New York City Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The most important metropolis in the United States, New York City was essentially built and populated by immigrants and their children. Its Ellis Island was the leading port of entry for immigrants from 1892 until 1954, and its Statue of Liberty was an important symbol of welcome.

The first European immigrants to New York were Dutch who settled the southern end of Manhattan Island during the early seventeenth century. Before the Dutch arrived, Manhattan was sparsely populated by the Lenape people, from whom Minuit, PeterPeter Minuit famously purchased the island for the equivalent of twenty-four dollars in 1626. The Dutch named their colony New AmsterdamNew Amsterdam and built it into a bustling, heterogeneous commercial port that attracted visitors from all over the world. The same traits would continue to characterize New York City through the next four centuries, as the city developed into the leading destination for immigrants in the United States and perhaps in the entire world.New York CityNew York City[cat]CITIES AND COMMUNITIES;New York City[03860]

Early Immigrants

After the English seized New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664, they renamed the city New York. Under English, and later British, sovereignty, thousands of English, Welsh, and Scots immigrated to Manhattan, and Slavery;New York Cityslaves were imported from Africa. The next great wave of immigration occurred during the 1830’s and 1840’s, with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of German immigrants;New York CityGerman immigrants fleeing the political and economic turmoil of revolutionary Europe, and Irish immigrants;New York CityIrish immigrants escaping the ravage of their homeland’s great potato famine.

By 1855, more than one-half of New York City’s residents were foreign born. These immigrants represented a new alignment in American history. Most were Roman Catholics and did not speak English as their first language. They settled in Ethnic enclaves;New York CityNew York City’s ethnic enclaves and looked to maintain their cultural traditions. Poorer immigrants were packed into tenements such as the notorious Five Points Slum. Anti-immigrant sentiments increased as well, as exemplified by the nativist and Americanist movements and the rise of the Know-Nothing Party. Tensions reached a peak in draft riots during the Civil War, U.S.;draft riotsCivil War over the issue of conscription. By the 1870’s, however, immigrants had become a political force within the city, their votes courted by urban Machine politicspolitical machines such as the infamous Tammany HallTammany Hall of Tweed, William Marcy “Boss”William Marcy “Boss” Tweed. Ethnic politics would remain a dominant feature of New York City history.

Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty

Through the first century of American independence, immigration remained basically open and unregulated. Immigrants arrived at ports, went through state customs houses, and became American residents. In New York City, shipping companies submitted the passenger lists to the local collector of customs. However, on August 1, 1855, the state of New York State;immigration processing centerNew York began operating a processing center for arriving immigrants on the southern tip of Manhattan known as Castle Garden, New YorkCastle Garden. It was the first such center in the United States. After the federal Immigration Act of 1882 gave jurisdiction over immigration to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the secretary of the Treasury contracted with New York State to continue its processing of immigrants.

New York City’s bustling Hester Street in the city’s lower East Side Jewish ghetto in 1914.

(Getty Images)

The [a]Immigration Act of 1891federal Immigration Act of 1891 made supervision over immigration policy an exclusively federal process, so Castle Garden was closed. On January 1, 1892, the federal government opened its own processing center on Ellis Island;opening ofEllis Island, off the southern tip of Manhattan, to examine newly arrived immigrants and determine whether they should be admitted to the United States. Over the next thirty-two years, more than 16 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island, accounting for 71 percent of all immigrants to the United States. Most of those immigrants passed through New York City after being processed. Many stayed in the city–some temporarily before moving on to other places, but approximately one-third settled permanently in New York City or the surrounding area.

The Statue of LibertyStatue of Liberty, located on Liberty Island near Ellis Island in New York Harbor, was also owned and administered by the federal government. A gift from France in 1886, the statue had no formal connection to the immigration process, but as one of the first sights that greeted passengers of ships sailing into the harbor, its glowing presence was accepted as a symbol of welcome to the new nation.

