LOWER EAST SIDE, NEW YORK CITY -- This area dominated largely by immigrants for two centuries is a good place to think about America's growing immigration debate. This month, dominated by two welcoming but challenging presidents -- George Washington and Abraham Lincoln -- is a good time to do so.
The Lower East Side once was home to African-Americans freed from slavery, and then Irish, German, Italian and Eastern European immigrants escaping from other forms of oppression. Now it has remnants of all those groups, plus Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Dominicans, Chinese and other Asians.
A century ago, a higher percentage of Americans had been born abroad than is now the case. Then, as now, immigrants suffered at first so their children could have better lives. Then, as now, work was hard and long for those who wanted to save some money. Then, as now, homes were crowded, with immigrants sometimes making a one-family apartment suffice for three.
But two differences stand out. One is that, in the past, leading institutions strove mightily to Americanize students. Walk to 45 Rivington St. here, and see the five-story, red brick school where Harry Golden (originally Hershel Goldhirsch) enrolled in 1908. He later wrote a best-seller, "Only in America," in which he didn't complain or blame the United States for the hard life immigrants had. Instead, he wrote, "The only thing that overcomes hard luck is hard work."
George Gershwin (Jacob Gershowitz) also showed the success of the school's attempt to inculcate a love for America culture, when he composed between 1923 and 1935 "Rhapsody in Blue," "An American in Paris" and "Porgy and Bess."
Just down the street at 61-63 Rivington stands the three-story, red brick building that was a New York Public Library branch funded by Andrew Carnegie and built with an open-air reading room on the roof. The patriotic books it stocked opened many minds. If it was typical of other libraries of the era, biographies of Washington and Lincoln were the most frequently checked-out works, and immigrants reading about the presidents would see how they treated newcomers to America.
For example, President Washington took his oath of office a couple of miles from here in 1789, and then wrote to one synagogue, "May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants, while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree." The way to merit goodwill was to work hard to gain your own vine and fig tree.