Tag Archives: New York city

Immigration in NYC during the Ellis Island Era

First vlog!  (So, be patient as I learn the ropes, ok?)  This is based on a November, 2011, trip (Planning the Education Vacation or Extended Field Trip Using NYC as a Case Study).  You can view it  here or at the Brush off the dust! History now! YouTube page.

I wanted to also provide  the following recommendations for this subject and exploring it in NYC:

  1. The Lower East Side’s Tenement Museum
  2. The Museum of Jewish Heritage
  3. The Museum of Chinese in America
  4. The Statue of Liberty
  5. Ellis Island
  6. The New York Historical Society

(Follow them on Twitter, too!)


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Planning the education vacation or extended field trip — using NYC

We just returned from an awesome trip to New York City.  It was made possible by a conference my spouse attended for work, allowing us to stay in Manhattan.  While we only had two full days, we made the most of the time, with one of the crowning achievements being our Thursday spent looking at immigration.  It was a full day, no doubt, but a really unique experience in a city that has so much to offer in that vein.   I was able to cheat a little, drawing on my experience as a program instructor for the Close Up Foundation’s New York Programs, but the process is certainly replicable!

Select your theme

Photograph of immigrants arriving in New York City (Ellis Island)

New York City has a long history, so if this city is your destination you’ve a lot of potential subjects from which to choose: architecture, finance, immigration, urban studies, terrorism, drama, etc., etc.  For your trip you might select the subject because of the city, or the city because of the subject.  We knew we were going to New York City, so I chose the subjects, in particular Thursday, accordingly.  Given enough planning a trip to another city or to the closest city can be rich with multi-disciplined projects.  For example, in wrapping up the trip, we are going to look at the science of building skyscrapers (Manhattan), compare the early art styles of Western Civilization (the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and a themed summary of our “immigration day”–that’s science, math, art, and history.

So, select your themes.  Then do your homework.  If you search for books of walking tours of New York City on Amazon.com you’ll get 153 results–and, that is without the tours provided in association with the local historical societies, museums, community organizations, tourism bureaus and websites.  My decision to focus on immigration for one day of education vacation was simple: 1) it is a huge element of New York City’s identity, 2) it includes places and sites that are signature destinations for visitors to the city, and 3) it was accessible, working well with our hotel’s location and public transportation.

In New York City, immigration is hugely representative of the city.  Other cities might  different themes.  Consider the following:

  • Washington, DC – U.S. government, civil involvement and responsibility, founding principles
  • Pittsburgh, PA – second industrial revolution, American industry barons, workers movements and unions, philanthropy
  • Chicago, IL – development of frontier America, American urban development, western industry, environment changes
  • Atlanta, GA – Civil Rights movement, Old South vs. New South, urban community-building, urban image-building, representative government
  • New Orleans, LA – city planning and design, transitioning identities, Civil Rights, Hurricane Katrina as a case study for government involvement, crisis management, recovery
  • San Francisco, CA – Spanish colonization, gold rush in building the American West, Chinese in America, Japanese Interment, HIV/AIDs (carefully!!), 1960s and hippie movement

These cities feed these themes well.  Obviously, I chose major cities, but similar focuses and opportunities exist for smaller cities or larger towns (including many in your own town or city!!), such as Williamsburg VA, Gettysburg PA, Taos NM, and Colorado Springs CO.  But, the advantage of your theme should be in your ability to focus on its applicability in the city, ability to stick to your time allowance, affordability, and inclusion of sites that most people would want to see when visiting the city.


We took the ferry to Liberty Island and Ellis Island from Battery Park (NYC)

As time allowance goes, check with public transportation if you are not busing.  If you are busing take some time to look at local traffic sites and get a sense for how long you will actually be commuting–check the tourism board, too, because they are there to serve you.  The occasional long ride is ok, but build some of your program into it.  Just because students are on the charter bus does not mean they have to be checked out or on down time, but having said that, they will occasionally need a chance for a mental break.  Families have the advantage, here.  Public transportation and walking are great ways to get in touch with the city you are visiting, giving you constant contact with place you are visiting, but also offering an opportunity to relax and (hopefully) get off your feet.  It does require you to do some planning in advance to be confident.  (The smart phones and apps have some limitations, so have a back up!)

Make sure you can adjust to the weather and the conditions you face.  Encourage students to carry a backpack or shoulder bag with another layer, a snack and a water bottle, in addition to cameras and wallets.  Make the decision in advance: if it rains are you packing it in?  If not, how will you deal with the rain?  I had papers that were part of my immigration tour, so I knew I would need to balance the use of that with rain cover if the weather turned foul (as it turned out, raining was minimal, but cold and wind were a little more intense and challenged the learning experience).

