Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.81.3: Streets of Gold: Immigrants, the City and the Cinema, Part 2

© 2006, UrbisMedia

© 2006, UrbisMedia

Cities were the first places to bring together peoples of different ethnic and racial backgrounds; hence the first places to test assimilation, tolerance, competition, and cooperation among different cultures. There had been contact between different peoples before urbanization, but without mutual benefits of trade, these contacts were often less than amicable or sustained. Trading centers and port cities in particular were the first to experience this phenomenon. As trade between cities expanded, it became more necessary for different peoples to find levels of positive social interaction, once their respective economic interests became reciprocal. Such interests have always been, of course, threatened by greed, bigotry, and intolerance. As urban-based empires emerged, colonized territories and conquered cities became places where different peoples, cultures, and religions played out multiculturalism with dominance, accommodation, or exploitation.1

From the earliest cities to contemporary times, immigrants were attracted to the promises and possibilities that cities afforded over their rural or pastoral pasts. There were, as well, numerous forced migrations, to and from cities and countries, as a result of conquest, intolerance, and almost any number of pretexts for one group to exert its numerical or presumed cultural, ethnic, or racial superiority over others. Such circumstances of migration were in practice well before the ugly term ethnic cleansing made its way into the language and stratagems of intolerance in late-twentieth century Yugoslavia.

Yet encounters and conflicts between different peoples are the stuff of many great dramas in literature, the theater, and ultimately film. From the Bible, to Homer, to Caesar’s Gallic Wars, from the Voyages of Marco Polo to the momentous events of twentieth century world wars, the contacts and clashes of different cultures, races, religions, and political philosophies have been the driving elements of great comedies and tragedies in reality, and on the screen. Cities have always been a ready stage for the playing out of such dramas, compressing and juxtaposing different peoples and increasing their encounters.

Most Americans are “hyphenated”: Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, African-Americans, or Irish- or Italian- Iranian- or Polish-Americans, to name a few. Despite notions that America is a melting pot that homogenizes immigrants into pure Americans, most all Americans remain, in varying degrees, hyphenated in their self-identification as well. It is perhaps a distinction that defines Americans that their identity with the country is not by way of nativity, culture, ethnicity, race, or religion, but by citizenship. Anyone can be an American in a way that anyone cannot be, say, Chinese, French, or Egyptian.2

Prior to 1820, before which we have no accurate records, it is not known how many people immigrated to America. Since then some 50 million have come, most of whom were running away from something: potato famines for Irish; poor soil in the Mezzogiorno for Italians; religious persecution for Jews; wars and revolutions for other ethnic groups. Most were poor. Italians had a saying: Chi sta bene non si muove (the well-off don’t leave).

There are two colloquial points of view about those who migrate: (1) they are the dregs of the countries from which they come; or (2) they were the hardier, more ambitious stock who were willing to take a chance to improve themselves. Considering the perils of migration and the difficulties of assimilation, it took considerable courage to be an immigrant in the nineteenth century. Ships arrived after long voyages in which immigrants sailed in steerage; many passengers died from disease or were sick from bad food and sanitation.3

While most cities that grew to unprecedented size during the nineteenth century did so with large influxes of population, New York did so with a difference. London, Paris, and other major cities drew their populations largely from within their respective countries; New York’s growth, on the other hand, was very much the result of huge waves of immigration from abroad. The story of New York can be characterized as the invasion and succession of immigrants of different nationalities. As early as the 1640s, as many as eighteen languages were being spoken in the island’s tiny settlement. As late as 1900, more than one New Yorker in three had been born abroad. In addition to the original Dutch, Manhattan’s settlers consisted primarily of German, Scandinavian, English, and Scottish immigrants when the first great wave of immigration hit New York’s shores in the 1840s. With the heavy influx, primarily of Irish refugees from the potato famine, Manhattan’s population more than doubled, from 371,000 in 1845 to 813,000 in 1860.

