Immigration in New York City
by Priam Saywack
The origins of New York as an immigrant city can be found in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. In 1624, the first European settlers, Walloons from the Netherlands arrived in New Amsterdam. In 1643, less than two decades later, there was ethnic diversity in the city; a French Jesuit identified eighteen different languages. While the first official census in 1790 confirmed that most inhabitants of New York were English or Dutch, there were significant Scottish, Irish, German, French, and Welsh populations as well .
A Brief History of Immigration to New York City
Large-scale immigration began in earnest in the early nineteenth century. Between 1815 and 1915, over 33 million immigrants arrived in the United States. Three quarters of these immigrants passed through the Port of New York. Two great immigrant centers were established during the nineteenth century: Castle Garden and Ellis Island . In 1855, Castle Garden, a disused fort at the southern tip of Manhattan, which had been established as a resort and park, was established as the “Emigrant Landing Depot.” Initially, New York State supported Castle Garden. However, in 1882, the United States began levying a tax of 50 cents per head on all newcomers and gave New York State a portion of the profit to maintain Castle Garden. In 1890, the federal government took charge of immigrant processing.  In 1892 Ellis Island, located at the mouth of the Hudson River in New York Harbor, was established as the chief immigration center. Between 1892 and its closing in 1956, over 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island . First and second-class passengers who landed in New York Harbor were not required to be inspected at Ellis Island because it was assumed that since they had enough money to buy a first or second-class ticket, they would not become a burden to the state. However steerage passengers, the majority of newcomers, had to endure a three to five hour inspection process, indicating a difference in the way the classes were treated. Immigrants were given “six second physicals” in which they were scanned for obvious physical ailments and then questioned. The United States Public Health Service and the Bureau of Immigration (now known as Immigration and Naturalization Services) were responsible for processing immigrants.
Immigration to New York City in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came in two colossal waves. The first wave, old immigration began in the 1840’s and consisted mainly of Irish and German immigrants. By the 1880’s immigration from western Europe had declined and given way to the new immigration from Central and Eastern Europe, most notably Russia and Germany. The immigrants swarmed into New York City and were forced to take menial jobs. In the mid-nineteenth century, almost half of all employed immigrants worked in the garment industry or as manual labor, servants, cooks, waiters, and household help. The number of immigrants in New York City increased steadily throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and by 1910, there was a foreign-born population of nearly two million .
Americans feared that the newer immigrants would be more difficult to assimilate than the earlier immigrants; a common theory was that while the Irish and the Germans were used to democratic regimes, the Russian Jews and the Italians had never experienced democracy. They viewed immigrant communities as “ghettoized” colonies that were detrimental to assimilation. Thus, during the late nineteenth century, programs targeted at Americanization of immigrants were introduced in public schools. Americanization was an integral part of the Hudson-Fulton Celebration .
The Old Immigrants The Irish
In the 1840’s a massive number of Irish-Catholics immigrated to the United States. By 1855, there were over 200,000 Irish in New York City . British land policies, which sought to sweep the Irish peasants off their land, were compounded by the devastating potato famine of 1845 to 1847. A rot attacked the potato crop, on which the Irish population had become dependent. About 2 million people perished. The Irish often arrived in America with few material possessions and were forced to live in squalor. Nonetheless, America was seen as a land of plenty, freedom,and opportunity. In an 1850 letter to her family, Margaret McCarthy, an Irish immigrant to New York City, wrote: This is a good place and a good country but there is one thing that’s ruining this place. The emigrants have not money enough to take them to the interior of the country, which obliges them to remain in New York and like places, which causes less demand for labor and also the great reduction in wages. For this reason I would advise no one to come to America that would not have some money after landing here that would enable them to go west in case they would get no work to do here. But any man or woman without a family are fools that would not venture and come to this plentiful country where no man or woman ever hungered or ever will. I can assure you there are dangers upon dangers, but my friends, have courage and come all together courageously and bid adieu to that lonely place, the land of our birth.
