The New Immigrants

Between 1865 and 1873 over two hundred thousand migrants had arrived in New York City each year. The depression pummeled these numbers downward—in 1877 only sixty-three thousand immigrants passed through Castle Garden—but with the return of prosperity the influx soon set new records.

The old state-run system for processing newcomers buckled, and in 1890 the new federal Bureau of Immigration took over the task. The bureau, surveying the harbor for a site to replace the overburdened Castle Garden, settled on Ellis Island, newly swollen with landfill, and on January 1, 1892, the new immigration station began screening steerage passengers. First- and second-class arrivees were handled onboard ship and allowed to disembark directly on Manhattan. That first year, 445,987 passed through Ellis. By 1897 some 1,500,000 had threaded their way through examinations designed to weed out criminals, lunatics, and potential paupers.

The great bulk of new immigration came from old sources, with German migration actually reaching its peak in the 1880s. Farmers and farm laborers came from Germany’s north and east, uprooted by the ongoing commercialization of agriculture and declining wheat prices. Artisans undercut by factory production left towns and villages, found industrial centers in Silesia and the Ruhr valley as yet unable to accommodate them, and crossed the Atlantic in force (some fleeing the antisocialist laws).

In the 1880s 1,445,181 Germans arrived, constituting 27.5 percent of the total incoming migrant stream, and of these, fifty-five thousand stayed in New York City, a figure that doubled in the 1890s. The German-born population rose steadily from 119,964 (in 1860) to 151,203 (in 1870), 163,482 (in 1880), and 210,723 (in 1890), before leaping to its peak (in 1900) at 324,224.

Collectively—and German unification made provincial groups more conscious of their commonalities—German New York stood third behind Berlin and Vienna as a Ger­man-speaking metropolis. Kleindeutschland continued to bulk large as a cultural community—so many lived within its German universe that assimilation proceeded quite slowly—but its spatial boundaries shifted. Kleindeutschland proper shrank to a truncated parallelogram bounded by 14th, Grand, Broadway, and the East River. Secondgeneration Germans continued their uptown exodus to the East Side (between Central Park and the river) and to Brooklyn (especially Williamsburg), where over one-third the German population lived.

Irish emigration was rekindled too, as agricultural depression in the late 1870s raised the specter of another famine. Emerald Isle reinforcements kept the combined Irish-born population of New York and Brooklyn hovering above the quarter-million mark, rising slightly from 260,450 in 1860 to 275,156 in 1890 (an estimated seventy thousand of them Gaelic speakers). While this represented a decline in natal Irish people as a percentage of the total population—from 24 percent to 12 percent—New Yorkers of Irish extraction constituted some 40 percent of the city in the mid-1880s, 5 percent more than the second-ranked German Americans. The metropolitan area thus retained a pronounced Irish flavor, with the heaviest concentrations in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen (between 34th and 57th streets, Ninth and Twelfth avenues) and in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard and Red Hook areas.

Not all newcomers came through Castle Garden or Ellis Island. African Americans continued to leave the South—over eighty thousand departed between 1870 and 1890, over a hundred thousand in the 1890s alone—and the small but steady influx began to replenish both New York’s and Brooklyn’s black communities. Still, the two cities had just 60,666 African Americans resident in 1900—less than 2 percent of the total population. In addition, there were 3,552 foreign-born blacks on hand in 1900, most of them recently arrived from the West Indies, the largest such settlement in the United States. The Tenderloin and San Juan Hill in the west 60s hosted the majority of black Manhattanites.

Despite obvious differences, all these groups shared two broad characteristics: their members came, by and large, from small-town or rural hinterlands thrown into turmoil by an advancing capitalist global economy, and they were tossed abruptly into an urban American environment for which they had little preparation. In both these regards, they had much in common with three more novel streams of arriving immigrants: Eastern European Jews, southern Italians, and Chinese.


For centuries the Jews of the Russian empire had been channeled, by law and prejudice, into particular spaces and particular functions. Territorially, they had been restricted to the Pale of Settlement, which stretched from the Ukraine on the Black Sea up to Lithuania on the Baltic. Within the Pale Jews had been tied to shtetls—market towns—where they provided services to the surrounding peasantry. Shtetl Jews ran shops and weekly markets; peddled goods to the countryside; administered inns, mills, taverns, and estates; and worked as tailors, cobblers, cabinetmakers, metalworkers, weavers, tanners, watchmakers, and bakers.

Jewish islands in a gentile sea, the shtetls survived through community self-help, disciplined religious devotions, and maintenance of rigid class and gender hierarchies. An elite alliance of learned scholars and the wealthy organized rituals and regulations in the holy language of Hebrew. These leaders looked down on the mass of laborers, deni­grating both their trades and their language—a vernacular dialect, just coming to be known as Yiddish, borrowed from German and other European tongues. Lowest in prestige were the women, whose labor made men’s study possible but who were themselves barred from becoming scholars. Wives managed fiscal affairs, worked in markets and shops, peddled, made their own and their children’s clothes, ran the home, performed household religious rituals, and took charge of charity.

The shtetls survived internal strains and external pressures, but imperial liberalization, intended to drag Russia into the Western capitalist world, proved their undoing. Emancipation of the serfs in 1863 undercut Jews who had served as agents of the nobility. Railroads brought the products of urban (particularly German) factories to the Pale, supplanting rough-hewn artisanal output. Trains also brought cheaper grain from faraway markets, debilitating the peasant economy that sustained the shtetls. Citybased commercial and financial enterprises grew, undermining shtetl merchants and moneylenders.

Artisans were hardest hit. Tailors, cobblers, hatmakers—their skills obsolete—found themselves proletarianized. Even with wives and daughters working alongside them, they sank to the status of luftmenschen—men who lived on air—or lower still, to the ranks of the schnorrers (beggars). In some shtetls half the population was dependent on charity. To all this was added an intolerable population squeeze. Where there had been one million Jews in the Pale in 1800, there were a suffocating four million in 1880.

So Jews left the impoverished towns and villages and made their way to industrializing cities like Warsaw, Lodz, Bialystok, and Grodno. Some escapees went farther still, to America, that magical land that apparently respected labor and rejected religious oppression. But very few went to such lengths. The Orthodox rejected it as a trayf (ritually unclean) country, whose Jews had no respect for Orthodox traditions. Russified Jewish radicals preferred to stay and help populists and socialists transform all Russia.

Then came March i, 1881. Czar Alexander’s imperial carriage was rumbling along a St. Petersburg street, flanked by Cossack guards, when a young man threw a bomb among the horses’ legs. Unharmed, Alexander stepped to the street to survey the situation. Now a second man charged him and detonated another bomb, mortally wounding the czar.

The Jewish community of St. Petersburg laid a silver wreath on Alexander’s bier in thanks for his modest lightening of Russia’s oppression of their people. But the assassination touched off a wave of reaction against their coreligionists. The peasantry identified Jews with rapacious capitalism, despite the fact that most Jews were among its casualties, while the rich blamed them for radical attacks on the established order.

Pogroms broke out, organized massacres unhindered and at times instigated by the government. Jews were beaten, killed. Jewish shops, dwellings, warehouses, and synagogues were attacked and destroyed. The worst violence took place in bulging urban centers like Yelizabetgrad, Kiev, and Warsaw. Over the next decade, new czarist policies imposed forced relocations, banned access to certain professions, restricted admission to the educational system, and, in 1891, forcibly expelled Jews from Kiev, Moscow, and other Russian cities.