A City of Immigrants

By the late nineteenth century, New York stood as the most populous and commercially significant city in North America. It was also the leading immigration destination in the nation and perhaps the world. Immigrants took up multifarious forms of employment within the city and established their own ethnic neighborhoods up and down Manhattan.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the demographics of immigration changed again. The 1880’s and 1890’s began an era of mass immigration from eastern and southern Europe. Consequently, New York City absorbed hundreds of thousands of Italian and Jewish immigrants;New York CityJewish immigrants, the latter primarily from Russia and Poland. Smaller but still significant numbers of new immigrants came from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Greece, Poland, Spain, the West Indies, and China. Manhattan was becoming a bustling collection of ethnic neighborhoods: Chinatowns;New York CityChinatown and Little Italies;New York CityLittle Italy in Lower Manhattan, Jewish enclaves in the lower East Side and the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, an Irish neighborhood in Hell’s Kitchen, Germans and Czechs in Yorkville. The northern end of the island has an Italian Harlem, a Spanish Harlem, and an African American Harlem, the last of which would witness the famous Harlem RenaissanceHarlem Renaissance of the 1920’s.

The "Melting pot" theory[melting pot theory];origins ofterm “melting pot” was coined to describe the incredible mix of groups that had become New York. The lives of the new immigrants drew both hostility and sympathy. Pressures to restrict immigration persisted. How the Other Half Lives (Riis)Riis, JacobJacob Riis’s book How the Other Half Lives (1890) documented the miserable conditions of urban slums. The Triangle Shirtwaist fireNew York City;Triangle Shirtwaist fireTriangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, in which 146 mostly young European-born female garment workers died, demonstrated the miserable working conditions of many immigrants.

In 1898, New York City expanded into greater New York, adding the boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island to its charter. At that time, Queens and Staten Island were largely rural, but Brooklyn already had the cosmopolitan make-up that immigration had given to Manhattan and the South Bronx, with Scandinavian and Italian neighborhoods in Bay Ridge, Jewish neighborhoods in Williamsburg, Flatbush, and Brownsville, German neighborhoods in Ridgewood, and Syrian immigrants;New York CitySyrians in Red Hook. New York was a teeming mixture of ethnic groups, but many Americans across the country were becoming alarmed by the numbers of immigrants flooding into the United States. Federal legislation was enacted during the 1880’s and 1890’s to gain control over the immigration process–with more administrative oversight, but also with an eye to shaping the country’s ethnic make-up.

Twentieth Century Immigration

During the twentieth century, immigration continued largely unabated, even though immigration to the United States as a whole was becoming more restrictive with the introduction of national origins quotas in 1921 and 1924. However, the quota system tended to affect the ethnic mixture more than the numbers of new immigrants coming into New York. Because immigration from other countries in the Western Hemisphere remained relatively unrestricted through the quota system years, much of the immigration to New York immediately after World War II was from Latin America. Residents of Puerto Rican immigrants;New York CityPuerto Rico, regarded as U.S. citizens since 1917, were unaffected by immigration quotas. During the 1950’s more than 1 million Puerto Ricans came to New York City. As British subjects, residents of the British West Indian immigrants;New York CityWest Indies were also privileged in immigration and flocked to the city. The overall rate of immigration into the city slowed somewhat throughout the century until passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which repealed national quotas.

The revival of New York City from an economic slump during the 1980’s saw the city’s rate of immigration climb again. As native-born New Yorkers moved to suburban communities, they were replaced within the city by immigrants. In 1970, 18.2 percent of the city’s population were immigrants; by 2005, that percentage had doubled. Between 1964 and 1990, the leading sources of immigrants to New York City were

•Dominican Republic (202,102 immigrants)Dominican immigrants;New York City

•China and Taiwan (145,362)Taiwanese immigrants;New York City

•Jamaica (101,580)Jamaican immigrants;New York City

•Guyana (70,523)Guyanan immigrants

•Haiti (65,287)Haitian immigrants;New York City

•Colombia (61,383)Colombian immigrants;New York City

•Soviet Union (60,110)Soviet immigrants;New York City

•Korea (55,688)Korean immigrants;New York City

Between 1990 and 2000, about 1.25 million immigrants settled in New York City, with others settling in nearby suburbs. By 2007, it was estimated that more than 3 million immigrants were living in New York City, out of a total population of approximately 8 million. Moreover, about 60 percent of New York City’s residents were either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants. By the early twenty-first century, one-third of the city’s immigrants during the twenty-first century were from Latin America, with the majority from the Dominican Republic, Ecuadorian immigrantsEcuador, Mexico, and Colombia. One-quarter of the city’s immigrants were Asian; Chinese were the largest group, but there were also many Koreans, Asian Indians, and Filipinos. A large number of immigrants from Caribbean countries have transformed the city’s traditionally black neighborhoods. During the early years of the twenty-first century, Dominicans, Chinese, Jamaican immigrants;New York CityJamaicans, and people from the former Soviet Union made up the largest of arriving groups to New York. About 170 languages are spoken in the city.