The lure of America’s opportunities and the push of poverty and oppression in “the old country” encouraged hundreds of thousands to risk the arduous steerage passage in cramped packet ships with conditions little better than those of the Mayflower voyagers. A crossing might last longer than two months, during which time seasickness, spoiled food, storms, cholera, overcrowding, and anxiety often claimed the lives of large numbers of would-be Americans. Many arrived only to be buried in the land of promise. In spite of these adversities, immigrants came in unprecedented numbers. From independence through 1845, only 1,600,000 immigrants, of all nationalities, had entered the United States; but from 1846 through 1855, more than 1,880,000 arrived from Ireland and Britain alone. Over 163,000 entered in the peak year of Irish immigration in 1851.4 Thus a body of highly dramatic experience was accumulated that would find its way into cinematic presentation, which continues to the present day. Chaplin would employ the steerage experience with an admixture of comedy and nausea-inducing effect inThe Immigrant (1917); Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street) and Francis Coppola (Godfather: Part II), among others, would take great pains in re-creating the experience in the streets of New York, and more recently Wayne Wang (Dim Sum, 1984), Ang Lee (Pushing Hands, 1994), and Gregory Nava (El Norte, 1983) are portraying the similarities and differences with the experiences of the new wave of immigration from Asia and Latin America.

Streets of Gold

To some extent it might have been fortunate for the immigrants that the streets of American cities were not paved with gold. The American city was being built during the heyday of American immigration, rising out of the mythical compost of the founders that America was destined to be a nation primarily of yeoman farmers. America’s urban adolescence had all the raw energy and assertiveness of youth. Cities grew fast, without benefit of the parental oversight, without an example of a previous American urban age, and without, especially, a preceding American “golden age of cities” to intimidate the process. So it was the very construction of American cities—the buildings, the physical and social infrastructure, the unpaved streets and unexcavated subways—that provided the “gold” that immigrants needed to purchase a foothold on American soil. City-building generates numerous and varied forms of employment, and employment fueled an economic and political system that, for many, afforded an entrance to the promised land.

With the assistance of the labors of legions of immigrants, New York was, by mid-century, an ostentatiously rich city. One historian reports that:

At 563 Broadway old master paintings by Titian, Rubens, Raphael and others were for sale; and at 189 Broadway, Ever Pointed Gold Pens. Gold birdcages were also to be bought. Fine French calfboots were $1.50. H. S. Beal, at his Daguerrian Rooms at 183 Broadway, would take your photograph for a dollar. Each year New York consumed $68,000 worth of fresh salmon shipped in from St. John, New Brunswick. There were 132 principal eating houses, from Delmonico’s, with its very fashionable Italian and French cuisine, to Gosling’s in Nassau Street where Mr. Gosling dined more than 1,000 people a day, very cheap. The hotels were more splendid, and very much larger, than any in Europe at the time. The grandest was Astor House, opposite the City Hall. Rathburn’s Hotel could sleep 300. The United States Hotel, proprietor H. Johnson, advertised that it had installed at great expense, “an extensive range of water closets, not equaled by any similar Establishment in the United States.”5

In the city the immigrant not only supplied the labor for this growing urban opulence, but he lived closer to it that ever before. Its proximity tantalized him with its possibilities, which could turn to resentment when it was kept beyond his reach.

This dynamic new city of growth and energy also provided a vastly enriched soundstage for the entrepreneurs of the new cinema: motion, color, contrasting lifestyles, struggle, conflict, success and failure, and change; the city had it all, stories almost begging to be told. America’s streets may not have been paved with gold, but the drama taking place in them was worth more than gold.

[To Be Continued]
© 2013, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 2.11.2013)

1. Clapp, 1986.
2. Americans are projected to become even more hyphenated in the future. The Population Research Center, in Portland, Oregon, “projects that the black intermarriage rate will climb dramatically in this century, to a point at which 37 percent of African-Americans will claim mixed ancestry by 2100. By then more than 40 percent of Asian-Americans will be mixed. Most remarkable, however, by century’s end the number of Latinos claiming mixed ancestry will be more than two times the number claiming a single background.”; Rodriguez, 2003, 95.
3. Coleman, 1972, chap. 7.
4. Sinclair, 1967, 331.
5. Coleman, 1972, 155.