Friday, November 11, 2016

City of Dreams

I would have preferred to write about Tyler Anbinder's superb new book about "immigrant New York" under happier circumstances, and view it as a measured celebration of the way the city has been shaped and enriched (though not without controversy) by successive waves of migrants, but as things stand it may read more like an elegy. But on second hand, I suspect not; whatever the stupidity and vindictiveness of the politics favored by our appalling president-elect and his legions, New York City will no more cease to draw migrants — legal or otherwise — than water will cease to flow downhill.

I don't want to be unfair to Anbinder and suggest that his book is a political tract. In fact, except for a few pages at the end (which strike me as well-reasoned and fair-minded), he doesn't really wade into questions of what US policy towards migrants ought to be. Instead he has done something far more important: he has written a thorough, authoritative, balanced, and readable narrative account of immigration to New York, giving some attention to the circumstances that led people to emigrate from their native countries, but far more to how they lived and how their presence made the city what it was and is, for better and (occasionally, at least) perhaps for worse. I'm sure exception will be taken to some parts of his account, especially by people with a vested interest in denying the truth about the country's past, but I think his accomplishment will stand along side books like Burrows and Wallace's Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (which it supplements and in some ways extends, since the promised sequel to the latter has not appeared).

One of Anbinder's key points is that nativism is nothing new; many of the same anti-immigrant arguments used today were trotted out against Irish Catholics, Eastern European Jews, Italian-Americans, and other now-established groups. Nor was it without its ironies: some of the most principled opponents of slavery were unrelenting anti-Catholic bigots, while immigrants made up much of the violent rabble responsible for the infamous Draft Riots of 1863. Then as now, immigration has been surrounded by controversy, exploitation, and sporadic violence.

Immigration to New York, largely unrestricted for much of the 19th century, dropped sharply in the 1920s due to developments on the national political scene; the evidence seems to suggest that the city suffered as a result of that curtailment. Today the city is vibrant and prosperous (if markedly unequal), in part as a result of new blood. What will happen in the years to come is uncertain, but I suspect that if the city staves off decline it will do so in large measure due to newcomers.

Tyler Anbinder is the author of two previous books, a fine one on New York's much-maligned Five Points neighborhood, and a study (which I plan to read) of the nativist Know Nothing Party of the 1850s.

No comments: