TeachNYPL: 'New York, Then & Now' Immigration to Washington Heights/Inwood (Gr. 6-8)

By Francesca Burns
November 1, 2013
Fort Washington Library

The story of immigration to America is a rich tapestry whose opposing threads, oddly for how much they reject each other's reality, hang together as one. It outrages us and gives us hope in frighteningly equal measure.

Nowhere is this truer than New York City, a city of extremes in every sense. The community known as Washington Heights/Inwood originally spanned from 135th Street north to the top end of Manhattan Island, surrounded by the Hudson River on the west and the East River with Spuyten Duyvil's deadly currents in between. Its land is the highest ground in Manhattan.

Purchase Of Manhattan Island By Peter Minuit, 1626., Digital ID 808099, NYPL

Lenape tribes utilized it for hunting, fishing and trading, and farmed selected areas near their intermittent settlements. No less than four Revolutionary War era forts graced its expanse. The British overtook the Americans with the help of thousands of Hessian soldiers who lived in the area for years after their initial victory.

In the first piece of immigration legislation, the Alien Naturalization Act, newly "free white" Americans from many countries were declared "citizens" in 1790 if they were deemed of "high moral character" after a period of the first year of residency.

The area remained extremely rural—farms and country estates dotted the landscape until the mid- to late 19th century when the spread of streetcars sprouted five and six story apartment buildings east of Broadway. Ethnic groups crowded out of other areas of the city moved uptown for the greener surroundings and larger apartments. In the 19th century, the Germans, Finns, Scotch and Irish came. Near the turn of the century, the Italians came. During the 1930s and '40s, the German Jews came. In the '50s and '60s, the Greeks, Cubans and Puerto Ricans came. Starting in the mid-sixties and continuing to the present day, the Dominicans came and keep coming.

While small in number, Ecuadoran, Mexican, Russian, Serbian and Syrian immigrants are the newest groups in the area today. The area was been nicknamed "Frankfurt on the Hudson" in the 1930s as well as "Crack City," in the drug-riddled 1980s.

This Grades 6-8 study of immigration through a local lens is designed to challenge students as a CCLS-aligned Social Studies-infused Literacy unit. A variety of non-fiction materials including primary and secondary sources, will give middle school students ample practice in examining and analyzing. Selected short fiction texts show how authors have interpreted and imagined varied perspectives on the immigrant experience. Like the pursuit of most knowledge really worth knowing, there is much ambiguity here:

  • What is home?
  • How is it made or undone?
  • How do our conflicting ideas about what it means to be American complicate, aid and sometimes defeat the efforts of immigrants to prosper?

Other questions to pursue which fit into a more conventional content-driven Social Studies study include:

  • How have immigrants transformed life in New York City?
  • Why did different immigrant groups leave their homelands and come to America?
  • What groups came to Washington Heights, when and why?
  • What was life like for them there?
  • How did race affect them (positives and negatives)?
  • Did they preserve their own cultures or adopt "American" culture or both?

Most importantly for the study to engage students meaningfully: how does this history affect us today? Does our understanding this change our role?

This unit directly ties into the Empire State Information Fluency Continuum Standards as it encourages students to approach their work with the following standards in mind: 'we are thinkers,' 'we are explorers,' and 'we are citizens.'

Shape of the Unit

These resources have been gathered to be a generally rigorous collection for Grades 6-8, with some easier texts included in one of the performance tasks (selected historical fiction) to allow scaffolding for students who need it. In the middle school, these resources and the protocol for analyzing them would be practiced together multiple times with the teacher initially modeling and the students joining in as soon as possible. The process becomes more automatic for the students over the course of the unit. Research sub-skills have been entirely avoided in schools and projects generally encountered have been pre-culled and processed by the teacher who has done the bulk of the work in advance.

