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Celebrating Immigration in Greenwich Village

Today marks the beginning of Immigrant Heritage Week. Immigration is a core theme in the history of New York City and especially our neighborhoods. People from all over the world come to Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, adding to the vibrancy, creativity, and life.

Illustration of 19th-century immigrants first arriving to New York

On April 29th, 2019, we launched our new interactive map, Greenwich Village Historic District, 1969-2019: Photos and Toursto celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Greenwich Village Historic District. The map includes pictures of the 2,200+ buildings within the historic district with nearly 1,000 sites appearing on various tours exploring the architecture, history, and culture of New York City’s largest historic district. Today we celebrate New York’s rich immigration history by taking the map’s “Immigration Landmarks” tour.

The Chinese Consulate & Mission

In the late 19th century, Chinese immigrants to the United States faced rampant discrimination and legal hurdles to gaining employment, housing, and citizenship. This was especially true in the American west, but New York was not free of such discrimination either.

In spite of this, many Chinese immigrants came to New York from China, the west, and Canada. While today’s Chinatown was the main hub of organizing and engagement to assist and protect Chinese immigrants, Greenwich Village at this time also served as a significant center of mobilization.

An important part of these efforts emanated from the Chinese Mission and Consulate, located at 26 West 9th Street. Here, lodging was provided to Chinese students who could not find rooms to rent elsewhere due to discriminatory practices, and Chinese immigrants were given legal assistance (the Jefferson Market Courthouse, which served much of the West Side of Manhattan, was just at the end of the block), help in seeking employment, and religious guidance. The building housing the Mission and Consulate was demolished in 1923, and replaced with the apartment building found there today.

Home of Emma Lazarus

The mansions of West 10th Street were built in the 1850s as a class of merchants and finance professionals were growing in lower Manhattan. The building at 18 West 10th Street was completed in 1856, and purchased by Mr. Winslow of the Wall Street banking firm of Winslow, Lanier & Co. Winslow’s partner, Lanier, and Lainer’s son and daughter-in-law took the two houses next door. The house changed hands a number of times before it was sold, in 1883, to Sephardic Jewish merchant Moses Lazarus, who made his fortune with the firm Johnson & Lazarus, which imported and sold sugar.

Lazarus had retired in 1865, and died soon thereafter, and left the house to his children. Emma Lazarus, born on July 22, 1849, was the fourth of seven children. Lazarus, who’s been called a reclusive spinster, was a lifelong Villager, descended from the first twenty-three Jewish immigrants to New Amsterdam from Brazil (though Lazarus also had some Ashkenazi Jewish lineage on her mother’s side).

The turning point in Emma Lazarus’s life was the outbreak of violent anti-Semitism in Russia and Germany during the early 1880s. When a writer defended these activities in Century Magazine, Lazarus wrote the angry reply “Russian Christianity versus Modern Judaism” in the next issue. From this moment on, she began a private crusade. Her verse took on a new tone of urgency, particularly in Songs of a Semite (1882) and in her play of twelfth-century Jewish life, The Dance to Death. More importantly, she began to organize relief efforts for the thousands of Jewish immigrants crowding into the United States and to write a series of articles for the magazine American Hebrew.

Emma Lazarus is best known now for the sonnet she penned which graces the Statue of Liberty. She was asked by fellow writer Constance Cary Harrison, who wrote “I begged Miss Lazarus to give me some verses appropriate to the occasion. She was at first inclined to rebel against writing anything ‘To order’ as it were.” But write it she did. Lazarus’ sonnet The New Colossus includes the now-famous line:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

The home remains, well preserved on West 10th Street, and has since changed hands many times. It is now adorned by a facade-full of beautiful ivy and a plaque commemorating Emma Lazarus.

Second Cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue

In 1492, Spain ordered all Jews living within the kingdom to either convert to Christianity or be expelled. Portugal did the same less than five years later. Some of those Jews converted and remained in Spain or Portugal, either secretly practicing their faith or genuinely converting. Many more, however, fled to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, Holland, and eventually the New World. The evidence of these pioneering Spanish and Portuguese Jews can still be seen in Greenwich Village in the Second Spanish & Portuguese Shearith Israel Cemetery on West 11th Street, just east of 6th Avenue. Shearith Israel was the first Jewish congregation in the United States. It was also the first and only Jewish congregation in New York City from 1654 until 1825, during which time all of the practicing Jews of New York belonged to this single congregation. It was founded by 23 Jews, mostly of Spanish and Portuguese origin. What remains today on West 11th Street is a small triangular section of the much larger, original cemetery, still owned and maintained by the Shearith Israel congregation, now located on the Upper West Side.

Greenwich House

One of New York’s oldest and largest “Settlement Houses,” Greenwich House was established in 1902 to aid and support recent immigrants to this country. Social reformers Mary Simkhovitch, Jacob Riis, and Carl Schurz helped found the institution at a time when this part of Greenwich Village was teeming with new immigrants. Simkhovitch and Greenwich House’s work led to the publication of the country’s first tenants manual and the founding of United Neighborhood Houses, which to this day remains an umbrella group for the several dozen settlement houses still operating in New York City.

By focusing on the arts and innovative approaches to education and enrichment, Simkhovitch was able to attract the participation and support of such notable figures as Eleanor Roosevelt, Gertrude Whitney, Daniel Chester French, John Sloan, and Jackson Pollock to Greenwich House (the Settlement House philosophy focused on bringing people of privilege and those in need together). Greenwich House accomplished many firsts for Settlement Houses, including establishing a nursery school in 1921, an after-school program in 1942, and a drug-free outpatient counseling center in 1963.

Simkhovitch eventually became the first Vice-Chairman of New York City’s Housing Authority, where she co-authored the National Housing Act of 1937. This law established the federal government’s responsibility to provide low-income housing, generating hundreds of thousands of units in the years that followed, housing many recent immigrants and other poor urban dwellers.

White Horse Tavern

The Irish Immigrant Community made up a large portion of what is now known as the West Village. Middle-class Irish saloons filled out the growing neighborhood. Saloons and bars, which appeared on every block, were particularly important fixtures during this period. Many were opened by the older generation of Irish immigrants, who had accrued some wealth and could open such businesses with relative ease. Often, saloon and bar owners were also leaders of the community, and of the county societies specifically, reinforcing these sites as political places. For instance, in the mid-20th century, Whitey Munson, the grandfather of the longtime owner of the White Horse Tavern, James Munson, was a boss at the docks, and a dominant figure in the longshoremen community and the Irish community at large. At the saloons, politicians could meet residents, residents could canvass on behalf of politicians, and the community could connect over its Irish heritage. Workers could drink and socialize at the bars well, and many would spend their entire paycheck at a bar after a day’s labor. If someone ran out of money or gave it to his family, loan sharks would provide additional money with devastating interest rates.

To learn more about our efforts to protect the Far West Village and landmark the interior of the White Horse Tavern, click HERE.

All of these sites and more immigration landmarks can be found by clicking the map above. Our Interactive Map of the Greenwich Village Historic District offers a variety of tours about the history, architecture, and culture of Greenwich Village. The topics range from film to literature to social change campions. Check out the rest of them today!

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