These pogroms and policies precipitated flight, with many Jews opting for America. In 1881-82, thousands bolted from southern Russia across the Austrian border to Brody. From there European Jewry’s charitable organizations passed many along to Bremen or Liverpool, where they boarded steamers heading to New York City. Over the next two decades, tens of thousands more made the trek on their own, escaping both sporadic repression and steady economic impoverishment.

In the 1870s roughly forty thousand Eastern European Jews had come to the United States. In the 1880s over two hundred thousand came; in the 1890s over three hundred thousand followed suit. Roughly 70 percent would settle in New York City, the major port of entry. In 1870 there had been about sixty thousand Jews in the metropolis, and by 1880 about eighty thousand. By the early 1890s that number had more than doubled, to nearly 170,000, and by the end of the decade it had reached 290,000—a phenomenal inrush that troubled New York’s long-established German-Jewish community.


In the context of the rising anti-Semitism that characterized the late 1870s and early 1880s city, New York’s German Jews, especially the more affluent among them, worried that the arriving masses would further undermine their decades-long drive for social acceptance. Such anxieties were not unreasonable. At first the wider metropolis rallied against Russian barbarism and anti-Semitism: a large protest meeting at Chickering Hall in 1882 denounced the pogroms, and the Commercial Advertiser suggested reprisals against the czarist regime. At the same time, however, faced with refugees who were far poorer and more exotic than had been imagined, less sympathetic opinions surfaced. A two-page cartoon in Judge that year depicted a “Ceremony of taking down the last sign of the Christians in New Jerusalem (Formerly New York)”.

The temptation was therefore strong to underscore the differences between German “Hebrews,” still widely respected, and “low-class Jews,” who were increasingly suspect. Thus the Rev. Dr. J. Silverman complained in an 1889 lecture at Temple Emanu-El that the newcomers were “a standing menace” because their “loud ways and awkward gesticulations are naturally repulsive and repugnant to the refined American sensibilities.” The “thoroughly acclimated American Jew,” the Hebrew Standard agreed, “is closer to the Christian sentiment around him than to the Judaism of these miserable darkened Hebrews.”

Real differences did exist. In Europe, those inspired by the Haskalah—an earlier German-Jewish enlightenment that had reconciled Jewish tradition to Western culture—had long rejected the power that shtetl rabbis, melamdim (teachers), and scholars retained in community affairs, considering it rigid and reactionary. In New York, many haut bourgeois Reform Jews, whose modes of observance had been moving steadily closer to those of their Protestant confreres, considered the Orthodox immigrants little better than fanatics. And even the Conservative Jews—those who balked at the Reform project and founded the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1886—were far more liberal in their theology than the arriving immigrants.

German Jews, moreover, had long contrasted their own progressive “Occidental civilization” with Russian “Orientalism.” Now, made prouder than ever of their German inheritance by the triumphs of Bismarck’s empire, many sought to distinguish themselves from Eastern Europeans on all fronts. They derided Yiddish as a “piggish jargon” and ridiculed newcomers as “kikes,” as their names often ended in ki. Many detested the immigrants’ dress and habits, which they thought unhygienic, and found them clannish, backward, and alien. To cultural disdain they added the class contempt that investment bankers and genteel merchants had for peddlers and tailors.

For all this, the Jewish old guard was torn between its class aspirations and its reli­gious loyalties and increasingly began to respond to the combined pull of compassion, kinship, and zedakah, the charity required of every observant Jew. Emma Lazarus was the daughter of Moses Lazarus, a wealthy Sephardic New York sugar manufacturer and a founding member of the Knickerbocker Club. She was stung to read a piece in the Century magazine that bordered on blaming the victims of the 1881 riots for their own misfortunes, and she wrote a tart rebuttal. When those raising funds for the Statue of Liberty read it, they invited Lazarus to contribute a poem. In December 1883 she read her “New Colossus” at the National Academy of Design, a verse that reformulated the monument’s meaning from spreading enlightenment to embracing immigrants. Unlike the forbiddingly masculine Colossus of Rhodes, Lazarus wrote, America’s monument was a welcoming woman with “mild eyes”—a “Mother of Exiles”—who stood at “our sea-washed, sunset gates,” our “golden door,” lifting a lamp to beckon the “homeless” and the “tempest-tost”—whom she also characterized as the “wretched refuse” of Europe’s “teeming shore.”

Convinced that without some direct intervention on their part, that the city’s ambivalent acceptance of “wretched refuse” might not long continue, and that they themselves would be irretrievably associated with the newcomers, New York’s wealthy German Jews, for all their misgivings, shouldered responsibility for their impoverished and outlandish coreligionists. Jacob Schiff, B’nai B’rith, the Baron de Hirsch Fund, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (among others) underwrote the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society’s establishment of temporary shelters at Greenpoint and set up another barracks encampment on Ward’s Island, in the grounds of the old lunatic asylum. A fledgling United Hebrew Charities extended direct aid to settlers, reaching one in ten. In 1892 the newly established Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society stationed a representative on Ellis Island to mediate with immigration officials and hand out advice bulletins to newcomers.

Traditionally, zedakah was blind. Donors did not know the identity of recipients and vice versa. This precluded using charity to influence or control beneficiaries. But influence was precisely what German-Jewish givers wanted—as did their counterparts in Protestant charities like the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor or the Children’s Aid Society. The immigrants “must be Americanized in spite of themselves,” one uptowner wrote in the Jewish Messenger, “in the mode to be prescribed by their friends and benefactors.”

In June 1889 a group including Jacob Schiff, Isaac Seligman, and Isidor Straus began to raise funds for a Hebrew Educational Alliance. It was conceived, in the consolidating spirit of the day, as a merger of the Hebrew Free School Association, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (which Oscar Straus had helped found in 1874 as a counterpoint to the Christian organization), and the Aguilar Free Library (founded for new arrivals in 1886, with the goal of “uplifting the mental and moral tone of a class that woefully lacks refining influences”).

The organizers quickly deleted “Hebrew” from the Educational Alliance, which opened its five-story yellow brick building at Jefferson Street and East Broadway in 1891. They did, however, sponsor Hebrew classes for boys and girls, lest parents send them to a cheder (religious school), “where the general surroundings, considered from hygienic, moral and Americanizing standpoints,” as the organization put it in 1894, “are of the very type which it is the chief aim of the Alliance to extirpate.” They drew the line at Yiddish, though, banning its use until the end of the century. Within these para­meters, the institute developed pioneering and popular programs—summer camps and arts classes and English and civics programs—which became a model for citizenship courses in public schools.

To another set of German Jews—merchants and manufacturers—the new immigrants seemed less a burden to uplift than a czar-sent opportunity. German Jews had come a long way from the secondhand shops of Baxter and Chatham Street: they now owned 80 percent of all retail and 90 percent of all wholesale clothing firms in the city. To these men, and the garment manufacturers who supplied their wares, the Eastern Europeans constituted a phenomenal supply of cheap labor. Some uptown philanthropies, like the United Hebrew Charities (UHC), stayed in close contact with leading manufacturers and actually funneled greenhorns into the garment business. The UHC gave quick and limited training to new arrivals, steered them to the shops, and on occasion deployed them to break strikes.

