City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic His­to­ry of Immi­grant New York

Tyler Anbinder
  • Review
By – February 21, 2017

This apt­ly named book promis­es to be the defin­i­tive his­to­ry of immi­grants and immi­gra­tion in New York City. New York has always been a city of immi­grants, from its begin­nings as a mul­ti­cul­tur­al com­mer­cial cen­ter under the Dutch to its cur­rent role as a post-indus­tri­al glob­al city. Its atti­tudes toward immi­grants have been com­plex: at once pro­vid­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties but also bar­ri­ers for the skilled and for the dis­ad­van­taged who have come here to make bet­ter lives for them­selves and their children.

The book focus­es on three themes: ambiva­lence, resis­tance, and incor­po­ra­tion. From the city’s ear­li­est days the Dutch, who estab­lished a trad­ing out­post in New Ams­ter­dam, bare­ly tol­er­at­ed the small group of Por­tuguese Jews escap­ing Brazil who might infect” the res­i­dents, banned pub­lic reli­gious ser­vices by Luther­ans, and encour­aged” a group of Quak­ers to set­tle in Rhode Island, fear­ing that New York would become a recep­ta­cle for all sorts of heretics and fanat­ics.” This pat­tern of ambiva­lence con­tin­ued into the nine­teenth and twen­ti­eth cen­turies with anti-Ger­man tem­per­ance restric­tions and draft poli­cies dur­ing the Civ­il War dis­crim­i­nat­ing against the Irish, which led to a major riot.

In turn, each wave of immi­grants resist­ed and chal­lenged these con­straints, build­ing eth­nic enclaves and estab­lish­ing mutu­al ben­e­fit and self help groups that resist­ed restric­tions. The Irish con­tem­plat­ed and the Jews estab­lished pro­vi­sions for dis­pers­ing new­com­ers to oth­er parts of the coun­try as a way of reduc­ing their demo­graph­ic impact and pro­mot­ing more rapid incor­po­ra­tion. Groups became inte­grat­ed eco­nom­i­cal­ly and polit­i­cal­ly, and each adapt­ed to chang­ing real­i­ties as the city’s econ­o­my expand­ed from being a major port, becom­ing a man­u­fac­tur­ing cen­ter and more recent­ly a glob­al finan­cial cen­ter with a grow­ing ser­vice econ­o­my. There have been dra­mat­ic changes but also con­ti­nu­ity: the con­di­tions of today’s Chi­nese gar­ment work­ers are not very dif­fer­ent from those of the East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish and Ital­ian work­ers of a cen­tu­ry ago. Despite the fact that each arriv­ing group is thought to be too dif­fer­ent to be able to enter the main­stream, var­i­ous strate­gies described in this book result­ed in their incor­po­ra­tion and eco­nom­ic mobil­i­ty. As it was in the past, New York con­tin­ues to be a city of dreams.’” 

Relat­ed Reads:

Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

Discussion Questions