Within a few decades of founding New Amsterdam, the Dutch built a wall, first to keep out the Indians, then the British. But because the Dutch came to the New World to make money — rather than to proselytize or escape religious persecution — they let in just about everybody else.
Call it tolerance or indifference, that reception distinguished New York. Coupled with the wall, though, it also symbolized the city’s enduring ambivalence about immigration.
Tyler Anbinder’s “City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35) reviews this legacy and the continuing tale of the city’s unique demographic upheaval. It’s a welcome addition in a campaign season when, it seems, many Americans need reminding of how most of us got here.
The author admittedly gives short shrift to some earlier immigrant groups (Greeks and Indians) and to newcomers (as a historian he prizes the perspective of hindsight). But while Dr. Anbinder, who teaches history at George Washington University, offers no sweeping revelations or revolutionary doctrine, his exhaustive narrative provides a timely overview richly flecked with fascinating nuggets and enlightening profiles.
“City of Dreams” opens in 1892 when an Irish teenager, Annie Moore, and her brothers became the first arrivals on Ellis Island. (The first- and second-class passengers went directly to Pier 38 at West Houston Street.) He fleshes out a familiar story with enriching factoids.
Annie was ferried past the new Statue of Liberty, which, despite its later symbolism as an immigrant beacon, actually began as a celebration of Civil War emancipation. (It was all the more ironic since Emma Lazarus was commissioned to write the poem that would define the statue’s mission by a fellow author, Constance Cary Harrison, an unrepentant Confederate who was married to Jefferson Davis’s secretary and who, with her sisters, sewed the first Stars and Bars battle flag.)
By SAM ROBERTS for The New York Times
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