There was little need for coercion, however. Unskilled immigrants were well aware that the road to survival led literally to the garment district. Once past customs, most newcomers walked from the Battery up Broadway, turned right up Park Row at the General Post Office, and continued straight ahead along East Broadway, until they arrived at its conjuncture with Canal and Essex streets, a spot later known as Seward Square. Settling near there left them perfectly positioned to find work, for Canal Street was the center of the wholesale trade and Grand Street, two blocks north, was the axis of retailing.

In the 1880s New York’s textile trades were undergoing yet another transition, which the Eastern Europeans spurred. In the mid-nineteenth century, men’s clothing production had shifted from custom tailoring to ready-to-wear. In the 1880s it was women’s wear’s turn. The breakthrough came in cloakmaking; in the 1890s shirtwaist, skirt, and dress manufacturing followed suit. The number of women’s clothing establishments ballooned from 230 in 1880 to 3,429 twenty years later, while men’s shops continued their expansion, rising from 736 to 2,716 in the same period.

Production of both men’s and women’s clothing involved increasing mechanization and microdivision of labor. Before the Civil War, merchant-manufacturers had parceled out handcut fabric to skilled German and Irish craftsmen who, with the aid of their families, manually assembled the finished goods at home. Now German-Jewish manufacturers used the new rotary cutting machine (1874) to slice up materials in great quantities. Some finished up the garments in their own factories, employing young unmarried women (only 2 percent of Jewish wives worked outside their homes). But rents were high and the business seasonal, so ninety-seven out of a hundred cloak and suit houses turned cloth bundles over to German-Jewish or, increasingly, Russian-Jewish contractors, for transformation into ready-to-wear garments at a negotiated price.

A contractor then set up a workspace in a rented loft or his own tenement apartment. He rented or bought sewing machines—fifty to a hundred dollars would buy a few used Singers—or required employees to bring their own. Finally he supervised, and usually worked alongside, teams of eight to twenty semiskilled workers, ideally just off the boat. Labor in these “sweatshops” was broken down into thirty or more tasks, with machine work done by operators and needlework, basting, finishing, felling, and pressing reserved for the less skilled.

By 1895 there were roughly six thousand sweatshops in New York City and nine hundred in Brooklyn, employing perhaps eighty thousand workers. Given such fierce competition, few contractors did well. Each had to underbid the other, forcing all to operate so close to the margin that a slack season or a general economic downturn could wipe them out. In some years as many as one-third failed. Those who survived did so by relentlessly exploiting their workers. Contractors demanded six fourteen- to sixteenhour days a week and drove wages down from fifteen dollars a week in 1883 to seven dollars in 1885.

Immigrant Jews accepted such conditions partly because the sweatshop environment was culturally compatible. They were not (always) forced to labor on the Sabbath; they could work with landsmen (fellow countrymen); they could keep their households intact—the family that sweated together stayed together. But mainly they had no choice in the matter. Many were unskilled, in poor health, and locked in competition with one another. Each day at eight A.M. the unemployed shaped up at the corner of Hester and Ludlow streets; the din of negotiating gave it the name of the Khazzer Mark (pig market).


As newcomers poured in, Kleindeutschland morphed into the Lower East Side. The original Jewish quarter rapidly expanded outward from its core near the Canal, Hester, and Grand Street job markets. It spread west to the Bowery, east and south toward the river and warehouse districts, still Irish strongholds, and north to Delancey and beyond, pushing the remaining Germans ahead of it into the now shrunken “Dutchtown” that ran from Houston to 14th Street.

Within this terrain, ethnic subdivision was the rule. So many Russians clustered around the Canal to Grand Street core that by 1890, the old Tenth Ward, once predom-’ inantly German, was 70 percent Russian Jewish. Galicians roosted from Grand up to Houston; Hungarians occupied blocks north of Houston and east of Avenue B.

Inside this new if unofficial Pale, density soared as landlords subdivided old row houses into five or six apartments and stuffed in tenants. One house at Essex and York, split into sixteen apartments, warehoused two hundred. Bathrooms were scarce, coal and wood remained the main sources of fuel, kerosene provided lighting, and blocks of ice furnished refrigeration. More spacious five- or six-story tenements went up to house the slightly more affluent, offering reasonably adequate plumbing, heating, and ventilation. But their higher rents forced tenants to take in boarders, and soon these structures too were packed. By 1890 the Tenth Ward had 524 people per acre, the highest density in the city. Within ten years the figure would rise to seven hundred per acre, a rate that topped Bombay’s as highest in the world.

Jews stayed packed like herrings in a barrel in part because they couldn’t afford to commute. When job opportunities did open up in more hospitable surroundings, some moved out with alacrity. In the 1880s one such destination was Brownsville, in a faroff and still undeveloped section of Brooklyn. The little village of one- and two-family houses lay at the outlying end of Vaux and Olmsted’s Eastern Parkway, where it ran into Pitkin Avenue. Here, just west of the orchards and farm fields beyond Rockaway Avenue, a Jewish real estate agent invested in local lots in the mid-1880s, persuaded some cloakmakers to set up shop, and began constructing rows of frame houses for workers (a hundred dollars down, ten dollars a month). By 1892 a Jewish community of four thousand Russians and Poles, complete with synagogues and fraternal organizations, had taken root.

Other newcomers followed trails blazed by Germans and headed to Williamsburg, to Yorkville (where cigar factories provided work), and to Harlem, where by 1890 thirteen hundred Russian and Polish Jews had settled into the Irish-German neighborhood west of Third Avenue. But in such outposts they would remain minorities, whereas the Lower East Side was emerging as a world the Jews had remade for themselves.

Concentration had its benefits. It guaranteed ethnic predominance and cultural familiarity. The streets were packed with landsmen, the stores emblazoned with Yiddish signs, the backyards stocked with chickens—it might have been Odessa. Street and cafe grapevines provided information about jobs. Housewives purchased fish, milk, tin, and bits of cloth from the omnipresent pushcarts. It required almost no capital to rent a cart, stock it at the Canal Street wholesalers, and make the rounds. Soon these peripatetic retailers settled down themselves. Hester Street, nestled between Grand and Canal, became the unofficial peddlers’ concourse, jam-packed from end to end, patronized by immigrants familiar with European street markets. Soon Grand, Orchard, and Rivington had become open-air bazaars as well. Sex too was for sale here, and by the 1890s Jewish prostitutes worked Allen, Houston, and Delancey streets.

Some peddlers rose to become shopkeepers and served as grocers, bakers, and kosher butchers to the burgeoning community and the wider metropolis. By 1888 perhaps half the city’s four thousand meat retailers and three hundred meat wholesalers were Jewish. At a time when other eastern cities had come to depend on midwestern abattoirs, New York’s demand for kosher meat sustained the metropolis as an important slaughtering center, and one firm, Schwartzchild and Sulzberger, emerged as a meatpacking giant. By 1890, a mere decade after mass settlement got underway, there were forty-three bakeries, fifty-eight bookshops, and 112 candy stores belonging to East European Jews. The latter dispensed seltzer, a less expensive version of soda water. It was tremendously popular among the generally nonalcoholically inclined Jews, prized as a complement to rich kosher diets (belchwasser, it was often called), and when mixed with chocolate syrup and milk, it got magically transformed into an “egg cream,” neither of which it contained.