A major goal of this 8-10 week unit, is to provide enough repetition of skills to allow students to gain familiarity and mastery beyond the unit itself. Students will explicitly learn the nuances of reading maps vs. images and political cartoons, etc. The genres listed here proceed from maps to images to political cartoons to first-hand accounts. At this point, students read short fiction and some more challenging secondary sources, including a set of charts presenting data on groups within the neighborhood, with some level of detail regarding Washington Heights.

Finally, we will read excerpts from Marc Aronson's Race to get us thinking about how racism in its myriad forms is enmeshed in this history and possible ways to combat it. Performance task choices allow students to expand on their knowledge in whatever format attracts them most.

Primary Sources


Washington Heights in Indian Possession Before 1600, facing p. 1 in Washington Heights Manhattan Its Eventful Past by Reginald Bolton. This map was created by Reginald Pelham Bolton in his 1924 history of the area. Bolton was heavily engaged in preserving artifacts unearthed in all of the public works of his time (predominately laying many roads and digging for the IRT and IND subway lines). Ancient native items and skeletons as well as those from the colonial era began his study of Lenape use and settlement of the area. This map shows that villages were generally located at the highest points, where the farming areas were and the importance of proximity to water. The general geographic features and shape of the neighborhood are quite clearly drawn.

A Plan of the Operations of the King's Army: under the command of General Sr. William Howe, K.B. in New York and East N.... (Feb. 25th, 1777). This map explains some of the earthworks visible in the area today from Revolutionary War forts and shows how prominently this area figured in the war. The full caption of this map is: 'A plan of the operations of the King's army : under the command of General Sr. William Howe, K.B. in New York and East New Jersey, against the American forces commanded by General Washington, from the 12th of October, to the 28th of November 1776, wherein is particularly distinguished the engagement on the White Plains, the 28th of October.'

Part of Section 8 NYC 1911. This map clearly shows many streets as we would recognize their locations today and a few which no longer exist. It also shows existing buildings, some with labels such as named residences andschools. It also shows what materials buildings were made of by color code. The map clearly shows the pattern of construction on the east side of Broadway with minimal building to the west of Broadway especially above 181st Street.

Sectional Aerial Maps of the City of NY, section 8A, 1924. This map shows what the area looked like from the sky, again the huge boom in construction east of Broadway.

Images-Old Images/Photographs of Washington Heights 1780s-1918

181st Street and Broadway: The Bluebell Tavern. This illustration shows a famous colonial tavern located at a current day intersection very familiar to students of the neighborhood.

View from Fort Washington , 1789. This image shows the area which is now a playground between 183rd and 185th Street west of Fort Washington Avenue.

Fort Washington in 1790. Another view of the same familiar area.

Fort Washington Point on a postcard, 1918. Southwest on the Hudson, the location below the Little Red Lighthouse shows a sunny harbor area with several large estate homes.

Political Cartoons 1860s-1900

"The Problem Solved". This political cartoon from the 1860's shows an Irishman and a Chinaman eating Uncle Sam from opposite ends. Then the Chinaman proceeds to eat his Irish counterpart. The fear of large immigrant groups overwhelming America is evident, as is the obvious hatred of the Irish.

"Welcome to All!" From Puck, April 28, 1880, J. Keppler expresses the promise of America to many immigrant groups.

"Uncle Sam is a Man of Strong Features". From Judge, Nov. 26th, 1888, Grant Hamilton presents the face of Uncle Sam composed of the bodies of diverse immigrant groups.

"The Mortar of Assimilation and the One Element That Won't Mix". From Puck, June 26, 1889, C.J. Taylor shows us Lady Liberty mixing a pot of tiny, much-caricatured immigrants. The only one not stirred in is the Irishman, pictured as a dark, possibly drunk, monkey who wields a bloody knife and Irish flag aloft.


"The American Patriot" Broadside. From 1852, this image shows how some Native born Americans resented the presence of immigrants and sought to expel them from the nation. Particularly of note is how opposed they were to religions differing from Anglican Christian.

First-hand Accounts

"First Hand Accounts of Scenes at Ellis Island". From a variety of individuals who recorded their impressions of scenes of immigrants arriving and being processed through Ellis Island.