Most of us do not walk anymore (unless we live in a city already or have a regular exercise program), so the necessary walking involved in an educational tour of a city or a section of a city is sometimes a challenge to everyone involved.  If possible, you may want to add a bit of walking into your preparation–maybe there is an opportunity to compare the city you are visiting with a nearby city or home town, that will get you walking in advance of the trip.

Preparing the student(s)

Statue of Frederic Auguste Bartholdi who designed the Statue of Liberty and imbued her with symbols

For our immigration tour, my daughter looked at National Park Service documents, printouts and worksheets, including a history of the Statue of Liberty, her symbolism, and the immigration test.  (In history, we are covering Western Civilization, so we were focused on a handful of exhibits in the Metropolitan Museum of Art–part of her work along the way has included Art History readings, so she was able to make comparisons and identify different features in the art we viewed.)  I also gave her a values matrix, where I asked her to rate what features were important considerations for accepting immigrants and then apply those to possible cases to evaluate the intended or unintended outcomes of her policies–in the wrap up she will be asked to consider how the country regarded those values over time for immigration.

The student(s) should not be thrown into the content without some prior experience.  The visit should take the student to the next step, not serve as an introduction.  So, it is important not to neglect preparation.  By the same token, the visit should not serve as the end of the learning experience–it is a portion of the overall whole.  I know of a teacher who sent his students to investigate New Deal architecture in their home city; had he simply sent them out, even with a “script” of sorts, the experience would not represent a genuine learning experience, just an oddball field trip.  Success requires preparation and reflection, or, even better, preparation, project, and reflection.

Our Immigration Thursday in NYC

A mural of the Jewish immigrant experience in the Lower East Side (building rumored to be scheduled for demolition)

We began our day by heading to Battery Park, taking the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island–we paid for the audio tours and they were a pretty big hit!  The ferries leave at regular intervals so it is easy to adjust to one’s schedule.  (The ferries and each island also had food options for either snacks or meals.)

From there we picked up a city bus–the driver was really helpful and gracious to us–and headed in the direction of the Tenement Museum and New York City’s Lower East Side.  We probably had the time to visit the museum, but this trip it was not in our shoe-string budget, so we walked past it and headed over to the walking tour I had planned which included a number of immigrant-rich sites looking at the history of Jewish immigration.  From there we walked to Little Italy.  While Chinatown is not technically in this area, it has effectively overlapped into other neighborhoods, so we saw quite a bit of Chinatown; this demonstrates the shift from Italian immigrants to a newer wave of Chinese immigrants.  While these neighborhoods have history associated with specific ethnic groups, the natural diaspora of immigrants a few generations removed from their old country tends to lead immigrant neighborhoods to evolve and change.  We concluded our evening at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA)–which has free admission on Thursdays (for the time being, at least).

This was a lot to cover!  It is a bit exhausting, but the beauty is that we covered sites and neighborhoods that are popular sites and asked penetrating questions about immigration policy.  Each site fed the next and asked questions about what it means to be an immigrant and how we should handle immigration.  This creates a bonded chain that links preparation to reflection.  It’s a great way to learn.

Sign for a beauty parlor near Little Italy and Chinatown

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#FF — Best historical NEW YORK CITY follows!!

In honor of our New York City trip, I’m putting out the best history related New York Twitter follows!

I point out that our trip will have something of an immigration bias in its focus–did I mention we homeschool?–so, may of my contributions, here, are reflective of that preparation!  Commence singing in your best Sinatra impression, “New York…”

1.  @NYHistory

Really wish we had the time this trip! It was awful walking past it and not being able to stop!

2.  @StatueLibrtyNPS

Great trip! The teenager was especially moved listening to the immigrants share their first sightings of Lady Liberty.

3.  @EllisIslandNPS

This is a good follow if you’re interested in Ellis Island and immigration news.

4.  @metmuseum

Frequently tweeting profiles of the pieces in their vast collection!!

5. @tenementmuseum

tenement museum
Even better than Ellis Island for current immigration policy discussions and urban life.

6. @nypl

NY Public Library
News about libraries and gems from the collection!

7.  @AFBurialGrndNPS

Great resource for history of slaves and their progeny in this country!

8. @mocamuseum

Great museum about the Chinese experience in America! Worth the trip, follow for related news.