E. Idell Zeisloft, who published this photograph of Hester Street in The New Metropolis (1899), described it as “the wonderful market of the Ghetto. See it on Thursday afternoon and evening and Friday morning, when all the housewives are making their purchases for the Shabbas . . . a most picturesque spectacle.” (General Research. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

Orthodox Jews tried to resurrect the shtetl’s religious life. They founded synagogues in profusion. Many were little more than storefronts or tenement rooms. Others were housed in recycled Protestant churches or German-Jewish synagogues. An exalted few were custom built: in 1886, the Herter brothers produced a glorious Moorish-Gothic-Romanesque temple at 14 Eldridge Street for the Polish Congregation Khal Adas Jeshurun. It was the first to be raised by Eastern European Jews on the Lower East Side.

With the synagogues came talmudai torah (religious schools), chedarim (Bible and Hebrew classes for young boys), and mikvehs (ritual baths). Key shtetl figures resurfaced as well: shohets (ritual slaughterers), mohels (circumcisors), and hazzan (cantors). Newspapers devoted to traditional ways flowered: the Yidishe Gazetn (1874), Yidishe Tseitung (1870), Yidisher Tageblatt (1890s). So did chavarot (mutual benefit societies) and landsmanshaftn (self-help groups organized on hometown lines, of which Bialystoker Center was the first). These organizations—housed in attics, basements, and storefronts—provided financial aid, funeral and cemetery benefits, loans, and communal centers.

Re-creating the Old World in the New proved difficult. Leaders were scarce: few Orthodox rabbis emigrated, and indigent scholars were forced to work. Followers were even harder to come by. Many luftmenschen immigrants had already been drawn to secularism in Europe. Now, in New York, many abandoned the old customs in a drive to become “regeleh Yankees”: men stopped daily prayers, shed skullcaps, trimmed or shaved beards and sidelocks, and donned Prince Alberts, starched collars, and neckties. Young men were attracted to secular educational institutions, and a small trickle of East European Jews managed to join the several dozen German-Jewish boys who entered City College each year, at a time when the average class numbered fifty. Bernard Baruch graduated in 1889, and in the following years New York Jews developed a close attachment to the institution at Lexington and 23rd, despite its mediocre faculty, its Protestant moralism, and occasional anti-Semitic episodes.

Women doffed wigs and kerchiefs and adopted American fashions. Some even began to question shtetl dogmas about female inferiority, now that they were in a country that considered women elevated creatures. They were less taken, however, with the bourgeois American notion that women should be homebound and passive, accustomed as they were to breadwinning roles. By the early 1890s an estimated twenty thousand young Jewish women, largely American born, were employed as saleswomen, milliners, typists, bookkeepers, stenographers, and public or private school teachers.

By and large, Jewish secular radical intellectuals would have more impact on their countrymen than did Orthodox traditionalists. At first, however, intoxicated by New York’s cosmopolitanism and their newfound freedom from shtetl and czarist controls, the intellectuals devoted most of their attention to debating one another. Some were attracted by socialism, with its optimism, universalism, impressive learning, and ethical appeal, and Tammany was startled in 1886 by the heavy turnout of Jewish voters for Henry George. Others, like Emma Goldman, opted for anarchism. Goldman, a Lithuanian immigrant who had been sewing overcoats in Rochester for several years, arrived in New York during the summer of 1889 with a sewing machine and five dollars, rented a room on Suffolk Street, and plunged immediately into the political scene, determined, like Russian heroines, to “go to the people.”

Inspired by the impromptu refusal (in 1882) of a group of newly arrived Jewish immigrants to scab on striking Irish longshoreman, the city’s German socialists began holding mass meetings on Rivington Street. Abraham Cahan, a brash young Lithuanian immigrant and former cell member of Vilna’s Narodnaya Volya, argued successfully that such lectures, to be effective, must be given in Yiddish. This led, with German socialist assistance, to the formation in 1886 of the New Yorker Yiddishe Volks-Zeitung and in 1888 of the United Hebrew Trades (UHT), both dedicated to helping the “Jewish proletariat. . . free itself more quickly from the filth of the pig market.”

The UHT grew swiftly, due in large part to the efforts of Cahan, Morris Hillkowitz (later Hillquit), a twenty-year-old recently arrived shirtmaker who helped unionize tailors, cloakmakers, and pressers, and the flamboyant Joseph Barondess, self-styled king of the cloakmakers. Barondess affected the haughty, not to say arrogant, manners of a bohemian aristocrat, satisfying his followers’ yearning for dramatic militancy, rather as Mike Walsh had done for the Irish half a century earlier. In the 1890 May Day celebrations, Barondess, mounted on a white horse, led his three thousand cloakmakers in a grand parade of nine thousand Jewish workers that marched to the “Marseillaise” up to Union Square, greeted by cheering bystanders waving red banners from windows.

Histrionics aside, with the aid of assistants like Emma Goldman, Barondess in 1890 led a strike by cutters and contractors against the Cloak Manufacturers Association and stood firm as well against the determined opposition of the United Hebrew Charities, which, when asked to extend relief to locked-out cloakmakers, reportedly said: “If they strike on account of their union, let them suffer for it. . . let them starve.” (“Better the whip of Fonye [the Tsar],” snarled the Arbeiter Zeitung, “than the charity of Eighth Street.”) In the end, Meyer Jonassen, New York’s leading clothing manufacturer and a wealthy uptown German Jew, was forced to boost wages and recognize the union, though the terms excluded women, who were the bulk of his factory employees.

In the volatile garment industry, successes proved hard to sustain. Concessions were withdrawn, agreements broken. The year following Barondess’s triumph, one of the largest manufacturers sent work to nonunion shops out in Jamaica, and Barondess himself was thrown in jail on a trumped-up charge. By the end of the 1890s, after a decade of intense activity and ferocious strikes, which were often widely supported in the community, little more than 15 percent of the garment workers belonged to unions.

Irish and German workingmen were slow to take Jewish unionists into their councils. To be sure, Yiddish speakers like Cahan were now invited to take a place alongside German and Irish orators at May Day parades, and the United German Trades helped promote the fledgling United Hebrew Trades. But it was hard to gainsay the fact that Jews were steadily if indirectly pushing German tailors and Irish dressmakers out of work. The older unionsts were even less happy with the Italians.


Steaming into New York harbor alongside vessels bearing Jewish immigrants were boats from Naples carrying refugees from southern Italy. In crucial respects their immigrant cargoes could not have been less alike. The Eastern Europeans were predominantly families, Jewish, and urban; the Italians mainly bachelors, Catholic, and rural. But both populations had been shaken out of entrenched situations by the economic and political storms sweeping across the European landscape.

Where the Jews had been trapped in the shtetls, southern Italians were mired in the isolated valleys and lowlands formed by the mountain chains into which the mezzogiorno was divided. Within these provincial pockets, society was frozen in a quasi-feudal mode. A handful of aristocrats owned the bulk of the land and exacted profit and prestige from peasant tenants as their forebears had done for centuries. With the higher clergy and professionals, they formed a tiny ruling elite, utterly uninterested in agricultural improvements. As a result, the contadini (peasants who leased land or owned small plots) and the giornalieri (day laborers) worked the soil essentially as their Roman ancestors had, with wooden plows.

The area also suffered from primitive housing conditions, illiteracy (perhaps the highest rate in Europe), microdivision of farm plots, an absence of public welfare programs, limited diet, earthquakes, deforestation, soil erosion, malaria, and harsh sirocco winds blowing up from North Africa. The result was La Miseria—a miserable, impoverished way of life.

