Immigration and Diversity in New York City

If there is one common perception that is able to accurately portray New York City it would certainly be its cosmopolitan character. The roughly 170 different languages represented in the city illustrate a rather astounding accommodation of diversity. Consistent waves of immigrants pouring in from all parts of the world, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries have helped to create the colorful demographic mosaic that distinguishes NYC.

Up until the end of the 19th century, Germany and Ireland constituted the largest base from which immigrants to the city came. Their relative numbers began to wane as Russian, Austrian-Hungarian and Italian immigrants flowed in. The 1892 opening of Ellis Island as an immigration hub in New York City’s harbor, contributed to the greater influx of people from different countries. Newcomers were greeted by the inspiring symbol of Lady Liberty’s shining light that was dedicated just a few years prior in 1886. Living in NYC was a rite of passage for people seeking freedom and opportunity.

For reasons as diverse as the city itself, each immigrant chose to brave the hardships and challenges of establishing a new life for themselves in NYC. The Irish began rolling into the city in large numbers when the Potato Famine broke out in their country during the mid to late 1840’s. Many of the Irish who came over were also the victims of a harsh British land policy and arrived in the city with little or nothing to call their own. The notoriously rough Five-Points district in Manhattan reflected the primitive- like survival mode governing immigrant life. The newly arrived Irish and the aspiring Blacks who had relocated to the city to find work and escape the slave-owning south competed for jobs. Poverty, little hope, anger and racism combined to make Five-Points practically a war zone of rage, corruption and murder. After it was slowly dismantled over a period of 10 years, between 1885 and 1895, and the Irish gained social stature with greater political assimilation, the area came to brutally symbolize the hard- knock life that immigrants faced when trying to carve out a social space for their own people.

The Chinese, in rather vivid contrast, came in search of gold in 1870. While many made the long trek to California in search of success, a couple hundred stayed on in NYC, particularly in Manhattan, and gradually increased in numbers up to the time of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which was established to restrict Chinese immigration. It wasn’t until 1965, under the Immigration and Nationality Act that the Chinese population really began to explode. The city now boasts of several smaller Chinatowns in Queens and Brooklyn and serves as ethnic enclaves for the hundreds of thousands of Chinese living in NYC.

The Italians, coming mostly from the southern portions of Italy, began their steady flow into the city during the 1800’s. Their rural existence and non-industrialized society back home left them unprepared for the urban labor market. With the aid of padrones or municipal bosses, who took them under their wing, the new Italian immigrants were hired as construction workers. As was the case for most of the non-Anglican immigrants coming to America, the Italians faced harsh antagonistic treatment. The affectionately termed “Little Italy’s” began to emerge as the arrival of new immigrants started to balloon in the 1880’s. They acted as a home away from home for the Italians struggling to forge a life in the city.

Around the same time as the Italians were streaming in during the 1880’s, Eastern European Jews were also flocking to NYC. Although the Jews faced as much stereotypical scorn towards them as the Italians, they were typically more skilled and educated. The 1940’s witnessed another large movement of Jews into the city as they sought refuge from the atrocities taking place against them during the Second World War.

In the 1990’s, Latin Americans, Central Americans, Africans, Asians and Eastern Europeans constituted the largest portion of immigrants arriving in NYC. With the lay-out of the city being arranged in 5 boroughs, namely, Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island and Queens, certain areas within the boroughs have become identified with particular ethnic groups. Taking a stroll through any of the boroughs is like walking through a microcosm of the world. One can pass through Greece, Russia, the West Indies and Italy while visiting Brooklyn, for example. Few of the ethnic enclaves are inter-racial. The neighborhoods betray a high degree of segregation on the surface of the multi-cultural stage.

The history of immigration to NYC is a history of the proverbial ‘American Dream’. As it has had its fair share of ups and downs, successes and failures, crying shames and smiling triumphs, the spirit of resiliency and pride can be seen in the faces of the many cultures that call New York City home. In many ways the city embodies the E Pluribus Unum motto that symbolizes America’s unique place in history.


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