The Urban Quest for Place

“In founding new cities and in occupying new lands he first devotes himself to burning the forests, to levelling with ruthless eagerness the hill-slopes, to inflicting upon the land, whatever its topography, the unvarying plan of his system of straight streets and of rectangular street crossings. In brief, he begins his new settlements by a feverish endeavor to ruin the landscape. Now all this he does not at all because he is a mere materialist but… because mere nature is, as such, vaguely unsatisfactory to his soul, because what is merely found must never content us…. Hence, the first desire is to change, to disturb, to bring the new with us.”


MEN AND WOMEN in everywhere communities were not quite sure where they were living. The Old World peasant, tied to his land, had suffered fear of new places: his traditional affection was for the land of his forefathers, the village where parents and grandparents were buried in the churchyard. But merely by coming to America, an immigrant had shown his willingness to move. Inevitably, when he first arrived he found himself in a city, and many of the most numerous immigrant groups remained city dwellers. There, too, immigrants learned to make something new of their transatlantic customs. And in the first stages of their immigrant urban experience they revealed a flexibility remarkable for people so long Old World-rooted. They kept old ways and yet made something American of them.

The American city, the marketing center of consumption communities, the information center of statistical communities, was the special scene of this new rooting and uprooting. Most men before had been attached to the soil, inspirited by the sunshine and sky and trees and birds of some particular corner of earth. That sense of place Americans now sought to rediscover in their corner of cemented sidewalks, on macadamed rectilinear streets, among geometric skyscrapers.

But in the twentieth century, the urban places where immigrants sought roots somehow dissolved. The wealth and organization and invention which had lifted Americans into communities of the unseen had uprooted them, too, from every particular place. As Americans became increasingly urban, their cities ceased to be units clearly bounded in geography, in economy, in government, or even in vision. As the boundaries of cities were befuzzed, each city lost much of its distinctiveness. Each citizen became less a New Yorker or a Chicagoan or a San Franciscan than a City Dweller, another Urban American. But as Americans felt more entangled with their cities, more obsessed by city problems, as they sought to cure the city’s ills or to flee from them, they were bewildered over what (besides crime and pollution) they had lost, and they wondered where urban community could be rediscovered. Was the modern American city to be a twentieth-century American West, with its own special vagueness, its own mysteries, its own false promises and booster hopes?


An American Diaspora

THE OLD WORLD expanded across the United States in one of the great migrations of history. In the century after the close of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 there was a mass exodus from Europe. About 50 million people emigrated and, of these, 35 million came to the United States. Had it not been so, when would this continent have been peopled? While immigration statistics are crude before 1820 when the federal government first began to record the immigrants’ places of origin, only about 250,000 immigrants arrived here in the three and a half decades between the close of the American Revolution and 1819. Thereafter, although there were fluctuations, the annual influx increased spectacularly. By 1832 the annual figure exceeded 60,000; by 1850 it was more than 350,000. Not until 1858 did the annual immigration figure again fall below 200,000.

And the United States would somehow meld these miscellaneous peoples into a nation. This was the more remarkable because these peoples had come from an OLD World that was overwhelmingly rural, and the great bulk of them were peasants, farmers, or villagers who had lived close to the land. When they were being drawn into American life, in the century after the Civil War, the nation every year was becoming more urban; and most of them had to find a place in an urban wilderness.

OF COURSE, MANY times before in history, population had migrated from one part of the world to another. Britain herself, as Jefferson and others reminded the British at the time of the Revolution, had been peopled by immigrants. In the long run in most countries the immigrants tended to become assimilated to the earlier residents; and so it was in America. But what was most remarkable about the American immigrant experience in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was not that in a single nation American immigrants became assimilated, but that so many different peoples somehow retained their separate identities. The United States never entirely lost the flavor of Diaspora. Other nations had dissolved peoples into one. This nation became one by finding ways of allowing peoples to remain several. While the United States took for its motto the Latin cliché E pluribus unum, a more appropriate motto might have been E pluribus plura.

