Question: What Constitutes A New Yorker? 1907 Part I

Remarkable study of America’s Metropolis reveals many strange facts in the makeup of its citizenship, from which it appears that the Native born New Yorker is surprisingly scarce in the city.

What is a New Yorker? Is he half a foreigner or a full-fledged American, or betwixt and between? How does he think and act to make him so different from other people?

Where does he come from and how long does he have to be here to deserve the name always admitting, of course, that to try to find a New Yorker of prominence who was born here is as hard as picking out the crooked sentence in the Times grammatical contest.

The people best able to judge the foreigners usually describe him in very complimentary terms within a week after they land, then go home and write books filled with unpleasant criticism.

The more the New Yorker reads of this sort of thing the more he is puzzled over himself. The foreign opinions are about as ambiguous as the remark of a wit who said a new Yorker was a man suffering from chronic New Yorkitis or inflammation of his New York.

A reporter started out to answer the questions in a more methodical way. In effect, he impaled a New Yorker on the point of a pin as he would a bee or a butterfly, stuck him under a microscope, vivisected him, turned him inside out, studied his ancestry and blood corpuscles, and went into the history of his case, as they say at the hospitals in a word, complied with all the rules and formalities of a scientific analysis.

The first step was to find out as much about the New Yorker as possible from the men who know him best.

Question: What is a New Yorker?

The question was put to Brander Matthews, the noted critic and author and Professor of English Literature at Columbia University.

Citizenship of Roosevelt

By way of reply, Prof. Matthews took from his bookshelves a copy of "Vignettes of Manhattan," a book he wrote years ago. He opened it at the page containing the dedication. This was a letter to Theodore Roosevelt, a name then unadorned. Offering the book to Mr. Roosevelt, Mr. Matthews said in so many words that the President could not claim to be a New Yorker, because he had been born in Manhattan of a family long established in New York.

"Some of my friends say I'm a more typical New Yorker," remarked Mr. Matthews. "You know, my father was from New England, my mother was a Virginian, and I was born in New Orleans.

"One of the most distinguishing traits of the New Yorker," Mr. Matthews continued, " is his independence of every one and everything outside of his city. He learns all he wants to know about the rest of the world. But he forms his opinions and goes about his business__well, almost as of the rest of the world did not matter. This is because he feels he is at headquarters, where the big things are done.

"I remember at the time of the World's Fair at Chicago, a number of the men who had had most to do with the artistic side of it gave a dinner in the Madison Square Garden concert room. One of the speakers was a man from Chicago, who spent three-quarters of an hour criticizing New York and New Yorkers in the most cutting manner. One thing he said seemed to summarize the whole matter. He remarked: "Foreigners coming to this country, should not repeat the mistake of Columbus and think, when they reach this country and land on one island, that they have seen all of America."

"The attitude of the New Yorker was shown by the way this speech was received. Some men would be offended if such remarks were made of their city. The open-minded New Yorkers laughed at it as a very good joke.

"The spirit is shown again in the way strangers are received here. Do you realize that two of the greatest Speakers in the history of the House of Representatives, Thomas B. Reed and John G. Carlisle, came to New York to live and were utterly lost__no I won't say lost, but thrown into the background for all except their own circle? It was not so much so with Cleveland after he left the White House. He was more of a New Yorker in spirit. "You see this independence of out-siders and the open-mindedness, too, in the daily lives of New Yorkers. A man can live in one house for twenty or twenty-five years and not know his next-door neighbor, or have any personal friends within a half mile of his home. Yet his feeling is not unkindly toward his fellows. His independence and open-mindedness is merely considered the proper thing.

"It's the same way with religion and politics. I do not believe there is a city in the world where the people are more tolerant of the religious views of others. In politics, New Yorkers go into a campaign and work as if their lives depended on it. But how do they act when it's over? Take a crowd like that in Times Square on last Election Night, when the returns came in. Fully one-half of them must have been men on the losing side. Yet they showed nothing but good humor. They seemed to say: 'It's nothing to be angry over; we'll win next time.'"

The chat turned to the foreigner in New York and those New Yorkers who were native-born of foreign parents.

"We have a great deal of these classes," remarked Mr. Matthews, "but people do not stop to think how much the so-called foreigner has done for us. Benjamin Franklin was born in America of foreign parents. Alexander Hamilton was a foreigner by birth and parentage.