Irish immigrants were poorer than other immigrant groups, and therefore lived in the worst conditions. By the 1840’s, Five Points, an infamous slum reported to have averaged one murder per day, was predominantly Irish. This area was located in Manhattan’s Sixth Ward near Mulberry Bend . Illustrious visitors including Davy Crockett, Charles Dickens (with two police escorts),Abraham Lincoln, and a Russian archduke, came to gawk at the foulness . In American Notes for General Circulation (1842) Dickens wrote: This is the place [Five Points], these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth… Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays. Many of those pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright in lieu of going on all-fours? And why they talk instead of grunting?  In 1855, the population of the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Wards of the city, which stretched from the Hudson tothe East River south of Canal Street, was thirty-seven percent foreign born Irish .
The Nativists agitated for restrictions on immigration and promoted propaganda that described the shocking sins that occurred in “popish brothels.” NINA (“No Irish Need Apply”) signs were common at factory entrances and the Irish were forced to share society’s basement with blacks. The Irish and blacks competed for jobs and flare-ups between the groups were common. The Draft Riot of 1863, staged by Irishmen in protest against conscription laws that allowed the wealthy to evade military service, unleashed animosity against blacks; of 125 persons killed, eleven were black, and most of the other victims were rioters . The Irish were disproportionately represented in poorhouses, public hospitals, and prisons; in 1859, 55% of all people arrested in New York City were Irish, indicative of their low social status .
However, by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Irish had carved out a place in New York City. The infamous political machine, Tammany Hall, helped immigrants find lodging and jobs, and even helped them become citizens in exchange for votes. By 1860, the Irish dominated the political machine and reaped the patronage rewards. Tammany Hall controlled New York City elections from the second half of the nineteenth century until the election of Fiorello LaGuardia in 1934 .
In the years between 1830 and 1860, there was also an influx of “German” immigrants. There was no unified Germany until 1871; these “Germans” were actually Prussians, Bavarians, Hessians, Rhinelanders, Pomeranians, and Westphalians. Most of the immigrants were farmers that were uprooted by crop failures. However a significant minority were liberals who fled after the revolutions of 1848 failed to democratize Germany. Unlike the Irish, the Germans usually traveled to America with a modest amount of capital, and were able to move West and purchase land in states like Wisconsin and Texas. Milwaukee became known as the “German Athens.” Those who stayed in New York often opened their own shops that catered to other immigrants. They were on the whole also more educated that the Irish. The chief German neighborhood in New York City was Kleindeutschland, which lay on the East River between 14th and Grand street . By 1865, 57,796 foreign-born Germans lived in Wards Ten, Eleven, Thirteen, and Seventeen, which made up the Lower East Side of Manhattan .
According to E. Idell Zeisloft in his 1899 tome The New Metropolis the German influx “made New York a dancing city and the barricades with which Dutch dignity and New England Puritanism had encircled society were broken through” . Germans were known for drinking large quantities of bier, and German Catholic newspapers printed advertisements for beer, wine, and biergartens . Nonetheless, some observers regarded Germans highly among immigrant groups and viewed as them as essentially “American.” When describing the German “colony” of the East Side, Zeisloft writes:
Klein Deutschland presents itself next for consideration… The German citizen, never undesirable, with a more civilized early training in a constitutional monarchy, brings with him to this country skilled hands, powerful sinews, frugality, uprightness, and industry. He is dependent on no one but himself and his Maker, and is no sooner on the soil of a new land than he at once casts about for a means to earn livelihood by plying the same vocation in which he was engaged before he left his mother country. Or, if he has no handicraft, he offers his strength to the highest bidder, and becomes one of the thousand workers in the busy hives of industry… They have no special characteristics of dress or manner. They merge into the great whole, and pass through their lives without attracting the comment that other classes of foreigner do. 
The New Immigrants
By the 1880’s, both the Irish and the Germans had established themselves in New York City economic and political life and by 1909, they were no longer seen as a threat to the so-called American way. However, in late 1880s, a second wave of immigration began which consisted of Polish and Russian Jews, southern Italians, as well as a spattering of Greeks, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, Bohemians, and Chinese. Between 1880 and 1919, 17 million immigrants passed through the Port of New York. Most of these immigrants settled in cities, including five out of six Russian Jews and three out of four southern Italians, and many remained in New York City .
