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Ethnic Enclaves of New York City

The Creation of Community [1]

Every immigrant group to the United States shares the desire to create networks and organizations which meet basic societal needs, and ultimately build community: religious institutions to sustain worship rituals; newspapers for information in the mother tongue; fraternal benefit societies for insurance in sickness and death; artistic societies for the expression of culture; clubs and lodges for socializing and recreation; and political organizations for connections to the homeland. Since the mid-1800s, New York has been home to tens of thousands of such organizations, some national headquarters, some local branches of national groups, others relevant only to local groups.

Prior to the 1840s, New York City's steady but modest waves of immigrants were more easily absorbed into mainstream American culture. By mid-century, large-scale immigration to the United States by the Irish (due to potato famines) and Germans (due to failed revolutions in 1848) led to the creation of ethnic enclaves—a new concept in America. Whole towns were established, and urban "colonies" sprang up to groups connected by nationality, common language, religion, culture or race. Within these communities of like people, the foundations were laid for both the ethnic and American identity of several generations.

"Little Germany," or Kleindeutschland, formed along the East River in the Lower East Side in the 1840s, and marked the first ethnic enclave of real proportion in New York. Within twenty years it was home to more than 200,000 German immigrants (one quarter of the city's population). Kleindeutschland was the "first large immigrant community in American history that spoke a foreign language, and its residents established dozens of churches, clubs, saloons and singing societies." Small enclaves of English, Scots, Welsh, Dutch, Jews, French, Italians, Scandinavians, and Latin Americans existed within and around one another. Half of New York City's population at mid century was comprised of immigrants, who came from nearly every nation in the world.

Beginning in the 1880s, New York received millions of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe — Russian and Polish Jews, Italians, Greeks, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, Bohemians — fleeing agricultural crises, political upheaval and religious persecution. A large number of the 17 million immigrants who entered the United States through the Port of New York, stayed in the city. They provided the labor force for the city's waterfront, light manufacturing and garment industries, and they often settled in the older immigrant neighborhoods.

"Little Italys" and "Chinatowns" sprung up in cities across the country, organized around social and cultural networks as a way of maintaining national identity and language. Communities were created through fraternal organizations, political clubs, theaters and music halls, benevolent societies, beer gardens, sporting clubs and churches. Ethnic butchers, bakers, and undertakers enabled these communities to live much in the same manner as in the old country. By the late nineteenth century, various efforts were made by Americans to accelerate and ensure assimilation of the immigrant population, particularly through programs in the city's public schools and through Settlement House programs in ethnic neighborhoods. In response, some ethnic groups sent their children to parochial schools or set up schools for teaching children their native language.

Forty-one percent of the city's population in 1910 was made up of immigrants. In 1924 laws restricting immigration set quotas and discriminated against Jews, Italians, and other southern and eastern European immigrants, and the Depression further accelerated the decline of immigration by Europeans. By the late 1940s many members of these groups had moved away from their ethnic enclaves. Refuges from Nazism, West Indians, Puerto Ricans and other Latin Americans began to arrive in large numbers beginning in the mid-twentieth century. In addition to a new wave of Greeks and Eastern European refugees from Communist regimes — including Czechs — the 1970s and 1980s saw an influx of Caribbean, African, and Asian immigrants into New York City. As in the past, these groups have created new, adapted old, or revitalized remaining ethnic enclaves across the city.

  1. Hansen, Laura, Place Matters, and Howe, Kathy, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation, Bohemian Hall and Park, Queens County New York, nomination document, 2000, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington D.C. © 1997-2019, The Gombach Group
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