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What this generation of college students remembers about 9/11

Tuesday (May 3rd), I postponed a lecture on the 12th Century Renaissance and replaced it with a period devoted to reflection in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death.  This was at least partially selfish, or maybe it was just closure.  I was a junior in Washington DC, living on campus during 9/11.  When the first of the Twin Towers were hit I was actually in the Basilica on campus in Northeast DC.  By the time I had made it back to my place, the second tower was hit, and then the Pentagon.  Classes were cancelled.  The phone lines were swamped.  Planes were grounded.  First campus, and then the city shut down.  One of the strongest memories I have is of sitting alone on a picnic table in the courtyard and listening to . . . nothing!  All of the city’s normal background rumbles and grumbles were stilled.  There was no car noise.  Occasionally, you would hear the fighter jets soaring overhead, but you never saw them.

In classes, once they resumed, we naturally talked about the events.  In one class, we were discussing the argument against 1) a God, 2) a benevolent God or 3) an all-powerful God based on the existence of evil in the world.  He had assigned us Elie Wiesel’s Night, because in his experience, modern youth–at least, up to that point–had lost belief of evil in the world.  9/11 fit right in.  In another class, an introduction to archaeology, we tabled the day’s intended course material to talk about what happened and why.  While I was a fairly plugged in youth, I confess that I had never heard of Osama bin Laden before 9/11.  We had a lot of questions about why anyone would want to do this.  I find it interesting that many college students today have the same questions, today, as we did then.

Most of my students who are properly college-aged, 17, 18, 19, 20, recall having a difficult time processing all of it.  I asked them if they related to the images–if they even seemed real or like Hollywood reproductions.  The majority admitted they did not unless they had a personal connection to the catastrophe, such as a missing family member.  Even those on military bases could not really understand what others around them were feeling.  One student candidly confessed that she and her brother were pulled out of school, watched the images on TV at home, but mostly remember playing outside all day while all the grownups were occupied.

I next asked them when bin Laden and 9/11 became events that they understood as real catastrophes and not just global events.  Many could not relate until they were in high school and looked back on the events on their own.  For some, it is clear, they never really became anything more than a background tapestry of distant world events.  To be fair, this is pretty normal for young people.  Most children in tween and young teen years would be very upset if they were told that their parents had accidentally hit an animal with the family car, but relating to the tragic events in Haiti a couple years back, more recently in Japan and even the tornadoes here in the U.S. are too distant and wide to grasp by young minds that have not personally lost someone or something or witnessed the terror firsthand.

The result of this is that many were relatively unmoved by Osama bin Laden’s death, or at minimum less moved then people my age and older.  A student in a colleague’s class was angry about all the attention it was getting–my colleague incidentally was working in the financial district of New York City during the attack and has strong personal connections to the attacks.  That student was far more concerned about a local murder in Baltimore, which my colleague acknowledged was valid, but did not make bin Laden’s death any less relevant.  On the contrary, my colleague argued, bin Laden does matter.  Many of our students clearly felt he had ceased to be relevant by this point.

This is one of the magazines I purchased after the attacks.

What bin Laden’s death did for some in this younger generation was reawaken questions that had existed, perhaps all along, and not yet been answered for them.  Students who followed current events or who had personal attachments to the events, i.e. people in DC or NY, or serving in the military, were clearly more effected and interested.  Perhaps, this reveals a certain failure on everyone else’s part to explain current events.

For me, this class time was closure–almost more so then the actual news about bin Laden’s death.  Or, maybe it is better described as the conclusion of the story arc.  Granted, I was still pretty young then, but 9/11 left me off-balance.  It dominated my thinking for days and I was almost too stunned to be angry.  My memories of 9/11 are inextricably tied to those two classes and professors.  Perhaps it is because I have an academic turn of mind, more likely because it was simply the setting in which I experienced the attacks, but in discussing bin Laden and 9/11 memories with my class I personally put something profound in my life to rest.

It is also sobering to think about how quickly time moves on.  A handful of students saw the second plane hit live and remembered that, while others only remembered the replayed scenes and the pictures in every newspaper and magazine the days after.  Young minds cannot really cope with global events in the same way that they will when they experience similar events as they are older.  I wonder what it would have been like for my students to have written down a journal entry about 9/11 the week it had happened, and then to have sat down and read it this week.  I wonder how many people did exactly that this week.

FBI Top Ten Most Wanted usama-bin-laden

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Come visit Saratoga Springs, NY!!

In memory of Patricia “Patty” Mary Elizabeth Joyce Reeves, a member of the Wilton Historical Society. (September 21, 1932 – October 12, 2010)

I was recently in Saratoga Springs for a funeral and thought it would be fitting to talk about the city in today’s post in memory of “Grandma Pat.”  Grandma Pat (technically my grandmother-in-law) was one of the first people to comment on my posts and was herself a history buff, so this is, I believe, an appropriate tribute.

