I usually feel pretty knowledgeable about the immigrant experience. I have a family full of immigrants and emigrants, I worked in refugee resettlement, I teach English, I know about history. But the particular immigrant experience I’m working on is different: the tenements of New York City.
People coming to the state where I live had just about the same amount of space indoors, but they also had a huge, beautiful outdoors. Tenement dwellers lived in darkness like deep sea creatures, getting rickets for lack of sunshine. Look at the diagram below: the white spaces were the sources of light for the people living in these hideous places.
They could go out onto the fire escapes for a bit of air, and they did, but actually going outside was dangerous.
Inside was pretty dangerous, too: pitch-black hallways with no windows at all, most rooms including the kitchen also having no windows or ventilation, no plumbing or garbage pick up. Accidents and illnesses were inevitable.
The diagram shows that there was a school, but immigrant children were likely to be working, not going to school.
I’m trying not to let my sense of horror creep into the lessons too much, and especially not my feeling that it’s an urban horror. You can find plenty of rural horrors, too, after all.
History is smelly, dirty, and uncomfortable. It’s remarkable that people who grew up in these circumstances went ahead and became artists and scientists and productive citizens.
We who live in comfort and luxury, with our health and safety so much more assured, should be able to do amazing things.
Also, don’t listen to people who say that the world is worse than it used to be. Show them pictures like these.