Ellis Island draws more than 3 million visitors each year. They ferry to the island off the southern tip of Manhattan to learn about the 12 million immigrants who passed through the echoing halls, often seeking a better future in the gleaming metropolis just across the bay. But on a recent trip to New York with my husband, Mike, the closest we got to Ellis Island was the view from the Staten Island Ferry.
I did want to learn about how immigrants have shaped our country’s largest city. Ellis Island, though, was not the best place to do that. After all, the facility served as a processing center for incoming arrivals only from 1892 to 1924. It reflects a sliver of the immigrant experience, which spans from the 1600s through today.
With foreign-born New Yorkers making up nearly 40 percent of the current population, the city’s immigration narrative is woven into the city itself.
Many of New York City’s most iconic symbols can be traced back to immigrants. Neapolitan-born bakers created the classic New York pizza slice. Eastern European Jewish immigrants brought bagels. Thousands of immigrants helped construct the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park and the first subway tunnels. Even now, the city’s foreign-born residents fuel New York City’s renowned culinary scene — 26,000 restaurants and counting — with global flavors and their labors.
One of the best places to take a deep dive into New York’s immigration history is the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. Eastern European Jewish immigrants who settled there at the turn of the 20th century may be the neighborhood’s most famous occupants; since that time, the iconic Katz Deli has served diners just a few blocks away. However, Germans preceded them, arriving in the 1840s, when the neighborhood was called Klein Deutschland, or Little Germany. Chinese immigrants took hold in the 1960s.
The Tenement Museum explores that whole expanse. Over the decades, the museum’s two apartment buildings housed 15,000 immigrants from 20 nations who came to the Lower East Side to find a new life. Today, various tours through the museum’s restored apartments recount the lives of actual residents and how their stories fit into the social, economic and policy issues of the day.
On the Shop Life tour, we learned about John and Caroline Schneider, a German couple who operated a saloon on the apartment building’s lower level in the mid-1800s. As one of America’s first waves of non-English-speaking immigrants, Germans encountered prejudice and discrimination, and John Schneider became active in local politics to effect change. An interactive exhibit at the end of the tour details some of the later business tenants as the neighborhood’s demographics shifted, including a kosher butcher shop, auction house and undergarments store.
After a quick break (the Tenement Museum recommends that you allow yourself 30 minutes between tours, just enough time to grab a slice), we jumped ahead nearly a century to the Under One Roof tour. It tells the story of some of the people who lived at 103 Orchard St. throughout the 20th century: Bella Epstein, whose parents survived the Holocaust; Jose and Andy Velez, whose mother left Puerto Rico in search of economic opportunity; and the Chinese-American Wong siblings, whose stories shed a light on the neighborhood’s once-thriving garment industry. Our tour educator highlighted how many of the immigration policies and attitudes that affected apartment residents are still relevant decades later, leaving us with plenty to consider in the days ahead.
A global tour
Like in the bygone eras we learned about on our Tenement Museum tours, contemporary New York is home to many ethnic enclaves that offer visitors a glimpse of the modern-day immigrant experience — and the chance to sample a world’s worth of cuisines without a passport. While the most famous are Manhattan’s Little Italy and Chinatown, globally influenced neighborhoods span the city’s boroughs, including Little Guyana in Queens, Little Sri Lanka on Staten Island and Brooklyn’s Little Odessa.
Also known as Brighton Beach, Little Odessa is an oceanside neighborhood that takes its moniker from a Ukrainian city on the Black Sea. Eastern European Jewish immigrants settled in the area in the early 20th century, and thousands of Holocaust survivors arrived after World War II. Today, the neighborhood is home to Ukrainian, Russian, Uzbek and other immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Many shop signs are lettered in Cyrillic, and we overheard more Russian than English. After browsing through some of the many specialty grocery stores — I couldn’t resist the Russian chocolate bars — we dined on soup and dumplings on the leafy patio of an Uzbek restaurant.
Another favorite neighborhood we visited was the “other” Little Italy, in the Bronx. Manhattan’s Little Italy feels more like a theme park than an actual neighborhood, with the majority of restaurants and shops geared toward crowds of tourists. The Bronx’s version is trickier to access (between the subway ride and a mile of walking, it was a 90-minute one-way trip from our Brooklyn Airbnb). However, we were rewarded with a relatively quiet neighborhood where firefighters enjoyed their slices at sidewalk tables outside the corner pizza joint, customers lined up to purchase pork chops at the butcher shop and a woman bought canned tomatoes by the pallet from a local grocer.
The centerpiece of Bronx’s Little Italy is the Arthur Avenue Market, opened in 1940 as part of an initiative by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, himself a child of Italian and Jewish immigrants. Browsing the stalls feels a bit like stepping back in time, with a handful of elderly patrons chatting in Italian and craftsmen hand-rolling cigars. At the nearby Madonia Brothers Bakery (a neighborhood fixture since 1918), we got cannolis filled to order with a dense ricotta cream studded with shaved chocolate. Other modest storefronts sold fresh mozzarella, olives by the pound and piles of fresh pasta.
Many languages in Queens
The best place to get a feel for New York’s modern immigrant character is Queens, where nearly half of the population is foreign-born. We hoped to get a food tour of the Flushing neighborhood’s many international flavors. When our guide was a no-show, we struck off on our own. As we walked down Main Street, we overheard Spanish, Korean, Creole, Mandarin and several languages that we couldn’t identify. Tropical fruits and vegetables spilled out of produce stands onto the crowded streets, a vendor had arranged a row of fresh fish on the sidewalk, and tiny stores were stocked with everything from shoes and cellphones to custom-decorated cakes and perfume.
The nearby New World Mall bills itself as one of the largest indoor Asian malls in the Northeast. Whether that claim is true, dozens of stalls offer a wide range of Korean, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese fare. We saw skewers of meat, steaming bowls of noodles, pho, piles of shrimp meant to be eaten family-style, fried chicken and squid, plus dumplings stuffed with every variation of meat and vegetables imaginable. I settled on a sort of omelet-pancake hybrid, stuffed with vegetables and carefully folded into a paper wrapper. Mike ordered pork and cabbage dumplings that came with a little bowl of kimchi on the side.
Before the subway ride back to Brooklyn, we stopped by the Flushing branch of the Queens Library. The shelves of the International Language Collection were lined with books in more than 30 languages from Arabic to Yiddish, and there were Chinese, Korean and Spanish reference sections. A pile of local newspapers included many foreign-language publications, and the Chinese edition of Cosmopolitan was available on the magazine rack.
The library was bustling on a Sunday afternoon, much like my Hennepin County Library branch at home. Earbud-wearing students pored over textbooks, elderly men perused the newspapers and toddlers played with toys in the children’s section.
As they go about their daily lives — working, studying, shopping, starting businesses, marrying, having children, becoming citizens — these modern-day residents of Queens are continuing a story that stretches back hundreds of years: the Germans and Eastern European Jewish immigrants who settled on the Lower East Side; the Chinese and Italian immigrants who defined their namesake Manhattan neighborhoods; the Koreans, Haitians, Senegalese, Irish, Ukrainians and more who have made the city their own over the decades.
Perhaps more than any other place in the United States, New York is a city that has been and will always be shaped by its people, many of whom were born somewhere else. By stepping off the well-worn tourist path to Ellis Island — by visiting the Tenement Museum, enjoying a meal in an immigrant-owned restaurant in Little Odessa, taking the No. 7 subway line up to Queens — a visitor can engage, however briefly, with that narrative.
Stacy Brooks is a Minneapolis-based food and travel writer who blogs at tangledupinfood.com.