The Russian Jews
The Russians Jews settled in New York in the largest number. In 1910, there were 484,189 Russianimmigrants living in New York City, the majority of which were Jewish. They fled to escape pogroms, or anti-Jewish riots, in the Russian Pale of Settlement [a] where they were excluded from farming and most professions. The Jews were more skilled than other immigrants groups; nearly two-thirds of immigrants came to America with knowledge of a craft. In addition, because they were barred from living in agricultural communities in the Pale, they were accustomed to city life. Nonetheless, they had difficulty finding work .
60% of the Jewish workforce worked in the garment industry . New York was a center of light manufacturing. Families sewed garments at home, and young Jewish women labored in sweatshops. Labor in sweatshops was onerous and dangerous; most of the 146 women killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 were young immigrant girls .
The Jews inhabited the old German neighborhoods of the Lower East Side. It became a distinctively ethnic district, filled with Yiddish theaters, foreign-language newspapers, and synagogues. By 1900, the Lower East Side had 700 people per acre, making it more congested than Bombay, India . Despite these congested conditions, the Jews had a lower death rate than other immigrant groups; The death rate among Jews in Wards Seven, Ten, and Thirteen of the Lower East Side were described as “very low between 15-45 and at other groups of age and at other groups of age also lower than that of almost every other race” .
Most New Yorkers, both old-stock Americans and established immigrant groups, disparaged these newcomers. German Jews sought to separate themselves from their co- religionists. As Ida V. Van Etten wrote in an 1893 article for the Forum:
Most men, if asked what class immigrants they considered the least desirable, would answer, the Russian Jews. There is a preconceived idea that because most of the Russian Jews are dirty, cannot speak the English language,and live closely crowded in unwholesome, ill- smelling tenement quarters; they therefore form an objectionable part of our population. To these causes there might be added that vague, indefinite phrase that they do not assimilate with other people. 
Jewish attempts to preserve their culture were regarded with suspicion. Americans feared that they would not, or could not assimilate like the older Irish and German immigrants. Zeisloft refers to the Lower East Side as a Jewish “ghetto” and criticizes Yiddish theaters claiming that they are “deplorable institutions, serving only to degrade their patrons. They are absolutely of no literary value, and, while the players are men and women of some ability, the plays are of the crudest, most clap-trap order, all tending to glorify the Jew…” . Zeisloft predicts that eventually ethnic neighborhoods will disappear and all blend into a harmonious American whole, ideally all ethnic barriers would disappear . Public events like the Hudson-Fulton Parade sought to make this homogeneity a reality by indoctrinating idealized portraits Henry Hudson and Robert Fulton and creating an elevated image of New York City. At the same time, somewhat paradoxically, they celebrated the cosmopolitan, diverse nature of New York City.
The second wave of immigration also brought an enormous number of immigrants from the southern provinces of Italy. By 1910, there were 340,765 Italians living in New York. Unlike northern Italy, southern Italy remained un-industrialized. Southern Italian farmers could not compete with American food imports with their pre-industrial hand plows and hoes. In addition, the 1880’s were marked by outbreaks of phylloxera, a blight that ravaged vineyards .
Southern Italians were rural farmers, and thus were unskilled as urban laborers. Italians came to America with low literacy levels; 54% of southern Italians were unable to read . Italian men often labored as construction workers, digging canals, laying paving and gas lines, building bridges, and tunneling out the New York City Subways. In 1910, 22% of Italian men were employed in the construction sector, comprising one fifth of all constructions workers in the city . Italians owed their dominance in municipal works to the padrones, or labor bosses, who met Italian immigrants upon arrival at Ellis Island and secured employment and living quarters. Italian women, like their Jewish counterparts, often labored in sweatshops or did piecework at home. Child labor was commonplace among Italian immigrants and vocation was placed ahead of education.
