Professor Robert Snyder
Toggle caption Photo by Lawrence Lerner

Immigrants, Migrants, and the Making of New York: Q&A With Robert Snyder

Professor Rob Snyder, who teaches Journalism and American Studies at Rutgers University–Newark, has a deep connection to New York City. He was born and lived the first year of his life in Manhattan’s Washington Heights before his family moved to New Jersey, and he grew up on stories of his old neighborhood and hung out frequently in the city as a teenager before attending graduate school at NYU. As a journalist, he worked at Newsday and Channel 13/WNET, New York’s public television station. As an academic, he directed the research for Ric Burns’ multipart documentary film New York and served as a consultant for NPR’s Sonic Memorial project on September 11 and the World Trade Center, along with several exhibits at the Museum of the City of New York. He’s also focused much of his scholarly work on the city, including his books Transit Talk: New York’s Bus and Subway Workers Tell Their Stories (1998) and Crossing Broadway: Washington Heights and the Promise of New York City (2014).

So, it’s no surprise that Snyder has co-authored a second-edition revision of the 1996 classic All the Nations Under Heaven: Immigrants, Migrants, and the Making of New York, along with his graduate-school mentor, NYU History Professor David Reimers, a co-author of the original.

Recently we sat down with Snyder to discuss the history of the project, his involvement in the revised edition, and immigration in New York City.

The original edition of this book came out in 1996 and was authored by Reimers and Frederick Binder. It’s a sweeping historical survey that became a classic. Would you set the original in context for us in the annals of NYC history texts?
Despite immigration’s importance to New York City’s past and present, as late as the 1990s there was no book that looked at immigration throughout the course of the city’s history. I think most historians just thought it was too big and complicated to put in one volume. There also was no book that included African Americans and Puerto Ricans in the history of migration to New York City. But you can’t leave African Americans out of immigration history. When you do, it neglects the importance of African Americans in U.S. politics and culture and produces a consoling narrative that is insufficiently attentive to racism in American life.

If New York is affordable only to the very rich, it will lose the energy, vision and dynamism that previous generations of immigrants and migrants brought here.

What prompted the revised edition?
So much has changed since 1996 that a new version of the book seemed appropriate. Immigration has transformed New York City’s population, making it a bigger, more global and more diverse place than ever before. Crime has dropped, and the bitter racial politics of the Koch and Giuliani mayoralties has ebbed. At the same time, economic inequality has grown, gentrification transforms neighborhoods, and the skyline gets a new addition every day. My job was to bring a new generation of scholarship into the book, write new chapters, and revise old chapters to create a more encompassing narrative.
And this revision focuses on, among other things, how immigration has been central to the city’s politics, pop culture and economics.
Yes. Ethnic conflict has been an important dimension of politics, and ethnic mobilizations a way of amassing political power. The city’s hybrid popular culture has been impacted by immigrants as well, from the Harrigan and Hart shows of the 19th century to the Broadway musicals of the 20th century to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s productions today. Miranda is a New Yorker with roots in Puerto Rico, and his work is very important because it takes the sounds of today’s immigrant city—rap, salsa, bachata, merengue—and puts them on the Broadway stage. And in a city of both sweatshops and socialists, immigrants have long worked through unions, cooperatives, and radical and reform movements to ease the city’s economic inequalities and make it a more just place.
The book also describes a shift in immigration makeup/diversity since the 1960s, compared with earlier periods. Can you describe the shift?
In previous periods, surges in immigration and migration were largely defined by three big pairs of groups: the Irish and Germans in the middle of the 19th century, Jews and Italians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and African Americans and Puerto Ricans Rob Snyder book coverin the mid-20th century. In the current era, immigrants come to New York City from so many places that no group or pair of groups dominates. The top six groups are Dominicans, Chinese, Mexicans, Jamaicans, Guyanese and Ecuadorians. The newest immigrants deserve a lot of credit for reviving the city from the bleak days of the 1970s, when crime was high, the city was in economic doldrums, and New York’s population actually fell. Immigrant labor and energy saved New York.
So, immigrants helped revive the city, but the book mentions new challenges they face today. What are they, and what are the implications?
Low wages and high housing costs are the two biggest problems. If New York is affordable only to the very rich, it will lose the energy, vision and dynamism that previous generations of immigrants and migrants brought here. Equally important, if the children of immigrants can’t make a home here, the city will lose the stability and continuity that it gained in the past when the descendants of immigrants settled into the city. Inequality is a national and international problem, and solving it in New York City will require leaps of vision, economic development and policy-making far beyond anything we have yet attempted.

Thank you very much for sitting down with us.
It was my pleasure.