Immigrant Saga Spans Centuries of Dreams

For hundreds of years, immigrants have sailed into New York Harbor to begin a new life in America. In his new book, Tyler Anbinder reveals how—regardless of race, religion or nationality—generations of immigrants share a universal story.

Professor of History Tyler Anbinder (Photo: Harrison Jones)
Professor of History Tyler Anbinder (Photo: Harrison Jones)
December 15, 2016

By John DiConsiglio

In the last 15 years, whenever Professor of History Tyler Anbinder mentioned to friends and colleagues that he was working on a book about immigrants, he invariably received the same reaction: That’s so timely!

Why, yes, he’d reply . . . and no. Sure, immigration is a hot button issue—just ask anyone who watched an election season charged with talk about building walls and deporting millions. But Anbinder’s new book, City of Dreams, which was listed among The New York Times’ Notable Books of 2016, begins 400 years before today’s voters went to the polls. It spans the scope of immigrants’ journeys through New York—from Dutch fur traders sailing to the southern tip of Manhattan to the 1886 dedication of the Statue of Liberty to the “huddled masses” who continue to arrive on the city’s streets today.

And throughout a career of researching and writing about immigrants, Anbinder has come to an inexorable conclusion: Every wave of immigrants—Irish, Germans, Russians, Italians, Chinese, Mexicans—in some ways share the same dreams, the same challenges and the same stories.

“The story of immigrant New Yorkers changes constantly on its surface,” Anbinder said, “yet not at all at its heart.”

From Italians barbers to Dominican livery drivers, from the Irish who settled in the gang-infested Five Points region to the Germans who dotted the Lower East Side Kleindeutschland neighborhood, Anbinder maintains that the American immigrant story is largely universal. “They come for the same reasons. They suffer the same hardships. They are discriminated against, sometimes even persecuted. And yet they persevere and eventually thrive, if not themselves then their children and their grandchildren. The essentials of immigrants’ story are exactly the same.”

The Human Face of the Immigrant Story

For City of Dreams, Anbinder and a team of 10 undergraduate research assistants spent years combing through old newspapers, census records, immigrant memoirs and troves of material from sources like the Ellis Island archives and A Columbian College Dean's Research Chair, Anbinder said the position provided  resources and scheduling flexibility that were integral to completing his research. “I could not have gotten the book finished in time for the 2016 elections were it not for the dean's chair award,” he said.

Zach Sanders, a junior history major, volunteered as a research assistant after enrolling in Anbinder’s Civil War and Reconstruction class. He compiled a data table that breaks down the city’s foreign-born population for each year from 1850 to the present. “I utilized resources within our library system that I didn’t know existed,” he said, pointing to rows of census records in the Gelman library stacks.

Early in the research process, Anbinder chose to focus solely on New York City—historically America’s defining port of entry for immigrants. (Even today, more than a third of the city’s residents are foreign-born.) He also decided to tell his story less with facts and figures than through profiles of individual immigrants. “To make it relatable, I felt I had to put human faces on this story,” he said.

Through the narratives of both ordinary citizens and celebrities like Dominican-born Oscar de la Renta, Anbinder recounts the contributions of generations of immigrants, from bringing hundreds of languages to the city to introducing distinct cultures and food that became American staples. “It’s hard to believe that in the 1940s, not many people in America knew what pizza or bagels were,” he said.

But along with embracing dreams of American freedom, every new era of immigrants has typically endured discrimination. Anbinder describes an 1853 New York Herald employment ad that accepted “any country or color—except Irish.” A late 1800s apartment rental sign stipulated: “No Jews and no dogs.” A presidential quote warning of immigrants’ “low moral tendency” came from a 1901 speech by Theodore Roosevelt.

“Every generation of immigrants is resented and to some extent feared,” Anbinder noted. "The very same things that are said about today’s immigrants—that they take our jobs, that their religion is incompatible with American values, that they can never be true Americans—was said about Italian immigrants 100 years ago and Irish immigrants 150 years ago.”

Anbinder's book includes the immigration stories of his German maternal grandparents and his Jewish fraternal grandparents who came from Eastern Europe, and he hopes many readers will recognize their own family history in City of Dreams. “I think it’s a history that, ultimately, every American has some connection to,” said his research assistant Zach Sanders, whose Jewish grandparents fled Germany for New York in 1938 ahead of the Holocaust.

City of Dreams represents the culmination of decades of research by Anbinder on 19th century American politics and the history of immigration in the United States. Through a $290,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he authored a major study on the savings habits of Irish immigrants to chronicle their upper mobility, and he published an earlier book, Five Points, which traced the history of the notorious Lower Manhattan slum. The latter project caught the attention of Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese, which led to Anbinder being tapped to review the script for Scorsese’s movie Gangs of New York. During the review process, Anbinder found an historical error on virtually every page of the script—most of which Scorsese dismissed for reasons ranging from complicated camera angles to ideas that came to him in a dream.

“I learned two things from the experience: First, Martin Scorsese knows all the historical inaccuracies in his films and, second, he doesn’t care so much about them,” Anbinder laughed. The director agreed to exactly one change: altering a scene about voting practices in the 1860s. But when Anbinder watched the finished movie, he was surprised to see that Scorsese hadn't actually made the change, sticking to the original script instead. “It was a thrill and an honor and great fun to be involved in the project, but I can honestly say that I had zero impact on the movie.”