New York has been a city of immigrants ever since the Lenapes cut a deal with European merchant-speculators wearing funny hats. But generation after generation of old immigrants have never made it a priority to make the growing city more tolerable for new ones. For centuries now, we’ve crammed into tiny apartments, squirmed in inadequate schools, succumbed to epidemic diseases, worked around the clock for pitiable wages. At our lowest points, we’ve also been beaten in unfamiliar streets by people we’ve never met for reasons we cannot fathom, or indentured to criminals who’ve rented us out for others’ delight (often with the support of police).
This being America, the story of immigration to New York has a happy ending, of course. It also has heroes. In most tellings, these are lone entrepreneurs, who arrive with pennies in their pocket and through smarts and diligence transform themselves into prosperous, enfranchised Americans. Those people have always existed and are indeed extraordinary; they keep blood pumping through New York City, keep it growing.
But we rarely hear about collective efforts to give all immigrants in New York the chance to participate in the American way. When they’ve surfaced in the consciousness of the New York establishment, it’s to be excoriated as a threat to its order–Emma Goldman, the Young Lords–or, in the case of settlement houses, praised for the promise of gentle assimilation.
The experiences and goals of the 20 activists, professionals, curators, businesspeople, politicians and troublemakers profiled on the following pages suggest a melding of these two traditions–of agitation and self-help, of critical assessment of their place in American society and the development of practical institutions. They aren’t the first; community groups like Asian-Americans for Equality and Alianza Dominicana paved the way decades ago. But these leaders thrive at an auspicious moment, following the largest wave of immigration in a century and many of them coming from places with highly developed cultures of dissent and grassroots institutions.
The easy shorthand would be to call immigrant activists the leaders of New York’s future–some imagined city that is familiar but colored with newly recombinant customs, ideas, food, languages, things no one is yet asking the assimilated or elite to be part of. But the reality is that city is here now-and these are some of the people who are writing their own history, instead of letting it happen, so predictably, in the painfully old ways.
The full text of all 18 profiles will be available on the website in early June. Until then, buy the May issue of City Limits, on newsstands now.