The History of Immigrants in NYC and Harlem
Posted on August 17, 2018

Bohemia Blog by Agent Natalie Tess Sigurdsson

Immigrants in NYC and Their Origins:


Over 40% of NYC residents are born in another country. Throughout its history, NYC has been a major point of entry for immigrants. It is also the most linguistically diverse in the world with as many as 800 languages spoken. The written history of NYC began with the first European explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524 and in 1609 European settlement began with the Dutch.

In 1880, the largest number of immigrants were from Ireland and Germany and at the beginning of the 20th century, 17 million emigrated to NYC. The three largest groups were Russian, Jews, and Italians. An official immigration center was established to accommodate the growing number of these immigrants. It was in an old concert hall in Battery Park. 50 years later, Ellis Island opened as a federal immigration center.

Immigrants created this city: Dutch fur traders, English merchants’ sons, random fortune seekers from Spain or Norway, Welsh tavern keepers, Gaelic blacksmiths, religious dissidents, and a smattering of Jews and freed slaves somehow managed to conduct business even while speaking 18 different languages. In the 1920s, strict immigration laws were enforced, the city experienced tremendous immigration drought. However, in 1965, the Hart-Celler act replaced previous laws. The previous laws restricted immigration from Asia and Africa and gave preference to northern and western Europeans over southern and eastern Europeans. With the enforcement of the Halt-Celler act, the national and racial barriers were removed and the demographic mix would significantly alter.


Harlem Immigration History:


Before the 1630s, Harlem was inhibited by the native tribe the “Manhattans.” Several hundred of them farmed the Harlem flatlands and soon after, Dutch immigrants started coming in. The name “Harlem” was formally incorporated in 1660, after the Dutch city of Haarlem. The village grew very slowly until the middle of the 18th century when it became a sort of resort for the rich people in NYC. Harlem was "a synonym for elegant living through a good part of the 19th century." The village had a population of poorer residents as well, including African Americans, who came North to work in factories or to take advantage of relatively low rents.

Poor Jewish and Italians also moved North, particularly to East Harlem, where both the Italian and Jewish Mafia emerged. Puerto Rican and Latin American immigration came after the First World War where East Harlem than earned the title of “Spanish Harlem.” The mass of African American immigrants began in 1904 as a part of the Great Migration.

In 1910, Harlem was only 10% African American, in 1930 it was 70% and in 1950 it had risen to 98%. In 1926, the Dunbar was built, which is a large building complex specifically built to house African Americans and to alleviate the housing shortage in Harlem. At the time the population density was over 215,000 per square mile. In comparison, in 2000, Manhattan as a whole had a population density under 70,000 per square mile. However, as building stock decayed from 1940-70, Harlem had a lower population density than the rest of Manhattan.

It is estimated that 8.5 million people live in NYC as of 2018 and it is expected to rise to 9 million by 2040. Of those 8.5 million, 3.5 million are foreign-born immigrants, more than any other city in the world. Everyone is welcome to NYC!


We are all immigrants

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