American national politics would remain a politics of regions and of groups of different immigrant origin. “Hyphenated Americans”—Italian-Americans, German-Americans, Irish-Americans, and so on—would include a substantial part of the population. The successful manipulation of these groups was a distinctive requirement for the successful American politician on the national stage. Immigrant groups continued to play as important a role here as did religious sects or economic or social classes in Europe. But there were important distinctions between the migrations which had peopled the United States during the colonial period and those which brought the largest numbers in the first century of national life.

In the age of colonists, large numbers of immigrants had been led by men with a vision who aimed to build a certain kind of community. Others had come to found a “colony” in the simple dictionary sense: “a group of people who leave their native country to form in a new land a settlement subject to, or connected with, the parent state.” For the considerable number that came with visions of a City upon a Hill, an Inward Plantation, a Charity Colony, a Transplanted English Country life, or some other definable type of society, their recollections of the old were less compelling than their visions of the new. Different visions made at least thirteen different loyalties. And these made American federalism, the United States of America.

Afterward came the age of emigrants. This was the word first commonly used here in the era of our Revolution to describe those who left a foreign country to come and settle. “Emigrant” was then gradually replaced by “immigrant” (emphasizing not the leaving but the coming) or by “refugee” (emphasizing the flight and the asylum). While the American arrivals in the colonial age were dominated by those people who came with a purpose, later arrivals were dominated by those who had left for a reason and were in search of a purpose. The colonist’s vision was dominated by his destination, the emigrant’s by his place of departure. The colonist had been attracted, the refugee had been expelled. This is not to say that in the first age many colonists were not driven by persecution and poverty, nor that in the second age many emigrants did not have a vision of a “Golden Land.” But the earlier were mainly in pursuit, the latter mainly in flight. The Pilgrim Fathers struck the keynote of the first age of peopling, the Emigrant Fathers of the second. The first era made the states, the later made the nation. The first era created an American federalism; the second created a new kind of national politics.

IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY no other nation of comparable size had been so dominated by memories of its origins. Groups which came from Europe in the nineteenth century were held together into the twentieth by their family memories, and even by nostalgia for the places from which they had fled. And their later American experience, their place in American life and American politics were permanently shaped by the peculiar circumstances of their immigration. Although the Old World experience of each immigrant group—of the Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews, Poles, and others—had been different, the opportunities that the New World offered them were quite similar. Each group in its own way kept its identity, and by keeping its identity secured a place in the nation.

Of course no group was typical. But the Irish were the largest single group to arrive in the half-century before the Civil War. And after the war, too, their experience continued to illustrate how this New Nation would open opportunities for people to remain themselves while they somehow joined the search for nationality. Of all the millions who came to the United States in the century after 1820, about one fourth came from Ireland. Between 1820 and 1840, Irish immigrants totaled nearly three quarters of a million, an average of about 35,000 a year. This number skyrocketed in the ‘40’s, reaching a peak in 1851 of nearly a quarter-million. Partly as a consequence of this movement to America, the total population of Ireland had decreased by about 2.5 million in the twenty years before the American Civil War.

Many found that they had changed their locale but not their fortunes. Irish paupers became American paupers. But what was remarkable was that so many of these victims of centuries of oppression actually attained power and respectability in a strange country. To those who were lucky and energetic and ambitious, America did offer a new life, first to a few leaders, then to more and more of the anonymous thousands.

When Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus said, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” he summed up Irish history. And the United States was to be the place of awakening. Irish history in Ireland and Irish history in America were a set of beautifully symmetrical antitheses. While America was a land of immigration, Ireland was a land of invasions. Beginning with Henry II of England and his Norman followers in the twelfth century, efforts were made forcibly to assimilate the Irish to the ways of the invaders. Yet, however often the land was invaded, the people were never really conquered. The English came to call them “barbarians” because they held on to their own ways, refusing, for example, to become Protestant. During the seventeenth century, Irish sufferings reached a climax. On a single occasion at Drogheda, Cromwell, in what he called a “marvellous great mercy,” massacred 2,800 Irish, including priests and civilians as well as soldiers. In the decade before 1652, over 600,000 Irish (one third of the population) died by pestilence, war, and famine. Cromwell redistributed most of the land to his followers, and sold thousands of Irishmen into slavery on the West Indian plantations. English rule fastened on the island.