To survive, local communities hunkered down into tight defensive units whose loyalties and interests traveled no farther than the sound of the village church bell. The bedrock institution was the intensely patriarchal family, whose members, with good reason, distrusted all outside and higher powers, ecclesiastical as well as secular. The southern Italians were dug into the baked soil as deeply as their olive and chestnut trees. As with the shtetl Jews, it took a powerful confluence of outside events to dislodge them.

Italian unification provided much of the impetus. The northerners dominating the new nation considered southerners little better than African barbarians, and just as available for colonial plundering. The authorities failed to provide roads or schools, which could help eliminate backward conditions, but siphoned off in taxes what capital and resources existed. Unification also abolished customs barriers and thus opened up the mezzogiorno to northern and European economic penetration.

Exposure to developed capitalism proved disastrous. Free trade destroyed fledgling industries. Commercial agriculture foundered too, as the inefficient orange and lemon growers of Calabria, Sicily, and Basilicata faced ruinous competition from growers in Florida and California.

Meanwhile—as in Eastern Europe—the population mounted steadily, rising 25 percent from the 1870s to the 1890s. Overpopulation, like unemployment, disease, oppression, and neglect, contributed to the growing realization that the region had been sentenced to lingering death. Beginning slowly in the 1870s, therefore, and picking up steam in the 1880s and 1890s, southern Italian cultivators and laborers and a smaller number of artisans began making their way to the United States. Overwhelmingly—between 75 and 90 percent depending on the year—they were single men between the ages of fourteen and forty-four, though single women also came, intent perhaps on earning a dowry and improving their prospects of finding a good husband when they returned. Overwhelmingly they were poor: in 1892 the average Italian arrived in America with eleven dollars in his pocket. And virtually all arrived in New York City.


From the beginning of the Civil War until 1880, Italian immigration to the United States had never exceeded thirty-five hundred a year, predominantly from the northern provinces. Then, from 1881 to 1890, the average annual figure jumped to over thirty thousand. In the succeeding decade, Italians poured in at an annual average rate of sixty-five thousand, becoming the most numerous ethnic group entering the United States.

Not all Italians who landed at Castle Garden or, later, Ellis Island stayed in New York. But enough did to transform it into the Italo-American capital of the United States. In 1850 there had been a grand total of 833 Italians in the metropolis. By 1880 the figure had climbed to twenty thousand (of whom twelve thousand were foreign born). By 1900, after two decades of immigration and local reproduction, there would be a quarter-million Italian Americans living in New York City.

Residence meant something different for Italians than it did for Jews. Many young Italian men thought of themselves as migrant workers, perched here only temporarily. Many planned to and did return to Italy once they had saved enough to set themselves up with a farm; others retreated across the Atlantic for a breather—or permanently—when faced with economic adversity. Altogether during these decades perhaps fortythree of every hundred immigrants went back, becoming known, to those who had never left, as Americani.

Even while in-country, their primary mission of making money quickly led them to consider New York more home base than home. They moved about the country to wherever the jobs were, with their precise destinations arranged by padroni, the Italian equivalent of the Jewish garment contractors. The padroni packaged up gangs of Italian laborers in New York (and sometimes in Italy itself) and supplied them to corporate employers around the country, in mines, agriculture, railroads, and construction sites. During the winter, or in hard times, thousands of these seasonal laborers would either return to Italy or camp out in New York City.

Others never left the metropolis, where a substantial and growing number of jobs were available. Transplanted peasants avoided factory jobs, considering them physically confining, socially unrespectable, and personally demeaning, but they flocked to hard physical labor on the city’s docks, roads, rapid transit lines, aqueducts, and building sites.

This invasion of New York’s labor market met with mixed reactions from established workers. In the building trades the Italian takeover of casual day labor work (their share zoomed from 15 percent in 1883 to 75 percent in 1893) was accepted by Irish and German immigrants and their sons, who were busy consolidating their hold on the more highly skilled crafts of carpentering, plastering, and masonry. In public works, too, older immigrants gave ground with relative grace, abandoning such unskilled and unpleasant jobs as garbage scow trimming, ditch digging, snow shoveling, excavation, sewer laying, and hod carrying—until by 1890 perhaps 90 percent of the laborers employed by the Department of Public Works were Italian. Certain “service” jobs were also rapidly Italianized. By 1894 the great majority of barbers and streetcorner fruit vendors were Italians, as were 97 percent of the bootblacks—the latter job, like organ grinder assistant, reserved for children.

Other job niches were hotly contested. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, resolved to crack the Irish monopoly on longshore jobs, dock bosses began hiring Italians—especially during strikes—to take over the more menial work. The Italians were prepared to scab because they were transients, with little stake in transforming local labor conditions, and because they resented the union’s discriminatory policies: its high fees, arduous apprenticeships, and obvious lack of interest in trying to win them over. This led to violent conflicts at job sites and to enduring bad blood between the two groups. Relations were better in the skilled trades, where Italian shoemakers, masons, bricklayers, stonecutters, and marble workers joined unions or mutual aid societies.

Italian women took jobs outside their homes in small tobacco or candy factories or in noxious shops where they glued paper boxes together. The great majority stayed (or were kept) at home in cramped tenements where they looked after kin and boarders or did needle-trades outwork. For wages one-third less than the already abysmal compensation paid Jewish seamstresses, they felled and finished garments or made artificial flowers.

To save money to bring over their wives, sisters, and parents, Italian men accepted wretched living conditions, especially as the meanest Manhattan life was often an improvement on what they’d left behind. They headed for slum streets just west of the Bowery (between Canal and Houston), where earlier poor Italian immigrants had settled in among the Irish, and worked as scavengers, selling their rags, bones, and cans to nearby junk dealers. By the late 1890s Italians had supplanted the Irish along Mulberry, Mott, Hester, Prince, and Elizabeth streets, making the “Mulberry Bend” area the most concentrated Italian “colony” in the city.

Slum landlords welcomed the new arrivals: no matter how cramped and squalid the housing, they paid their rent and seldom complained. A three-room apartment (at twelve dollars a month) might house sixteen: a husband, wife, four daughters, two sons, and eight male lodgers. A two-room apartment (eight dollars a month) could hold eleven: a widow, her son, and nine male lodgers.

As Mulberry Bend filled to bursting, the colony threw off satellite settlements. Some were virtually contiguous: newcomers spread north and west of Houston into Greenwich Village south of Washington Square, pushing remaining blacks out of the former Little Africa toward the Tenderloin. Others left Manhattan altogether. In Brooklyn they clustered near the Hamilton Ferry, along Union and President streets, near the docks, warehouses, and factories of Red Hook. Newcomers also went to Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Fort Greene, the Navy Yard area, and Sunset Park; by the end of the 1890s there were also small colonies in Astoria, Long Island City, and Flushing.

The preeminent offshoot was up in East Harlem. Italians came to northern Manhattan in the 1870s when an Irish American contractor building the First Avenue trolley tracks imported them as strikebreakers, and a workers’ shantytown sprang up along the East River on 106th Street. As construction opportunities expanded in the booming Harlem community, Italians made their way to the wide-open uptown spaces. Wide open didn’t mean pastoral: the area stank from gasworks, stockyards, and tar and garbage dumps. By the mid-1880s four thousand had arrived. They boarded with families or pooled expenses in all-male rooming houses where they shared cooking and washing, even made their own wine. By the end of the 1890s Italians had pushed north to 115th Street and west to Third Avenue, pressing hard against Irish, German, and Jewish neighborhoods.


