The United States of America has always been known as the melting pot of the world. From all across the globe, people immigrate to the U. S. A. and add their unique cultural traditions and customs into the mix known as the American Culture. New York is especially known for its diverse populace. Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty became a beacon to newcomers that they had reached their destination in the new world. However, immigrants have been shaping New York, and specifically the Lower East Side/Alphabet City area long before Lady Liberty was erected. As each new cultural group traveled to America in search of a better life, they tried to establish a sense of place in the new and often oppressive world. Yi-Fu Tuan writes in Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience that “attachment to the homeland can be intense… to abandon it would be hard to imagine” (Tuan 149). Yet, these travelers immigrated with what they had in hopes of a better life and established for themselves a new home in New York. This is powerful evidence indicative of their intense hope for a better life in a strange new country.

Lady Liberty was a beacon to immigrants, letting them know they had finally reached America.

Up until the early 19th century, the area currently known as Alphabet City was a salt marsh that was part of the East River ecosystem. In the early 19th century, the wetland was drained and the land was reclaimed by real estate developers. By the 1840s, the area was flooded with German immigrants. The area was so heavily populated with German-Americans that the area became known as “Kleindeutschland,” or Little Germany, and the city became the third largest German-speaking city in the world.

Newspaper clipping from the New York Times about the General Slocum disaster.

In the 1880s, the German population in the area dwindled as second-generation German-Americans accumulated wealth and began relocating to the wealthier Upper East Side, specifically Yorkville. This exodus was only further quickened by the rapid influx of Easter European immigrants who settled in the area and by the General Slocum disaster. On June 15, 1904, a boat called the General Slocum departed for an enjoyable trip along the shore. The passengers were mainly German-Americans of Kleindeutschland, including prominent heads of families of the area. A fire on the ship quickly spread and the boat sunk, killing 1,021 passengers.

The Exodus of Eastern Europeans
In the 1880s, in one of the largest waves of immigration the area had ever seen, scores of Jewish, Irish, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian and other Eastern European immigrants filled the area. With them, they brought their colorful and unique cultures. However, with the sudden population explosion, the issue of housing became urgent. The solution came in the form of tenements- instead of small buildings that housed a couple of families, large buildings were erected that could hold large numbers of families. When you can’t spread out, go up. With the large wave of new immigrants, many inhabitants of New York treated the newcomers with contempt. This nativist attitude affected many aspects of the immigrant life, especially finding work, where they were largely limited to manufacturing and the garment industry.

The Irish had been immigrating to New York since the 1840s, when the Irish Potato Famine plagued their home. Seeing America as a land of plenty, they immigrated with their traditions of Catholicism and their hopes and dreams. However, the Irish were often the poorest immigrant group, living in squalor. Unable to afford better, they primarily lived in the cheap tenements.

An Italian family at Ellis Island searches for lost luggage.

Italian immigrants brought a rich cultural tradition and many different new foods. Cheeses large and small, meats like pepperoni and sausage, olive oil, vinegars, pasta- these were all brought and put into the American melting pot. As generations passed, many Italians moved from the Lower East Side to Staten Island and Queens. However, nearby Little Italy is a testament to their thriving influence of the area.

The most predominant of the immigrant populations were the Jews. The Jewish population mainly immigrated to America from Russia, where anti-Jewish riots oppressed the Jews and excluded them from farming and most other professions. Because of laws in their former countries that dictated how and where they should live, Jewish people were quite used to city life and living near each other. As they came to America, they brought all types of goods with them like smoked fish, lox, bagels, and matzo meal to name a few.

Similar to the Germans of Kleindeutschland, as successive generations accumulated wealth, they relocated away from the poor conditions that their predecessors lived in. This semi-vacuum paved the way for a new wave of immigrants that are predominant in the area today- Puerto Ricans.

Nuyoricans and Loisaida

Puerto Rican flag on a present-day fire escape.

Puerto Ricans have been immigrating to New York since the 19th Century. However, mass immigration waves occurred when in 1917, the Jones-Shafroth Act gave virtually all Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship and allowed them to travel to and from America without a passport. With their country in a bad economic situation and wracked by hurricanes, Puerto Ricans immigrated (or rather, migrated) to the U.S.A. in droves. Multiple other factors contributed to produce the mass exodus known as the Gran Migración (“Great Migration”). With the onset of World War II, many job positions were left unfilled as men went off to fight. Puerto Ricans saw the opportunity and came to the U.S. to fill some of the job openings. In addition, the beginning of air travel in the 1950s led to a great increase in Puerto Rican migration.

Moving to America, Puerto Ricans faced harsh oppression- often from descendants of immigrants themselves. A first-hand account of this tension was given in an interview with Father Patrick (known as Father Pat) of St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church on 8th St and Avenue B. Originally of Irish descent, Father Pat came to NYC in 1955 and has witnessed many social changes in the area. He attests to the palpable resentment of the Hispanic immigrants in the area, saying that the immigrant inhabitants didn’t want the Hispanic and African American newcomers living there and “claiming their American right.”

This oppression didn’t stop the immigration, and by the time the movement slowed in the late 1960s, the area was a Puerto Rican haven. Based off a 1974 poem by poet Bimbo Rivas, the area was dubbed “Loisaida” based off a Spanglish pronunciation of Lower East Side. The name Alphabet City came into popular use in the 1980s as a result of the names of its avenues (A, B, C, and D). To this day, the area remains largely Puerto Rican and Dominican.

Forging Their Destinies
In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau writes that while city planners and officials may provide the grid of streets and buildings, it is ultimately the pedestrian who forges their own path and creates familiarity and culture in the otherwise cold space. Each successive wave of aforementioned immigrants forged their own path and destiny in the cold, new world. Like Hansel and Gretel leaving bread crumbs, the immigrants left traces of their cultures as a means of familiarizing themselves with the area and establishing a presence. Through this method of acquaintance, they converted “residences” into “homes” and created a sense of community apart from their successors.




Works Cited

  1. Cavallo, Diana. The Lower East Side; A Portrait in Time. New York: Crowell-Collier, 1971. Print.
  2. de Certeau, Michel. “Walking in the City.” The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California, 1984. Print.
  3. Holloway, Marguerite. “URBAN TACTICS; I’ll Take Mannahatta.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 16 May 2004. Web. 13 Nov. 2013.
  4. International Institute of Social History. “Value of the Guilder / Euro.” Value of the Guilder / Euro. The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Web. 13 Nov. 2013.
  5. Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1977. Print.
  6. Wingfield, Valerie. “The General Slocum Disaster of June 15, 1904.” The New York Public Library. The New York Public Library, 13 June 2011. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.

Photo Credits

  1. “East Side’s Heart Torn by the Horror.” New York Times (1857-1922) 1904 jun 16: 3. Web. 14 Nov. 2013. <https://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/96387184?accountid=12768>.
  2. Statue of Liberty in Silhouette. Photograph. National Park Service. National Park Service; U.S. Department of Interior. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.
  3. Hine, Lewis W. Italian Family Looking for Lost Baggage. 1905. Photograph. Ellis Island, New York.