Tenement Immigrants

“If one attitude can be said to characterize America’s regard for immigration over the past two-hundred years it is the belief that while immigration was a wise and prescient thing in the case of one’s parents or grandparents, it really ought to stop now.”

– Bill Bryson, Made in America

Meandering about in SoHo, we happened across a place I’d never heard of before. I knew that New York has a lot of museums, but I didn’t know a Tenement Museum was one of them.

My familiarity with the word “tenement” has been limited to what I’ve heard in MoTown songs, so we decided to stop in. I was expecting a place devoted to the history of low-income African-American housing.

The word “tenement” actually has an official definition. It’s a single home housing more than three different families, each doing their own cooking. Not that an official definition matters that much to families and children living in sub-standard, overcrowded, poverty-stricken environs.

The museum actually is devoted to the history of immigrants. Since America’s earliest days, many newcomers to the country came through New York City. Many stayed in the City as they got accustomed to their new country, made some money, and got their bearings. Many stayed for a long time. Some are still here.

In the mid-1800s, it was mostly Germans, crowding in where ever they could find room, usually in neighborhoods of other Germans, sometimes with several families living on a single floor of what once was a single-family home.

Throughout the 1800s and into the 1900s, different waves of immigrants from different countries followed, usually as economic prospects in other countries rose and fell. Irish, Italians, Chinese, Eastern Europeans, each group taking turns supplying workers to America’s factories, throngs of foreigners flocking to their own ethnic neighborhoods, all looking for opportunity. Somewhere in there my own grandparents came over from Europe, checking in at Ellis Island before moving on.

And as long as there’s been immigration, there’s been opposition. Those already here have tried to prevent others from having the same opportunities they had. I got mine. Why should I let someone else do the same?


And so it continues. The countries they come from and the languages they speak change, as do the places they settle and their living accommodations. But the conflict – and the selfishness – continue to plague the political discussions.

People forget that we’re all aboriginals. Every single one of us – even Native Americans – is the descendent of someone who came from somewhere else, looking for something better. Our ancestors all caused trouble for someone else who was already here.

And yet they all also brought something with them. A hope for a better life, and something to contribute towards building a better country.

It’s important to remember that as we debate and decide how to treat people coming to America today.

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