Many Italian immigrants were young men who planned to return to Italy, referred to as “birds of passage.” However, hundreds of thousands more stayed. A “Little Italy” formed below Fourteenth Street, in the old Irish neighborhoods, and by 1910 another formed in East Harlem, east of Third Avenue and below 125th street . The conditions were unsanitary and cramped. In How the Other Half Lives the famous reformer Jacob Riis writes:
In a room not thirteen feet either way slept twelve men and women, two or three in bunks set in a sort of alcove, the rest on the floor. A kerosene lamp burned dimly in the fearful atmosphere, probably to guide other and later arrivals to their beds, for it was only just past midnight. A baby’s fretful wail came from an adjoining hall-room, where, in the semi-darkness, three recumbent figures could be made out. The apartment was one of three in two adjoining buildings we had found, within half an hour, similarly crowded. Most of the men were lodgers, who slept there for five cents a spot.
Like the Jews, the Italians were treated with contempt. They were seen as clannish and unintelligent. Zeisloft dismisses the Italian “colony” as the result of “wholesale fraud and deception practiced on a simple-minded people by their kinsmen [the padrones]” . Nativists feared the “mongrelization” of Anglo-Saxons with southern European blood. In 1914, sociologist E.A. Ross wrote:
They [immigrants]…clearly belong in skins, in wattled huts at the close of the Great Ice Age… To the practiced eye, the physiognomy of certain groups unmistakably proclaim an inferiority of type… In every face there was something wrong – lips thick, mouth coarse, upper lips too long, cheek bones too high, chin poorly formed, the bridge of the nose hollowed, the base of the nose tilted, or else the whole face prognathous.
Some established Americans feared that these inferior Italians would be unable to assimilate into American society and, would ultimately, lead to the collapseof American civilization. Established Americans had similar fears about all immigrant groups; they feared the contamination of their lineages with second-class blood and the destruction of America. Although fears about the Irish and Germans had subsided, the Jews and the Italians were still regarded with apprehension. Nonetheless, immigrants are what made New York City a world city. A homogeneous city cannot become a great cosmopolis, because by definition, a cosmopolis consists of elements from all over the world. The cultures, traditions, and beliefs of the foreigners, as loathed as they were, contributed to New York City’s worldly nature.
 Jackson, Kenneth J., ed. The Encyclopedia of New York City. (Yale University Press, 1995), 581.
 Jackson, 572-573, 582.
 Sage, Bethany. “Old Immigration New York Ports of Entry Before Ellis: Through Immigration Accounts.”
 “Immigration, 1880-1930: A Brief Overview.” Adapted from ellisisland.org.
 Jackson, 582.
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 QRO file 11821, PRO, Dublin. Margaret McCarthy to her parents, 22 September 1850. http://tiara.ie/Margaret_McCarthy_Letter.pdf.
 Jackson, 414.
 “The First Slum in America.” The New York Times. 2001 September 30.
 Dickens, Charles. American Notes. (London: Chapman and Hall, 1842), 90.
 Dolan, Jay P. “Immigrants in the City: New York’s Irish and German Catholics.” Church History 41, 354.
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 Kenny, Kevin. “Irish Immigrants in the United States.” e-Journal USA 13 (February 2008).
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 Dolan, 363.
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 Foner, Nancy. From Ellis Island to JFK: Two Great Waves of Immigration. (Yale University Press: 2000), 80.
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 Rosenwaike, Ira. Population History of New York City. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1972).
 Van Etten, Ida M. “Russian Jews as Desirable Immigrants.” Forum 15.
 Zeisloft, 526.
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 Foner, 42.
 Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. (New York: Penguin Books, 1997). 56.
 Zeisloft, 523
 Weinberg, Julius. "E. A. Ross: the progressive as nativist" Wisconsin Magazine Of History 50, 247.
[a] The Russian Pale of Settlement was the only region in Russia where Jewish settlement was permitted from 1791 until the end of the czarist regime. Its area consisted of only 20% of European Russia.