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Immigration and the Village

This map humorously depicts some of the ethnic enclaves of the Village. Greenwich Village To Day. Map drawn by Robert Edwards, 1925. Image via the Harry Ransom Center.

With all the talk about immigration reform in the news lately, it got us thinking here at Off the Grid about the effect of United States immigration laws on the history of the Village. We’ll leave the debate about current immigration issues for a different forum, and instead take a look at past immigration trends and its influence on the composition of the Village.

The earliest immigration laws were more concerned with naturalization issues than quotas or concern about country of origin. The Page Act of 1875 was the first law that really targeted exclusion of those considered “undesirable.” The law was particularly concerned about the immigration of people of Asian descent and was quickly followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the purpose of which isn’t too hard to guess by its name.

Some of the main immigrant groups of the Village—the Irish, German, French, and Italians—began settling in the Village long before these first “exclusionary” laws. For many of these groups, there was significant push, or internal issues influencing emigration, in their countries of origin. For instance, the years of the Irish Potato Famine, from 1845 to 1851, brought 1.5 million Irish to the United States, a third of which settled in New York City. This past Off the Grid post explores how churches were built to accommodate a growing Irish population in the East and West Village due to the work available along the Hudson and East River waterfronts.

These two buildings on Second Avenue were built as a library and medical facility, funded by German immigrant Oswald Ottendorfer for the German community of Kleindeutschland. Immigrants from many different countries have left their mark on the built environment of the Village.

Immigrants from what is today Germany came in large waves to New York and particularly the East Village in the mid-1800s. The area came to be known as Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany, during that time. German craftspeople brought their guild system to the United States. These craft guilds evolved into trade unions, giving rise to the general labor-union movement. Like the Irish, most Germans came to the US because of economic hardship and limited opportunity to move elsewhere. You can read more about the impact of this immigrant group in the designation report for the East Village/Lower East Side Designation Report.

A 1920 map of Manhattan shows the major hub of the Italian neighborhood of the South Village and Little Italy. Image via the NYPL.
A 1920 map of Manhattan shows the major hub of the Italian neighborhood of the
South Village and Little Italy. Image via the NYPL.

GVSHP has looked extensively at Italian immigration to the South Village. Between the 1880s and 1920, over 50,000 Italians settled in the area south of Washington Square Park along streets such as Thompson, MacDougal Street, and Sullivan. Like Germany, Italy was comprised of a number of city-states through the 1800s. It wasn’t until the early 1870s that Italy became the nation we know now.  Therefore, many Italian immigrants had ties to their region. Early immigrants to the South Village were predominantly from southern Italy, which had less political clout and less economic opportunity than the north as it was the last areas to be united. As other immigrant groups before them, Italian immigrants established churches, institutions, and businesses.

Out of all the immigrant groups who did so much to build the architecture and culture of the Village, Italians were likely the most affected by immigration law. The dramatic increase in the number of southern and eastern Europeans in general, and Italians in particular, combined with anti-immigrant sentiment in the post-World War I era, led the government toward more severe immigration restrictions. In 1924 Congress passed the National Origins Act, which placed quotas on immigrants based on national identity. The formula significantly limited the number of southern and eastern Europeans who could enter the country. As a result, a mere 5,000 Italians came to America annually after 1924.

This playbill from the African Grove Theatre on Bleecker and Mercer Streets is a reminder that immigrants and migrants brought a wealth of culture to the Village.

The South Village remained an Italian enclave through the 20th century, but without new immigration, second and third generation residents began to move into the suburbs and the number of Italians and Italian–Americans declined significantly. To learn more about the impact of Italian immigration on the neighborhood, check out this report GVSHP commissioned about the South Village.

While the focus of this post has been immigration, we couldn’t gloss over the subject of migration. The Village was home to a large population of African-Americans from the 1860s to the turn of the 20th century, particularly on Cornelia, Thompson, and Minetta Streets, as well as Minetta Lane. Many of these residents came before the Great Migration of African Americans north to urban areas following Emancipation and the conclusion of the Civil War. Check out this past Off the Grid blog post for more information about the Little Africa community of the Village.

As you can see, immigration (and migration) has played a large role in the early development of the Village. Want more? Check out this past Off the Grid post on more recent immigration laws.

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