A Black and Tan Dive on Thompson Street, photograph by Jacob Riis. As Italians moved into Greenwich Village, Riis wrote, the neighborhood once known as “Africa” was “fast becoming a modern Italy.” (© Museum of the City of New York)

Italian Harlem, unlike Mulberry Bend, was new enough for residents to leave their mark on it. Paesani settled near one another—Neapolitans between 106th and 108th, Basilicatans from 108th to 115th, Aviglianese at First Avenue and 112th—but a broader Italian community also emerged, with distinctive sights, sounds, and smells. The populace resisted Americanization (few became citizens), eschewed the English language (perhaps a third couldn’t make themselves understood to natives), and foreswore Yankee clothing (women wore peasant costumes with red bandannas or yellow kerchiefs; men clung to traditional garb). People stuck close to the cultural shelter of the colony and when they traveled to lower Manhattan were apt to say: “I have been down to America today.”

Community leadership fell to those who organized relations with “America”: the padroni and the banchiere. The latter group was composed of immigrants who, having acquired some capital as grocers, barbers, or saloonkeepers, now set up as bankers. In addition to lending and changing money and transmitting funds to the old country, the banchiere provided a wide array of services, acting as travel agents, scribes, marriage brokers, and legal advisers. Together with the small number of better-off professionals—doctors, dentists, pharmacists, merchants, and lawyers—the banchiere and padroni dominated colony life. These prominenti, who owned or financed the mutual aid societies, community organizations, and ethnic newspapers, were highly conservative, concerned about their status, and antagonistic to working-class efforts at self-help. The leading newspaper, Il Progresso Italo-Americano, was founded in 1879 by Carlo Barsotti, a wealthy contractor-padróne who styled himself “his excellency Chevalier Carlo Barsotti.” Under his leadership, the paper pugnaciously opposed unions, independent political parties, and any laws that would regulate banchiere or padroni. The leading mutual aid association, the Societa Italiana di Beneficenza (1882), was also under the thumb of wealthy prominenti like its banker-padróne president, Commendatore Louis V. Fugazy (“Papa Fugazy”). In the ecclesiastical arena, however, immigrant workers took matters into their own hands.


To the Irish hierarchy and Irish parishioners, their new coreligionists seemed barely Catholic at all. They seldom came to church, apart from baptisms, weddings, and funerals. In 1884 Archbishop Corrigan noted that of fifty thousand Italians in the New York area, not more than twelve hundred attended mass. In addition, the newcomers refused to contribute to the building programs Corrigan promoted, and they rejected his parochial schools in favor of the free public school system. The Italians had no great respect for priests, even their own, and were given to ribald speculations about clerical sins and to denunciations of priests as lazy hangers-on. Socialists objected to the Church’s identification with wealthy landowners, nationalists to its opposition to Italian unification.

To the Irish, such “Catholics” seemed more than half pagan. Yet the Italians were capable of amazing devotion. The immigrant men filled their rooms with sacred images—pictures and statues of the Virgin and their hometown patron saints—which they either brought with them or sent home for. In their thousands of cramped rooms, laboring men set up little shrines at which they offered prayers for families left behind. Such intensely personal devotions were considered acceptable, if unorthodox. Far more shocking to Irish-American clerics was the way such practices spilled into the streets.

In the summer of 1881 immigrants from Polla formed a mutual aid society named after the Madonna del Carmine, the town’s protectress. The following year they began annual feste in her honor. From 1883 these were held behind a iiith Street boardinghouse, at a little chapel in the back yard where ragpickers sorted, washed, and packed their daily hauls. In 1884 the confraternity—a lay organization—obtained from Polla a statue of the Madonna and turned their festa into a popular celebration.

The growing cult alarmed Bishop Corrigan and the Irish hierarchy. Now fully alive to the “Italian problem,” the archdiocese invited to New York the Pallottine fathers who had been ministering to Italian immigrants in London. Their first priest, Father Emiliano Kirner, arrived in 1884 and was given care of the little 11 ith Street chapel. Father Kirner soon discovered the East Harlemites wanted to build a more beautiful and dignified residence for their patroness. He encouraged them, and soon the locals established the all-male Congregazione del Monte Carmelo della 115ma Strada. Its laborers and junkmen, after their own exhausting workdays were over, threw themselves into erecting a church with their own hands. When the masons’ union objected to the use of free labor, neighborhood women took over the job.

The Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was the first Italian-built church in Manhattan. But because it was situated on the border with the Irish and German community, and the bulk of the funds for its construction had come from older immigrants, Italians were sent to the basement to worship. La Madonna too, her gown now covered with precious stones, was placed in la chiesa inferiore.

This exile to the lower depths rubbed against Italian sensibilities—already raw from their dealings with Irish foremen and contractors, or with Irish nuns who placed Italian parochial school children in the rear of the room. In part as spiritual defiance, the festival, and others that now sprouted around the city, grew to enormous proportions by the 1890s. Thousands flocked to the food and games, bands and dancing, costumes and parades. The gathering also provided a stabilizing center for dislocated migrants, and by parading La Madonna through the neighborhood’s streets and parks they put their cultural stamp on a piece of the alien New York world.

The archdiocese remained dismayed by the cult’s “pagan” quality, its barefoot faith, its flashy street religiosity. They resented the dominance of the Mount Carmel society over the festa, correctly seeing it as a lay challenge to ecclesiastical control over immigrant religious life. They were also unsettled by feast-day inversion of patriarchal proprieties. Normally, Italian street life was dominated by men, who milled in front of their regional and social clubs, playing boccie and card games, but during the festa of La Madonna women commanded the streets. Finally they feared the festa would hinder Italians’ Americanization, a concern shared by German Jews vis-à-vis their Russian coreligionists.

In 1887 Archbishop Corrigan called for clerical reinforcements. He asked Rome and religious orders for additional Italian priests and encouraged the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart to work here. With the pope’s particular blessing, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini arrived with a few sisters in 1889, founded an orphanage, and opened Columbus Hospital in 1892. New Italian parishes were established, joining Mount Carmel and the Franciscans’ 1866 Church of St. Anthony of Padua in Greenwich Village. Corrigan authorized eight Italian churches, including the Scalabrinians’ Saint Joachim on the Lower East Side’s Roosevelt Street in 1888 and the Jesuits’ Missione Italiana della Madonna di Loreto, established in 1891 on Elizabeth Street.

Still, the disconcerting 115th Street festa continued. The matter was referred to higher levels. Unfortunately for Irish prelates, the decisive precincts were in Italy. In the next decade East Harlemites petitioned Pope Leo XIII to elevate their Mount Carmel shrine to the dignity of a sanctuary under the special protection of the Virgin. Only two such existed in the New World: Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico and Our Lady of Perpetual Help in New Orleans. The pontiff would decide that the devotion met two of the formal requirements for coronation: evidences of favors granted the devout by the Virgin and popularity of the cult. Leo waived the third criterion, antiquity, perhaps on the grounds that in New York, where everything moved so fast, twenty years was the equivalent of two hundred in Europe. More likely, Leo was well aware that the crowning asserted the authority of the Roman-centered papacy over Irish-American prelates, and in America’s most modern city to boot. And so, before an enormous crowd in Jefferson Park, the Madonna of 115th Street would receive her crown, made in New York out of the melted-down golden rings, brooches, and family heirlooms contributed by grateful immigrants. After decades of uncertain commitment to the American metropolis, the Italians, symbolically as well as demographically, had arrived.