Queens as a Microcosm of the City

New York City is a city of neighborhoods that reflect the ethnic origins of different immigrant groups. In no part of the city, however, have the transformations wrought by immigration been more apparent than in the borough of Queens. Once an ethnically homogenous and rural suburb, Queens has become the most ethnically diverse county in the United States. During the early twenty-first century, one-half of its residents were foreign born. Most of New York City’s 275,000 Asian Indians and other South Asians live in Queens. A similar pattern is true of the city’s approximately 215,000 Filipino residents. Queen’s Astoria neighborhood has the largest concentration of Greek immigrants;New York CityGreeks outside Athens, Greece. Flushing has one of the largest Chinatowns;New York CityChinatowns in the country. Arabic and Middle Eastern populations are clustered around Steinway Street. Colombians and South Asians are clustered in Jackson Heights; Bangladeshi immigrantsBangladeshis and Brazilians on the Astoria-Long Island City border.

The history of Queens is a microcosm of New York City immigration history. Like Manhattan, it was first settled by the Dutch and English. Irish, German, and Italian immigrants settled in western Queens during the nineteenth century. The beginning of the twentieth century saw millions of immigrants arriving from southern and western Europe. Around the turn of the twenty-first century, new immigrants poured in from Latin America, the West Indies, and Asia.New York City

Further Reading
  • Almeida, Linda. Irish Immigrants in New York City, 1945-1995. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. Study of late twentieth century Irish immigration into the city. Although most Irish immigrants arrived during the mid-nineteenth century, they remained an important stream of immigrants into the following century.
  • Baily, Samuel. Immigration in the Land of Promise: Italians in Buenos Aires and New York City, 1870-1914. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004. Comparative study of the large turn-of-the-twentieth-century waves of Italian immigration into New York City and Argentina’s capital city, Buenos Aires.
  • Foner, Nancy. From Ellis Island to JFK: New York’s Two Great Waves of Immigration. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. Study by a leading immigration historian comparing the mass migrations of Russian Jews and Italians to New York City around 1900 to the wave of immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean a century later.
  • _______, ed. Islands in the City: West Indian Migration to New York. Berkeley: University of California, 2001. Collection of scholarly essays on the impact of immigration to New York from the multicultural West Indies.
  • _______. New Immigrants in New York. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Collection of sociological studies of New York City’s recent Chinese, Dominican, Jamaican, Korean, Mexican, Soviet Jew, and West African immigrants, examining how members of these groups have interacted with the city.
  • Glazer, Nathan, and Daniel Moynihan. Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1970. First published in 1963, this study of the assimilation of ethnic New York immigrants into American culture is a classic of American sociology.
  • Kasinitz, Philip. Caribbean New York: Black Immigrants and the Politics of Race. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992. Examines migratory patterns of Caribbean New Yorkers, with tables and figures documenting the highly mobile West Indian immigration patterns.
  • Kasinitz, Philip, John Mollenkopf, and Mary Waters, eds. Becoming New Yorkers: Ethnographies of the New Second Generation. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2004. Collection of sociological essays examining the experiences of New Yorkers under the age of eighteen who are children of immigrants.
  • Kessner, Thomas. The Golden Door: Italian and Jewish Immigrant Mobility in New York City, 1880-1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. Quantitative study of the experiences of the greatest immigration wave to the “Immigrant City,” with twenty-five tables showing occupational distribution.
  • Smith, Robert Courtney. Mexican New York: Transnational Lives of New Immigrants. Berkeley: University of California, 2005. Ethnographic study of the families of transnational Mexican immigrants living in Mexico and New York. With a methodological appendix.
  • Waldinger, Roger. Still the Promised City? African Americans and New Immigrants in Postindustrial New York. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. Study of employment, demographics, ethnicity, and race in recent immigration to New York. With appendixes on shift-share analysis and field research methods.

Ellis Island

Ethnic enclaves

Garment industry

Little Italies

Machine politics

Melting pot theory

New York State

Puerto Rican immigrants

Statue of Liberty

Tammany Hall

Triangle Shirtwaist fire

Categories: History Content