City Lit: Now and Then

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Move aside, Glazer and Moynihan! With From Ellis Island to JFK, we have a welcome replacement for Beyond the Melting Pot, the classic (if now dated) overview of New York City’s ethnic landscape. Author Nancy Foner accomplishes this via a readable and informative comparison of the “old immigration” of 1880 to 1920, which was cut short by anti-immigrant legislation, and the “new immigration” that followed from liberalization of the laws in 1965.

Foner is a professor of anthropology at SUNY-Purchase who has studied Jamaican immigrants and the mainly immigrant workers in a New York City nursing home. Her new book, however, draws primarily on a thorough reading of the bulk of immigration research conducted by social scientists during the past three decades, and on a careful distillation of historical work on the city’s immigrants of 100 years ago. The analysis covers issues of numbers, settlement and housing, work, changing roles of women, ethnicity and race, transnational connections, and education. Along the way, the author smashes many old and new myths.

In the earlier immigration wave, nearly 1.5 million Europeans settled in the city. Jews and Italians were the biggest groups. The post-1965 surge has by now numbered more than 2.5 million, including many Asians, Latin Americans and West Indians. Then, nearly all immigrants were poor, poorly educated, and unskilled or with few skills. Now, new arrivals are often better educated. In 1990, some 60 percent of the city’s immigrants held a high school degree. One in eight held a bachelor’s degree or better.

The ethnically concentrated and poor-quality housing most immigrants confronted 100 years ago has not vanished entirely. But although a few largely homogeneous “ethnic villages” persist, today’s immigrants usually do not live in isolated communities of their compatriots. Foner explains that the racially segregated housing market means that West Indians are clumped together more than any other new group. Even Brighton Beach’s Russians or Flushing’s Chinese or Koreans do not form residential enclaves like the Little Italys or Lower East Side “Jewtown” of yore. Indeed, some of the most heavily immigrant neighborhoods, like Elmhurst, are also the city’s most diverse.

A hundred years ago, Jews, Italians and Slavs were all legally “white,” but popularly they were seen as inferior sub-races by the “old Americans.” Today’s U.S.-born whites are much more homogenized. Together with the small influx of white immigrants, whites now comprise just a third of the city’s population, and the city is now home to substantial numbers of U.S.-born African-Americans and Puerto Ricans. Foner deftly addresses these current racial complexities, including a synthesis of studies of widespread employer preferences for immigrants over U.S.-born “minorities” and the vocabularies of ethnicity and race used by census-takers, scholars and ordinary New Yorkers. Her assessments of the current situation for black West Indians, diverse Latinos and East Asians are well handled, and her prognostications of racial alignments and identities in coming decades are sound and provocative.

The book explodes the myth that transnational ties are anything new–Italian “birds of passage” 100 years ago went back and forth as much, or more, than any current immigrant nationality–yet it also catalogs the technological changes that make such ties easier to maintain today. Foner painstakingly dissects the myth of Jewish upward mobility through education. Few Jews even made it to high school before World War I, and widespread college education was primarily a third-generation experience. It was blue-collar work and family businesses–sound familiar?–that allowed most first-generation Jewish immigrants to survive, and brought social advances to a few. Today, education is far more important for success in the labor market, and Foner carefully explores the impact on new immigrants of the persistent underfunding of public schools.

As Foner points out, she does not include chapters on religion, politics or labor organizing; neither does she investigate crime, youth cultures or ethnic associations and rituals. All of these are topics where similar old-versus-new comparisons would be illuminating–say, of Italians in the Catholic church then and Latin Americans now, or past and present efforts to mobilize voters. There is room for work on these topics by Nancy Foner and others, and we should look forward to it. Still, for a smart and fact-filled overview of the city’s two great immigrant streams and the New Yorkers they produced, there is no better place to start than From Ellis Island to JFK.

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