditions. Still, the Schayers were not even the poorest of New Yorkers; Gus worked as a salesman at the Fulton Fish Market, and the couple had enough money to buy a family plot at Calvary Cemetery in Brooklyn, where they buried their children.
Anbinder also introduces us to Waddell Cunningham, a Scotch-Irishman from Belfast sent as a young man by his family in the 1740s to assist with their import of North American flaxseed for the production of Irish linen. Cunningham saw opportunity in New York and decided to stay; by age 35 he was one of the wealthiest merchants in the colony. His fortune came not only from business acumen and networking, but also from his smuggling exploits in the so-called Dutch trade, by which he avoided “British import duties at New York harbor by landing goods from the Netherlands, Copenhagen and Hamburg on Long Island.”
Of course, there’s Emma Lazarus , the poet who, preoccupied with the plight of indigent Russian Jewish immigrants who had fled tyranny and pogroms in Europe, penned the “New Colossus” for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Anbinder reminds us that the statue had not been intended as a welcome to immigrants but as a monument to the emancipation of slaves. It then was rebranded to celebrate the American and French revolutions. Notwithstanding Lazarus’s sonnet, Anbinder writes, “native-born Americans could barely perceive how the sight of the statue would unleash a torrent of pent up emotions in immigrants” as they sailed into New York Harbor.
Lesser known was Minnie Yezernitzsky, an 18-year-old girl from Belarus, who could not join her sisters and friends in New York after Congress passed the National Origins Act in 1924, severely limiting immigration from Eastern Europe. Minnie went to Canada, where she worked for a while in a garment factory, fending off sexual advances from the boss. She then sneaked across the border into the United States, aided by a smuggler hired by her New York relatives.
More recently, we have Michael Griffith, a 23-year-old immigrant from Trinidad living in Brooklyn. He and two friends drove to south Queens one winter night in 1986 to pick up pay he was owed from his job as a construction worker. After their car broke down, they walked a ways seeking assistance and unknowingly crossed a racial boundary into Howard Beach, a white ethnic enclave. They were attacked by a gang of white youth behind a pizzeria, and Griffith, running away, was hit and killed by a car. It was not the first time in the city’s history that race and immigration intersected in such deadly manner.
Despite its sweep, the book focuses too heavily on the 19th and early 20th centuries, with too little attention to immigration since 1965. The Dutch and English who came in the 17th and 18th centuries, in my view, might be more properly considered colonial settlers than immigrants. Nevertheless, the benefit of such a long narrative arc is that it enables Anbinder to tell the story of how New York was continually made and remade by the energy and determination of newcomers and outsiders. If New York is a city of dreams, it’s also a city of second chances.
Whether immigrants succeeded or were stymied in achieving their dreams has had less to do with variations in ethnic cultures than with the specific conditions of time and place. If there is a “culture” at work in the process, it might be the broad culture of immigration common across ethnic groups. Immigrants are a self-selected population: They usually come from middling backgrounds in their home societies (because the poorest lack the means and the wealthiest have little reason to migrate). They tend to be risk-takers, ambitious and dogged. They are willing to start at the bottom and work their way up — that is, if there are pathways, such as a general economic expansion. Or if small-business niches open up when an older generation of ethnic entrepreneurs passes (greengrocers, dry cleaners, newsstands). Or if immigrants themselves create new businesses that stimulate demand (ethnic restaurants, nail salons).
But upward mobility might also be hindered by discrimination in the labor market, by laws that make legal migration difficult and by nativist political movements. The latter are often fueled by native-born Americans who are themselves only a generation or two removed from immigration. “City of Dreams” shows that immigrants have always persevered against such obstacles to make and claim their place.
by Tyler Anbinder
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $35. 738 pp.