Although the Chinese came in minuscule numbers, compared to the great waves of Southern and Eastern Europeans, the establishment of the first Asian-American community in New York City triggered powerful responses of fascination and fear. For all the tensions evoked among old-stock New Yorkers by the emergence of Polish and Italian enclaves, as Europeans they shared far more with one another than any of them did with men and women from the opposite side of the planet.

There had long been a floating population of Chinese merchants and mariners in Manhattan, for the same sea lanes that carried tea, silk, and porcelain brought traders and transient sailors. By the 1850s a tiny handful, fewer than 150, had established a quasi-permanent presence.

Some, like Ah Sue, served Asian travelers. Cook and steward on a Hong Kong New York packet line, Ah Sue had wearied of maritime travel and in 1847 opened a modest tobacco and candy store on Cherry Street. He operated as well a small boardinghouse for the Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Hindu, Maori, Hawaiian, Malay, and Annamese seamen whose vessels docked a few blocks away. More boardinghouses emerged, hosting other seamen who switched to land labor, usually in hopes of making a fortune and returning to China. Work was hard to come by, however, and many resorted to peddling cigars and Chinese candies around City Hall Park and the Bowery. Becoming familiar figures, they were collectively referred to as John Chinaman.

At the other end of the tiny group’s class spectrum were men like Quimbo Appo. Having survived the British bombing of Shanghai during the Opium Wars, Appo took to the trade routes, tried his luck in the newly opened goldfields of California, then moved to New York and in a Spring Street store began retailing tea, the city’s major Chinese import. Like other merchants, Appo mastered English speech and American mores as a requirement of doing business. With no Chinese women in town, Appo, like between a fourth and a third of the resident Chinese men, married a local woman, the Irish-American Catherine Fitzpatrick; wedlock between Irish “apple women” and Asian cigar peddlers was particularly common. Such unions ruffled racists, but the tiny numbers of Chinese involved did not raise the kinds of anxiety black-white “amalgamation” did.

After the Civil War, the community grew somewhat—reaching at most two thousand by 1880—with newcomers arriving from China by way of Cuba. When slavery was banished from British and Spanish colonies, sugar planters in Peru, Guiana, Brazil, Cuba, and Jamaica imported “coolie” laborers from impoverished sections of south China, a practice widely denounced in the United States as cruel and inhuman. In the 1860s Cuban cigarmakers recruited some of these Chinese from the sugar fields to work as hand rollers, a task at which they became expert. Given abysmal wage levels, many then traveled north on the thriving Cuban-New York trade routes. In the city, pioneer Cuban-American cigar manufacturers snapped up the highly skilled Chinese, paying some of them more than they did Germans.

This growth in the number of permanent and land-based residents fostered the emergence of an inland “Chinese Quarter,” moving away from the Fourth Ward docks into the Sixth Ward blocks above Chatham Square. Along Baxter Street and lower Mott, where it spilled into Chatham Square, a small number of stores, boardinghouses, mutual aid associations, and shrines emerged to serve the community.

In 1872 Wo Kee, a former Hong Kong merchant, moved his general goods store from Oliver to Mott, dropping the first commercial anchor in the area that would soon be known as Chinatown. A Sun reporter, visiting the store in 1880, marveled at the array of goods crammed into front and back rooms of the former residence: Chinese medicines, incense sticks, jade bracelets, dried shark fins, ducks split and baked in peanut oil, opium and pipes for smoking it, silks, and “exquisite” teas, some of which was served to customers by the proprietor while he calculated sums on his abacus. Wo Kee’s establishment was a social club and entertainment center as well. Men could shop, get mail, pick up tips on work opportunities, gamble in one basement room, lounge and eat in another. Upstairs there were sleeping quarters, with eleven bunk beds for twenty-two people and small rooms for use by cigarmakers. Other such multipurpose centers opened, often catering to people from the same clan and territory.

Soon the little complex received another and far larger demographic infusion, this time from California. Tens of thousands of Chinese, overwhelmingly unskilled peasants from rural Guangdong (Canton) and Fukien, had come to America to build the transcontinental railroad. Its completion in 1869 threw twenty thousand of them out of work. Most of them returned to California, where many entered the hand laundry business. When the depression of the 1870s struck California, many white workers scapegoated the Chinese, whom they considered unwitting capitalist tools. Animosities exploded into violence—pogroms of a sort—and led California to enact punitive antiimmigrant provisions. Many Chinese fled east along the transcontinental link they themselves had constructed.

Their arrival in the New York region in the late 1870s and early 1880s galvanized a new metropolitan industry. Each week, in Belleville, New Jersey, Captain James Hervey’s Passaic Steam Laundry Factory machine-washed and hand-ironed six thousand shirts newly manufactured in the garment factories of New York City. Considering his workforce of Irish women to be obstreperous in their wage demands, and finding it hard to snare sufficient numbers of greenhorns on trips to Castle Garden, Captain Hervey imported sixty-eight Chinese from San Francisco, sneaking them into his factory compound by dead of night. This touched off protest rallies in Tompkins Square Park against coolie labor. And in the end, the Chinese too proved unsatisfactory, peeling off, as their contracts expired, to open their own hand laundries.

At first “washee washees,” as metropolitan journalists referred to them, were few in number, perhaps thirty by 1877. In 1879, with the West Coast exodus underway, a Sun reporter found two hundred hand laundries in Manhattan. By 1888 Wong Ching Foo, a scrappy bilingual journalist-lecturer who wrote about and defended New York’s Chinese, estimated there were over two thousand such laundries in New York, with another eight or nine hundred in Brooklyn. There was, he explained, no other way to make money as surely and quickly, given “the prejudice against the race.” Start-up costs were low, perhaps a hundred dollars, and the average laundryman could save a nest egg of fifteen hundred or two thousand dollars, sell the laundry to relatives flocking in from the West Coast or Hong Kong, and return to China. Soon nearly every street and avenue in New York was festooned with signboards bearing good-luck names painted in flaming red.

The 1890 census counted 2,048 Chinese in the city, though the true figure was probably four to five times that. Of these, less than 20 percent lived in Chinatown, mostly cigarmakers who worked in the vicinity or merchants, clerks, barbers, doctors, and professional gamblers. Many in the Chatham Square area lived in dormitories, set up in the cheapest parts of dilapidated private houses, further divided into cubicles for those who could afford minimal privacy, with the rest stuffed into tri-tiered bunks, often two to a bed (three-per-bedders got rock-bottom rates of $i .50 to three dollars a week).

Most Chinese, however, were scattered about the city, domiciled in quarters attached to the hand laundries where many spent 80 percent of their lives. Others lived in mansions of the uptown rich, who had taken to hiring male Chinese house servants—there were still virtually no Chinese women in the city—to replace refractory Irish girls. Isolated and lonely—the only Asian faces they were likely to see were peddlers from Mott Street who carried in provisions—these men were also vulnerable to harassment by gangs, and there were several race-based murders. For them, Chinatown was the source of companionship as well as commodities. Laundry workers would flock to Mott Street in the evenings, or on Sunday, to socialize, gamble, smoke opium, get mail, hear news of their home villages.


