My mother came over from England for a visit this Thanksgiving weekend, and I once more got to experience the delights of New York City in a way that I never do on a daily basis. First stop for her and me was the Tenement Museum
, where we took a tour that reflected the life of two Jewish families (the Levines and the Rogarshevskys) in the early twentieth century as they struggled to make it in the disease-ridden, cramped quarters of a tenement building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
As we walked through the painstakingly reconstructed apartments of 97 Orchard Street, our excellent guide made sure that we recognized that the Eastern European Jews who arrived in the late 1800s were one of a wave of immigrants that followed the arrival of Germans fleeing the failed democratic revolution of 1848, the Irish coming to America following the potato famine of the mid-1840s, and southern Italians in the 1870s. There were also Chinese who had worked on the railroads in the West in the 1860s and 1870s who also moved east. This ongoing wave of immigration and assimilation, said the guide, was still happening today.
He also made another very important point. When we think of American pioneers, he said, we tend to see in our mind’s eye mule trains and wagons heading over the plains and mountain passes, Little House on the Prairie
doughtiness, and the general populating of the West. But, reminded our guide, the people who came from overseas to the cities of the East and West were no less pioneers—and a great many more people in the United States trace their ancestry from the Lower East Side (one in four Jews, for instance) than from elsewhere. 97 Orchard Street, for instance, cycled through 20,000 inhabitants in fifty years, and at one point in the nineteenth century, the block on which Orchard Street stood was the densest place on the planet. That’s worth thinking about when we are told that only the "Heartland" is a place of American values.