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Immigrant Stories – America’s Greatest Asset

New York's teeming masses. The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1935 - 1945.
New York’s teeming masses. The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1935 – 1945.

What makes New York the greatest city in the world? There are many ways to answer that question, but I think one reason rises to the top – New Yorkers themselves. The city’s teeming, diverse population is perhaps its greatest asset and resource. Our most celebrated neighborhoods are, for good reason, havens of immigration, innovation, and fusion. Sharing ideas, exchanging customs and inventing new ones is what built this city and how most of our great American traditions were born (where would we be without the German Christmas tree, African-Americans’ jazz, or that Eastern European Jewish staple, the bagel?!). I’m proud to be a New Yorker and one of the millions of people living and working together in this giant, crowded melting pot.

GVSHP is dedicated to preserving not just the architectural heritage of our invaluable neighborhoods, but the cultural heritage too. And much of that heritage involves immigrant stories. Greenwich Village, East Village, and NoHo owe so much to the diverse populations that have ebbed and flowed across their borders throughout history. Immigrants from Italy, Germany, Eastern Europe, Latin America and more have built these neighborhoods into what they are today, and their businesses, arts, culture and customs continue to shape vibrant communities.

In celebration of these voices, we’re combing through the GVSHP Oral History archives to highlight some of the fascinating stories of immigrants, their families, and their lives as New Yorkers. For decades, GVSHP’s Oral History project has documented the lives of Villagers, and 37 full interviews are now available online (including transcripts). Here are just a handful of the interviews that celebrate the diversity of our city:

Wolf Kahn – Born in Germany, Kahn came to America as a teenager, and discovered painting while working in a U.S. Navy paint shop. He went on to study under Stuart Davis and Hans Hofmann, and was part of the East 10th Street gallery scene. A highly acclaimed contemporary painter, one of his most vivid Village memories is being a “blockbuster” who paved the way for African-Americans to rent apartments.

Romana & Andrew RaffettoRomana, born in Italy, is the former owner of famed Raffetto’s Pasta at 144 West Houston. Her son, Andrew, now owns the business. A Village and New York institution, Raffetto’s Pasta was founded by Romana’s father-in-law in 1906 and still serves the South Village fresh-cut pasta every day.

Marlis MomberBorn in 1943 in Berlin, Marlis has lived in Loisaida since 1975. As a photographer, she has documented the struggles and aspirations of her neighbors, many migrants from Puerto Rico or their sons and daughters. Her B&W and Color photographs bring an international spotlight to political and cultural topics including gentrification, urban development, slum lords/arson for profit, squatting, affordable housing/homesteading, cultural identity, education, the arts, drugs and urban crime.

Maria KennyThe child of Irish immigrants, Kenny grew up in the Bronx and Greenwich Village. Her father, Pat, was owner of the Village music club, Kenny’s Castaways, and a part owner of The Bitter End. Kenny recalls musicians and the scene, and the neighborhood changes that eventually led to the club’s closure several years ago after her father’s death.

Three women from Guadeloupe. Photographed by Augustus Sherman at Ellis Island. From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Three women from Guadeloupe. Photographed by Augustus Sherman at Ellis Island. From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

And we’re not the only ones in the Village documenting these stories. The oral history project Not an Alien, founded by GVSHP friends Tom O’Keefe and Neelu Shruti, has recently been posting one interview each day that highlights an immigrant experience in New York City. Many of these compelling stories have ties to the Village. There’s the story of Justin, who came from Malaysia as a child and didn’t realize he was undocumented until he tried to join the U.S. Army; he now runs a successful small business in the West Village. Thiru Kumar came to the U.S. from Sri Lanka during the country’s civil war and now runs his own iconic vegan food cart in Washington Square Park. And Not an Alien’s own Neelu moved to America from India for an architecture degree, stayed for work, and now runs a beloved yoga studio called Love Child Yoga, which caters to expecting and new parents in the West Village. She’s translated her own immigrant experience into an opportunity to amplify the stories of so many like her.

Take some time today to listen to a few of these and learn something you might not know about your neighbors. Part of what makes New York so fascinating is the myriad ways in which we’ve all come to live in this hectic, eclectic city. Everyone’s story is worth telling, and we’re proud to helping those stories to be told.

If you like the stories featured on Not an Alien, check out their brand new website to learn more about all their interviews. And keep an eye on the GVSHP program calendar – we’re working on a program with Not an Alien to celebrate the inclusionary history of our neighborhoods and provide ways to ensure our neighborhoods remain safe and welcoming to people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and creeds. It’s the Village way.

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