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Neighborhoods

Neighborhoods

“Playground in Tenement Alley,” photo by Lewis Hine, Boston, 1909.

We tend to think of immigrant neighborhoods as stable, but they are actually quite fluid. Immigrants are a people on the move and few immigrant neighborhoods stay the same.

On Manhattan’s Lower East Side over the last 150 years, as each nationality began to dwindle another took its place. Irish and Germans in the mid-19th century were replaced by Jews and Italians and then Chinese. Today a mix of Latino immigrants lives in that neighborhood.

Neighborhoods

South Asian stores on a street in Jackson Heights, Queens, 2006

Even as immigrants moved away, the flow of newcomers was rapid enough and birth rates high enough to build strong communal ties and activities.  Churches, synagogues and mosques provided religious and social support, while political machines brokered aid in exchange for votes.  Jews formed landmannschaften, which supported Jews from the same village, while German families congregated in neighborhood beer halls.  Chicanos formed mutualistas in the late 19th century to defend the rights of Mexicans and to organize athletic events and fiestas.

Neighborhoods

Union Street in Flushing, Queens. The signs, almost entirely in Korean, advertise hair salons, restaurants, travel agencies, an Asian grocery store, a C.P.A., florists and a Korean ethnic church, 1995.

 

Many immigrant neighborhoods are places of cultural familiarity for immigrants, where shopkeepers speak the same language and sell foods from the homeland.  For Italians and Jews in East Harlem 100 years ago or today’s Chinese and Koreans in Flushing, Queens, the neighborhood is a place of familiarity and new alliances in an alien land.