Last screening: Still watching the Ric Burns documentary of New York. Volume 4, 5, and 6. we are so lucky to have New York I think as I watch little bits of it everyday. And even luckier if we are one of the fortunate ones to live here. It is a breathtaking and bewildering history. Now that I am here I could not imagine living anywhere else; for now anyway. Harlem and the birth of jazz, f. Scott Fitzgerald, emma lazarus, George and Ira Gershwin, Broadway musicals, the stock market crash, skyscrapers and the race to continuously build the tallest buildings in the world — the tallest buildings in the world were the pyramids of ancient Egypt all the way up until New York city skyscrapers interestingly enough, John Astor, waldorf Astoria, Al smith, Roosevelt, Fiorella La Guardia, Robert Moses and his creation of the highway system, Ellis island and immigration into the city in such shocking numbers that the city seemed to be caving in on itself, but all the while a very special place on the planet was being born. A melting pot of different nationalities and ethnicities that the world had never seen anywhere in the world before; and from it the greatest city in the world.
This is what I like about New York the most, more than anything else, and there are so many things to like about the city, but the diversity of people, that’s the thing. The fact that you can be standing on a corner with a hundred other people waiting for a light to change and be listening to Spanish, Albanian, Russian, Indian, French, and Chinese being spoken all at the same time around you. You know you’re in New York. That the man who lives next door to you is form Hungary and the girl above you is from Vietnam and your landlord is a Russian Jew and your postlady is half black and half Puerto Rican and the guy who makes your pizza everyday is from Brooklyn of Italian descent and claims he knows pizza better than anyone else on earth. Hehe. That’s the coolest part of New York. Constantly stimulating and exciting, and ever challenging our understanding of what America is.
Currently there are over 27,000 people per square mile in the great city. when I sit in my little hole in the wall apartment I imagine myself as one of those 27,000 people in that one square mile and the thought is mind boggling. A total of over 8 million people on just the island of Manhattan alone and 18 million in the entire area of the five boroughs combined. Friends ask me, how do you live in that? My answer to them is that it is easy. when I’m falling asleep at night I am comforted by the sound of the traffic and all the big industrial noise outside my windows. There is something secure and calming about it.
And the history of course. New York is running through our veins as Americans because so much of what we are as a country and as a people came from New York, most of our families arriving first to Ellis island in New York before we moved on to other cities or states, each of us an immigrant still in our blood. Every one of my grandparents can be found on the immigration records of Ellis Island showing what day they arrived here and what country they were coming from and how old they were and whether they could speak English or not, and whether they could read or write and how much money they each had in their pockets. Whenever I see the Statue of liberty I think of them and how they must have felt when they first saw it as children after so many months living on a ship hoping to find a new world to build their new lives in. The excitement they must have felt seeing the great land of America for the first time. And it was here, the city of New York, that welcomed each one of them, each one of us. Ninety years later they have all passed on, but I am here. So in a way their legacy lives on. As I visit neighborhoods for the first time I wonder if they too walked those same streets and try to imagine what the city looked like to them way back then when they were first starting out in their new lives.
Between the years of 1890 and 1920, every four years a city the size of Boston was being added to the small island of Manhattan in the sheer number of people that were coming into the city from Europe and Asia and South America. In the year 1907 alone over 1.2 million immigrants came into New York from Europe. In less than ten years twelve million people came to America and settled in New York from the old world, including my grandparents. Americans were frightened by this wave of immigration that was flooding our young country. There came a time where there were more Jews in New York City than anywhere else in the world (New York still is the second largest Jewish community in the world except for Israel now), more Italians in New York than in Naples or Rome, more Irish in New York than in Dublin, more Greeks in New York than in Athens. Over 700,000 Russians alone lived in New York in those early years. Over half a million poles came over and never returned. As Americans now we are all a part of that. We are the descendents of that great wave of hungry eager ambitious immigrants who flooded into the seaports with nothing but a few suitcases and made America what it is today.
And New York is our living breathing testament to those immigrant years, and to all the years that have come since. It is the most mixed up racially and ethnically diverse cosmopolitan city that we have ever seen in the world’s history. Never have we seen a city such as New York.