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Immigrant Heritage Week: The Importance of Preserving Immigrant History in Our Neighborhoods

Immigrant Heritage Week was established in 2004 and is coordinated by the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs as a city-wide celebration that honors the experiences and contributions of immigrants in New York City. The week commemorates April 17th,1909, when 11,747 immigrants entered the U.S. through Ellis Island — more than any other day in history. This citywide celebration honors the experiences and contributions of immigrants in New York City. 

A ship of Irish immigrants arriving at Ellis Island

Our neighborhoods have attracted immigrants from across the globe for centuries. Immigration and the diversity of our neighborhoods are among the primary factors that make our city and neighborhoods so fascinating. Our city and our neighborhoods are made richer by the traditions, culture, and expertise that each immigrant group brings with them.

As an example, the renowned poet and advocate for Jewish causes, Emma Lazarus, wrote the iconic sonnet “The New Colossus” while living at 18 West 10th Street, a beautiful Italianate-style home that is featured on Village Preservation’s Civil Rights and Social Justice Map Lazarus descended from the first Portuguese Jewish immigrants to New York. She began writing poetry when she was 11 years old, and as an adult she was broadly published, writing volumes of poetry and translations. Some of the verses of “The New Colossus” are in-scripted on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are the words that greeted refugees coming to America upon their arrival by boat at Ellis Island. 

18 West 10th Street, the historic plaque that hangs there, and a portrait of Emma Lazarus

Village Preservation has worked tirelessly to preserve and protect the areas and buildings in our neighborhoods that are integral to the history of immigration in New York City, and we are proud to say that nearly every immigrant history-related historic district in NYC is one which Village Preservation either proposed or played a big hand in getting designated.

Probably the first of New York City’s now 140 designated historic districts to focus largely on the immigrant experience and architecture was the Greenwich Village Historic District Extension II designated in 2010, proposed by Village Preservation as Phase I of our originally proposed South Village Historic District.  This was followed by the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District designation in 2012 (strongly supported by Village Preservation), and then the South Village Historic District (Phase II of our proposed South Village Historic District) which was landmarked by the City in 2013. 

Tenements along Sullivan Street at Prince Street, in today’s Sullivan Thompson Historic District, 1928. Courtesy of NYPL

Landmarked in 2016, the Sullivan-Thompson Historic District is a prime example of an area that for so long deserved recognition as a significant place of distinction in the story of immigration history. You can read more about the district here.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Church at 229-231 West 14th Street

Honoring the importance of religious sites and the diverse history of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo is crucial in preserving the rich character of our neighborhoods. Currently, our organization is actively working to save New York City’s very first Spanish church,  Our Lady of Guadalupe at 229-231 West 14th Street. Located in the once-thriving “Little Spain,” area of our neighborhood, this site has been at the center of Spanish and Latin American heritage for decades and bears enormous significance as New York City’s very first Spanish language church or church for a Spanish-speaking congregation. You can join us in our efforts to save this critical site in our city’s immigrant history by reaching out to your elected officials here.

The variety of our immigrant communities abounds in our neighborhoods, and Village Preservation has written numerous articles about immigrants and immigration, many of which were rounded up here.

You can also visit our recently-updated Civil Rights and Social Justice Map here or access our oral histories to hear the first-hand stories of how immigrants and the children of immigrants have shaped our neighborhoods and culture.

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