During the eighteenth century the Irish lived not under a government so much as under a penal code. Irish Catholics, rightless in their own country, could not own a horse worth over five guineas, they could not vote or serve on a jury or carry firearms or teach school or enter the army or navy or practice law or become government officials. If they were tradesmen they could not have more than two apprentices. Catholic churches could not have spires.

In the early nineteenth century, landlords seeking to “improve” their lands and consolidate their holdings evicted tenants by the thousands. An American evangelist, Mrs. Asenath Nicholson, described a common sight in Galway in the 1840’s:

I saw a company of men assembled in a square, and supposed something new had gathered there; but drawing nearer found it was a collection of poor countrymen from distant parts, who had come hoping on the morrow to find a little work. Each man had his space, and all were standing in waiting posture, in silence, hungry and weary, for many, I was told, had walked fifteen miles without eating, nor did they expect to eat that day. Sixpence a day was all they could get, and they could not afford food on the Sabbath, when they could not work. Their dress and their desponding looks told too well the tale of their suffering.

Then came the potato rot, bringing still more evictions, famine, and starvation. Crop failures in 1845 and 1846 sent whole families wandering the countryside in futile search of food. While the weaker died along the roads, the more resigned sat by their fireside until death relieved their hunger. This Irish Famine lasted five years, during which the population of the country declined from about 8.5 million to about 6.5 million. No one knows exactly how many died of starvation, but the combined effects of malnutrition, “famine fever” (a form of typhus induced by undernourishment), dysentery (from food scavenged or eaten raw), and scurvy brought death to hundreds of thousands.

It was a scene, Captain Robert F. Forbes of Boston wrote from Cork, “to harrow up your hearts.” And the Boston Pilot pleaded: “In God’s name, give us this generation out of the mouth of the Irish grave, to feed them, that they may live and not die!” And they came. Through all ports from Boston to New Orleans, their numbers swelled American immigration from Europe to an unprecedented high in the fifteen years before the Civil War. Between May 1847, when the New York Commissioners of Emigration first kept accurate records, and the end of 1860, some 2.5 million immigrants entered the United States through the port of New York alone. More than one million of these, by far the largest single group, were natives of Ireland.

As the demand for passage to America increased, the price of passage from Ireland went up. Still, helped by American philanthropy and by the self-interest of Irish landlords, the impoverished Irish found the means to come. Some used remittances from American relatives, sent at the rate of about $1 million annually in the 1840’s, firmly establishing historian Marcus Lee Hansen’s principle that “Emigration begets emigration.”

One recently arrived Irishman, according to the traveling French economist Michel Chevalier, showed his American employer a letter he had just written to his family back in Ireland. “But Patrick,” the employer asked, “why do you say that you have meat three times a week, when you have it three times a day?” And Patrick replied, “It is because they wouldn’t believe me, if I told them so.” No wonder that Father John T. Roddan, editor of the Boston Pilot, boasted that the Irish, like the Jews, were indestructible, with “more lives than the blackest cat … killed so many times that her enemies are tired of killing her…. God made Ireland need America and he made America an asylum for Ireland.” America’s reward, Father Roddan prophesied, was eventual conversion to the True Faith: “a majority of Americans in the year 1950 will be Catholics.”

THEIR EMIGRANT FRAME OF MIND was peculiarly open to new opportunities. The practicality of the Puritans had come from their conviction that they were on the right track. Their main problem, then, was not to discover a purpose or to develop an ideology, but to apply and fulfill their orthodoxy in America. The practicality and adaptability of the Irish came from quite opposite causes. Determined simply to escape the Old World they knew, they were anxious to discover any and all opportunities of a New World. And so they were ready to do whatever had to be done. In a word, the Puritans had been colonists, the Irish were emigrants.

Much of American vitality came from the fact that so many of the newcomers brought this emigrant frame of mind. A peculiar strength of the Irish and other nineteenth-century emigrants was their lack of a clear limiting purpose. Held together by recollections, sometimes of a past that never was, the Irish “remembered” the rural delights of their Emerald Isle, just as the Jews “remembered” the cozy community of the ghetto, as the Italians “remembered” the musical and culinary charms of their villages under Mediterranean skies.

The American nation, then, would be a confederation among past and present: a federal union of emigrant groups, memory-tied and sentiment-bound. And these groups would produce new national institutions by their very ways of remaining distinct.

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