Chinatown Restaurant, 1896. (General Research. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

The neighborhood grew only slightly in size—inching into Pell, Bayard, Doyer, and Canal—but its internal organization got considerably more complicated. By 1888 there were at least thirty all-purpose store-centers in Chinatown, now often run not by an individual entrepreneur but by mutual aid and protection societies known as fang (house), organized by kin or area of origin. These houses provided temporary lodging and financial assistance and sponsored social events and cultural festivals. They also provided deceased members with proper burials in a plot at Green-Wood Cemetery—or, rather, temporary interment, as men came periodically from San Francisco and, for a price, exhumed bodies, collected and packed the bones, and shipped them to Canton and on to home villages for a truly proper burial.

The neighborhood also developed a quasi-criminal wing, as mah-jongg and card games gave way to organized fan-tan gambling, especially after the arrival of Tom Lee. Wong Ah Ling, as he was known before he changed his name, had been a labor contractor in California, moved on to St. Louis, where he became a citizen, and arrived in New York in 1879. Lee did well in the tea and silk trade business, in manufacturing cigars, and in less legal pursuits as well. In 1880 he and some colleagues incorporated the Lung Gee Tong—translated for legal purposes as “the Order and Brotherhood of Masons”—and established a headquarters at 4 Mott. The Lung Gee Tong (later famous as the On Leong Tong) was a lodge of the Triads, or Sam Hop Hui, an underground oppositional society reputedly founded in the seventeenth century by Buddhist monks seeking to return China to Han rule. (“Oppose the Qing, Restore the Ming” was their slogan.) Staunchly nationalist, the secret brotherhood was involved in various revolutionary movements in China; in New York City their muscle was devoted, among other things, to establishing a criminal underworld.

Tom Lee, identifying himself as “the President of the Chinese Society of this city,” wined and dined prominent members of the Democratic Party and won de facto recognition from Tammany Hall as the leader of Chinatown. The only organized opposition to Lee came from the Christian Chinese. In 1875 Sara Goodrich of the Fourth Avenue Presbyterian Church established a mission at Pearl Street that provided English-language classes every evening and religious instruction in Chinese on Sundays, by a missionary back from Canton. By 1883 there were ten Sunday schools operating in Manhattan and another eight in Brooklyn, with a combined enrollment of about six hundred. There was also a Chinese Young Men’s Christian Association and the first independent Chinese church in New York, founded by Huie Kin, a Lane Theological Seminary graduate who arrived in 1885 to work with the Presbyterian schools. He and others dressed as workmen, infiltrated gambling houses, got to know the proprietors, had warrants made out, and took part in ensuing police raids. But the charges were almost invariably dismissed, and the shuttered houses did not remain so long.

The emergence of organized “vice” contributed to a sharp change in the wider city’s attitude toward the Chinese community. The former high esteem for Chinese goods and culture turned to fear and loathing in the late 1870s, and early nineteenthcentury images of clever craftsmen transmuted into harsh portraits of cunning deceivers. Wong Ching Foo, who in 1883 launched the first (and short-lived) Chineselanguage newspaper in New York, the Chinese American, lectured at Steinway Hall and published articles in leading magazines championing the community’s reputation, but to no avail.

Part of the reason for this sharp shift of perspective, ironically, was opium consumption. The drug that the West had forced into China at gunpoint, that had been the making of many New York fortunes, and that was widely hawked to middle-class Americans in the form of laudanum-laced patent medicines, cough syrups, and child quieters, came to be considered an evil substance to which Chinese were peculiarly addicted and which they used to subvert the morals of decent white women. Newspapers that had once treated pipe smoking light-heartedly now presented stories about the ruination of adolescent girls, headlined “Horrors of the Opium Dens” and accompanied by drawings of white women reclining alongside yellow men in collective stupor.

The fact that the Chinese had laid claim to an occupational niche that left them isolated from the wider society, against their earlier integrationist inclinations, was used as proof that they were racially inassimilable. Racist images of ravenous Chinese who would devour rats, cats, and dogs mingled with fears that yellow hordes would gobble up American jobs. Labor leaders like Samuel Gompers, whose cigar workers had actually encountered Chinese competition, called for race-based exclusion rather than making an effort to organize the Asians. The combination of middle-class revulsion and working-class animosity won passage in 1882 of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The law had serious repercussions in New York City. Though it allowed for class exemptions—officials, diplomats, scholars, teachers, students, merchants, and tourists could enter the country—they were denied citizenship, the right to vote, and thus inclusion in the political life of the city and country. The law also indirectly barred Chinese from the licensed professions, most of which required citizenship. It forced Chinese already here to obtain residence certificates, in effect internal passports, which branded them permanent aliens and left them peculiarly subject to political, social, and economic exploitation, especially if they had entered illegally. Finally, the law erected gender barriers, barring Chinese laborers from bringing their wives to the United States and making it extremely difficult even for members of the “exempt classes” to do so. This guaranteed the perpetuation and exacerbation of a gender imbalance that went way beyond the merely lopsided; it would lead to formation of what would become known as a “bachelor society.”

In response, New York’s Chinatown turned farther inward. In 1883 all the city’s fang and clan associations combined into an umbrella organization called the Zhonghua Gong Suo, a group that for much of the next century would serve as Chinese New York’s unofficial but extremely potent local government. In 1887 its officials purchased a building on Mott Street, and Tom Lee, now styled as “Chairman of the Chinese Municipal Council,” raised twenty-five thousand dollars for a new structure. When the building finished in 1890, the organization incorporated itself under state law and came to be called the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of the City of New York (CCBA).

The CCBA was not a conventional Chinese institution transplanted to the metropolis but a local response to local conditions. The organization became the place where groups and powerful individuals settled disputes. It allocated business sites to hand laundries and required them to maintain a fixed schedule of prices. It kept records of leases and business contracts and posted on the board in front of its headquarters notices about partnerships formed and businesses or goods up for sale. Its agents watched docks and rail stations to make sure no one left town without settling debts. It acted as liaison to the rest of the city and defended community interests in municipal forums.

New Yorkers, spared by the 1882 act and its 1892 extension from invasion by “Mongolian hordes,” now embarked on their own invasion of Chinatown. To adventurous uptowners the area’s “evils” seemed attractively exotic, and the early 1890s witnessed a “slumming” craze. Moses King’s 1893 guidebook urged a visit to Mott, Pell, and Doyers—a veritable Chinatown “with all the filth, immorality, and picturesque foreignness which that name implies.” Genteel visitors trooped to the area’s restaurants and the new “chop suey” houses that sprang up. The wilder ones sampled the forbidden pleasures of opium den and fan-tan parlor. All the activity finally created the sin-and-violence-drenched climate originally imagined to exist, as rowdy white Boweryites flocked to local bordellos, petty criminals took up residence, drunks and bravos engaged in combat, and tong extortionists preyed on Chinese (though never on white) businessmen.

The Chinese community was unique among the new immigrant groups in having its entire community turned into a cultural commodity. Jews and Italians did attract lovers of the “picturesque” to their neighborhoods, and they experienced the larger community’s scorn as well as its curiosity, but they were never subjected to anything quite like the indignities suffered by the Chinese. But the various communities did share something else: a capacity for artistic creativity that, in mutual interaction, would work a cultural revolution in New York City.

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