Many folks know about the revolutionary era battle for Saratoga Springs–it is well documented, so I am not going to spend time on it in this post.  Instead, I am going to break this post into three parts based on 1) the Canfield Casino in Congress Park–now the sight of the Saratoga Springs History Museum, 2) a travel article reprinted from the New England Magazine, in 1905, “Saratoga Springs,” and 3)  the narrative history found in The Saratoga Reader, Writing about an American village, 1749-1900.

Saratoga Springs History Museum, Canfield Casino in Congress Park


Canfield Casino in Congress Park, Saratoga Springs, NY


The Saratoga Springs History Museum is in Congress Park, housed inside the old Canfield Casino.  Originally one of the main attractions to the city, along with the horses and the springs, the casino does double duty for the city, today, as the main hall is rented out for occasions such as weddings.  In its heyday it was a popular site for the high-rollers from New York city who regularly dropped six figures like it was pocket change, according to the docents.  Today, visitors can pay $5 to see the exhibits, which include a small sampling of pre-Columbian archaeological finds and a wide smattering of other artifacts from the colonial era through to the early mid-1900s.  On the second floor there are really three exhibits.  The first is a collection of women’s fashion over the last two hundred years, “Two Hundred Years of Fashion Exhibit.”  (Full disclosure: I brushed through that section pretty quickly… but if you are into fashion and textile history it’s probably pretty cool.)  The second exhibit is the only one focusing on the building’s past specifically, the “High Rollers: The High Stakes Gambling Room,” which includes an original bar from that age (interesting side note: women weren’t allowed to gamble and so were provided a reading room).  Finally, there is an exhibit focusing on the small town’s extensive history of fires: “Historic Fires in Saratoga Springs Exhibit.”  The third floor, featuring “The Walworth Mansion–six rooms from the 1880s,” covers a rather wide array of American social history, running from the Civil War through to the Spanish American War, through the eyes of one family with ties to Kentucky, Washington DC and, obviously, Saratoga Springs.


High Rollers: The High Stakes Gambling Room at the Saratoga Springs History Museum


As a casino, Canfield was a successful casino in the resort area of Saratoga Springs.  It ran, successfully hosting JP Morgan, the Vanderbilts and Whitneys and their like, until 1907, when reformers successfully banned gambling in the city.  At this point, the docent explained, the gambling moved out to the lake, having been taken over by the criminal element that ran it in speakeasies.  The town had always attracted, as one Saratogan described it, a frivolous interest.


Parlor of the Walworth family mansion from the 1880s, Saratoga Springs History Museum


The Walworth mansion exhibit is a curious one.  As visitors walk into the doorway of the rooms an audio narrative comes on telling the family story the perspectives of different individuals in the family.  As far as that goes, I think it is a great way to introduce young people to history and the different perspectives that come down to us, though they are a little long and are rehashing the same general story–this may tax a young person’s patience.  The family deals with Civil War loyalties, domestic abuse, religious conversion in a Presbyterian corner of the world , women’s suffrage and the ill effects of the Spanish-American War.  The exhibit is supposedly based on seven rooms from the old mansion that was torn down almost one hundred years after these rooms were lived in–they are billed as coming from the 1880s–but, sadly the exhibit does not describe the methods of preservation and research to explain or make the case for how authentic this reconstruction actually is.  Nor, do they explain how they came to create the personal narratives recorded by actors–what sources they used, how they chose the individuals featured, etc.  Actually, this would in general be my complaint about the museum: not enough literature and explanation.

Apparently some odd things have happened up there on the third floor and the Ghost Hunters, from the SciFy channel, visited a while back.  The Casino was featured on episode 18 of season 6.  The episode includes another haunted site, so if you want to watch the portion relevant to Saratoga Springs, you’ll want to wade half way through it.  (This has apparently increased the number of visits to the museum.)  In the introduction to the feature, they explain some of the history of the building . . . as for ghosts?  I am not qualified to comment on anything in that area, but I did not notice anything on my visit!  (The episode is available in 5 parts on YouTube.)

“Saratoga Springs” by Louis McHenry Howe, New England Magazine, 1905

It was to Saratoga in those long-forgotten, prehistoric springtimes, when the Hudson tore apart its ice fetters and thrust them down into the sea, that the bravest and the feeblest alike of the haughty Iroquois tribe, abandoning their winter tepees, made their way over trails so firmly trodden down that the visitor to-day may trace them, sometimes for miles through the forests surrounding Saratoga.