So, too, with Agassiz go through the history of the country, and you'll be surprised to find how many of our great men were either foreigners or born here of alien parents."

"Miss Eleanor Glyn, the English author," remarked the reporter, "said recently that she was surprised on coming here to note how foreign-looking the people in the streets were, and how exceptional the Anglo-Saxon type."

"New York is not Anglo-Saxon, and never has been," replied Mr. Matthews. "The settlement and growth of New York may best be compared with a series of waves of different races. Each came against the protests of the people already here. Each was merged with the others, and objected in turn to admitting out-siders.

"First, New York belonged to the Dutch. They objected most strenuously when the English came here. Presently the Dutch and English found they could live in harmony. But they objected, in turn, to the New Englanders when they flocked to New York. The New Englanders objected to the next wave that of the Irishmen. The Irish were very bitter when the great migration of Germans began. Now, I suppose, the Germans are objecting to the Italians and Russians."

"Yet with it all, the city is still American?"

"Our common schools are doing wonderful things in merging the people of the city into one nation," Mr. Matthews replied. "You must also bear in mind that the homes of the foreigners, the so-called slums of New York, are very different from those of other great cities.

"The people in the slums of London and in some of the Italian towns which I have seen are the incompetents, the failures of the nation, literally the dregs of the city. They have little or no ambition, and no hope of lifting themselves out of their squalor. On the other hand, the slums of New York are merely a temporary abode for foreigners while they become Americans. Yes, you might almost call the slums a probation school. The foreigners soon pass from them to better lives and larger homes. Sometimes they do so in the first, nearly always in the second, generation.

"But when all is said, the New Yorker is what he is because he feels he is at headquarters, the city in which the commanding General and his staff live and whence the orders are issued. That is what makes the city so attractive to Americans, especially the multi-millionaires who come here from all parts of the country."

Nationality in Crimes

If there is a man in New York who should know about the foreigners, the criminals, and the make-up of New York generally it is Inspector McCafferty, head of the Detective Bureau. So the reporter sought him out. The Inspector wouldn't talk until ordered, but when the formalities were straightened out in Commissioner Bingham's office Inspector McCafferty said:

"Eighty-five per cent. of the crimes committed in New York are by foreigners__people from Russia, Poland, Roumania, Italy, and the States on the Mediterranean.

"How sum up New York in a word? Well, you'll find the most characteristic thing about it in the continuous vaudeville show going on every day down at Ellis Island."

"How would you describe the make-up of the New Yorker, especially the people on the east side?"

"Well," replied the Inspector, "there's the district east of the Bowery, from Division Street to Fourteenth Street. Once the actors and members of the theatrical profession lived there. Then it was a German colony. Now the people are almost all Polaks.

"From East Broadway to the East River and Catharine Street to Grand Street you would have found the better class of Irish forty years ago. That's where Tweed came from. Now the people there are all Russians, Poles, and Italians.

"There was another Irish settlement twenty-five years ago in the neighborhood of Police Headquarters, in the Fourth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Wards. The Irish have all moved away, and their places have been filled mostly by Greeks and Italians.

"On the lower west side, along West and adjacent streets, there was another Irish stronghold. The Turks, Armenians, and Syrians live there now.

"The old Tenderloin the original and most famous one was in the old Eighth Ward in the 70's and 80's extending from Canal to Fourth Street and along Mercer, Greene, and Wooster Streets. Now the Tenderloin has moved uptown and the streets are lined with business houses.

"The old Ninth Ward, around Hudson Street__old Greenwich has remained practically unchanged. The people there, and all the way up the west side and from Fourteenth to Forty-second Street on the east side, are Irish, Bohemians, and Americans, or Anglo-Saxons, whatever you want to call the native stock.

"The French have small colonies on Wooster, Thompson, and Houston Streets. Most of them, though, live on the west side in the Twenties.

"There is what we call Little Italy on the east side, from 104th to 120th Street, east of Second Avenue, and many negroes on the east side around Ninety-sixth Street, and also near Fifty-ninth Street and Columbus Avenue.

"So you see that in talking about New York you must remember that it is probably the most cosmopolitan city in the world. Nothing in Europe compares with it, not even London or Paris."


Website: The History
Article Name: Question: What Constitutes A New Yorker? 1907 Part I
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The New York Times November 17, 1907
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