Friday, January 20, 2017

Book Review: CITY OF DREAMS

I was excited about the prospect of reading Tyler Andbinder's City of Dreams. It is billed as the story of 400 years of immigrants making their way in New York City, and since my paternal grandparents were 1907 arrivals at Ellis Island, at the height of Italian immigration to the United States, I was hoping to learn more about the world they arrived at. There is a great deal of information in this book about many interesting subjects that are a part of the immigrant story, from the time it was New Amsterdam (I did not know that the English originally seized it in the 1630's, but handed it back for a time) to my lifetime. I know a lot more about the Tammany years, the divisions caused by the Revolutionary War, the draft riots of the Civil War, the Gilded Age, and the effect of tightened immigration laws of the post World War I era. I learned more than I wanted or needed to know about ethnic enclaves on Manhattan. I learned a bunch of little tidbits that I did not know about politics and society at particular times and places--for instance, what Ellis Island was really like, how much immigrants were preyed upon, how many immigrants returned to home countries, that those put to work in the WPA of the 30's were paid rather poorly so that the projects wouldn't undercut private employers that were hiring, and that Staten Island has never had any appreciable numbers of immigrants.
What I didn't find out was much of anything about the immigrant experience in the outer boroughs. I know my father grew up in a substantial Italian enclave in Canarsie, in Brooklyn, and Canarsie was not once mentioned in a book of nearly 500 pages. I saw nothing of the folk history passed down to me of the conflict between the Irish-dominated police force and the Italian neighborhoods during the first half of the twentieth century. I saw nothing that seemed to reflect my family's experiences.
That doesn't make it a bad book. Just a disappointing one.

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