It is by means of this introduction that Howe launches into the history surrounding the popular vacation and resort area.  Notice too, that it is published while the casino is still open for business.  The publication, The New England Magazine, was published in Boston as a continuation from the Bay State Magazine and appears to have run from 1886 to 1917 (although, I have not verified that).  My copy is a reprint of an original found in the collection of Minnie Clark Bolster and sold at the Saratoga Springs History Museum.  The article is a travel feature and tells us itself why the reader should be interested in Saratoga Springs:

What, it may well be asked, has been the magnet that has drawn man to this spot since earliest time?  The proud Iroquois, treading with light moccasin the forest trail, would have answered: “Game! for so many stately bucks and sleek-sided does, fierce wolves and fiercer panthers, never elsewhere did Indian see.”

“Society,” would have been the reply of the famous beauty, Betty Holcomb, travelling to the Spa by easy stage coach, from far Virginia, crowds assembling at each post station to catch a glimpse of her lovely face.

“The finest racing in the world,” would answer the gentlemen sportsman of to-day, learning luxuriously back in his private car as it tears across the miles that lie between Wall Street and the Saratoga Race Track.  All of these answers would have been right so far as they went, but the root of the matter would not be there, for the last analysis of Saratoga’s greatness will show that the foundations of her fame lie in her wonderful mineral springs.

The description of the town in this extended essay is one true to its time that describes what New England and New York society valued and of what popular knowledge consisted.  A geological explanation follows to explain the existence of the “wonderful mineral springs.”  Still, the majority of the essay is centered around the horse races, clearly the primary feature in the town’s popularity according to Howe.  There is surprisingly little about the Revolutionary War battle that took place there and shares its name with the small city.

As a primary source, this is valuable in the access it provides to the lifestyles of the wealthy.  While there is a great deal of discussion involving the local tribes, much of it inaccurate or misconstrued and virtually all of it romantic, there is no mention of the lives of anybody outside the wealthy class.  This is probably suggestive of the magazine’s readership, but that could be misleading.  Certainly, the accompanying photographs in the article focus on the estates and diversions of the wealthy–the publication does not provide credits for these photographs, so I take them to have come from the article, but it is possible that they have been provided for the modern reprint from Saratoga Springs archives.

The Saratoga Reader, Writing about an American village, 1749-1900 by Field Horne

This is an interesting collection of personal narrative descriptions of the history of Saratoga Springs.  It is in some respects a charming and pleasant read, in others a potentially useful collection for the high school and undergraduate researcher.  For a more serious researcher it supplies a useful trail to open inquiries into Saratoga, colonial, revolutionary, Civil War, New York and New England life.  The editor, Field Horne, admits to selectively excerpting and compiling this collection with a bias towards personal narrative accounts (as opposed to travel guide descriptions, for example) and sources that highlight American life in this part of the country.  Based on this, I would suggest that correspondence with the author could very well provide a rather extensive, larger collection that did not make the cut, but may prove useful for various historical inquiries.  It provides a bibliography, index and glossary that are well done and very helpful.  The way the book is laid out it is rather like a film of Saratoga’s history, with each scene a brief snapshot from one individual’s perspective.

What a historian or instructor will not find in this collection are sources in dialogue with each other, or even really multiple perspectives on similar subjects (with the exception of the springs themselves).  Each source is in isolation.  So, to return to my movie metaphor above, imagine a film where each scene is in isolation and the individual’s perspective is only accounted for in his/her particular scene–even if the individual may be relevant in the next scene, the audience is now cut off from that perspective.  The secondary source material providing some biographical information for each of the authors is also without citations.

While obviously each individual whose works contributed to this collection was literate, there is still a fairly wide swatch of American society represented even if not the widest economic representation.  The author was particular in his transcription of these sources , so their written accounts are not polished by the author and their voices are their own.  Many links to American life in general are drawn through his selections, in particular the local connections to greater American questions and politics, whether this is the written material from international observers moving through the area after the French and Indian War, young abolitionists or business men writing in their journals about presidential debates.  This is largely the story of American leisure, primarily that of the wealthy who would make their sojourns either with intent to Saratoga Springs or as side trips from the larger cities in the region.

* * *

This is the sort of place I really enjoy visiting.  It is a place that has made the conscious decision to preserve its past and incorporate that past into its modern city-life.  Also, it is pedestrian friendly which allows for leisurely exploration of its local businesses and history.  In the fall, it was shockingly beautiful with all of its trees cycling through their autumn attire and we were lucky to be strolling through the city during gorgeous weather.  For history buffs and folks interested in historic preservation it is a great place to visit.  I look forward to returning under happier circumstances.


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