"The German Jews of Washington Heights: An Oral History Project". This small booklet chronicles the work of local adolescents in 1986 to record the stories of German Jewish residents of their neighborhood. The interviews are moving yet extremely easy to read and show some diversity in the German-Jewish population. While middle class (which some maintained through relocation but most did not), they were not all intellectual city dwellers. Many were cattle herders from rural locales. Easily excerpted but only available when requested for use on site at in the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue.

"We Were So Beloved: The Autobiography of a German Jewish Community" this book was first a movie of the same title. It is a treasure trove of entertaining and heartbreaking stories of these refugees, how they came to Washington Heights, what they encountered and their struggles and triumphs as they forged new lives. Easily excerpted.

Annual Reports of the Librarians of the Fort Washington Avenue Branch, 1914-1989. These annual reports from both Head and Children's Room Librarians at the Washington Heights branch as well as the Fort Washington branch reflect the changing demographics of the neighborhood as well as what was in demand on the shelves. Colorfully written, they paint pictures of the mood of each era. Easily excerpted but only available in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Division of the Fifth Avenue branch of the New York Public Library.

Dominican Teenage Girl in the 1980s Reflecting on Assimilation and Clashes with the Older Generation. Two page reflection on growing up Dominican and wanting to fit into American society in the 1980s, Washington Heights.

Secondary Sources

Excerpts from:

Shutting Out the Sky: Life in the Tenements of New York, 1880-1924. Non-fiction. Lexile 990. Photographs and text document the experiences of five individuals who came to live in the Lower East Side of New York City as children or young adults from Belarus, Italy, Lithuania, and Romania at the turn of the twentieth century

"Dominicans". Four-page entry in this encyclopedia of American immigrant groups gives a condensed history of Dominican immigration and unique dual-nation status.

Pick & Shovel Poet By Jim Murphy. Biography—Italian to Brooklyn. A biography of an Italian peasant who immigrated to America in the early twentieth century and endured poverty and the difficult life of an unskilled laborer, determined to become a published poet.

"Shifting Patterns of Immigration Add New Flavor to the City's Melting Pot" by John L. Hess. New York Times, Sept 25, 1972.

"Immigration Hurts the City, New Yorkers Say in Poll" By Robert D. McFadden New York Times, Oct 18, 1993; pg. B4. This article frames the immigrant experience New York City in the aftermath of the first World Trade Center bombings in 1993.

Race: A History Beyond Black and White by Marc Aronson LEXILE 1090L.This book is extremely thorough, dense and sophisticated. A very engaging and controversial history of racial prejudice. Excerpts of this book might be used as a final stop in the unit, asking students to examine race and class and prejudice in the neighborhood/city/nation.

The New York Irish, this thorough and densely written work devotes an entire chapter (Chapter 4) to the Irish in Washington Heights/Inwood, telling the age-old tale of the poor and working class influx, gradual stability in employment and housing, moves from the southern end of the neighborhood to the northern and from the eastside to the west. Eventually, the burgeoning middle class pours out to the suburbs—upstate, in New Jersey or Long Island—as other poor immigrant groups came in. This sets the pattern followed by virtually every group including the majority group in the neighborhood currently, the Dominicans.

Short Fiction Texts

The Witch of Fourth Street and Other Stories by Myron Levoy. Lexile 840L. These are traditional short stories which require readers to infer theme. Sentences are fairly long and the author is fond of metaphors and some uncommon words/phrases. Some themes carry across stories and immigrant characters in a variety of occupations fade in and out through the tales as they all live in the same few blocks of the Lower East Side. Several stories also mix elements of fantasy.

The Boy without A Flag by Abraham Rodriguez. Short historical fiction—1980s South Bronx. A collection of raw short stories about growing up in el barrio of the South Bronx.


The Arrival by Shaun Tan. Graphic Novel. In this wordless graphic novel, a man leaves his homeland and sets off for a new country, where he must build a new life for himself and his family.

The Friends By Rosa Guy. Storical fiction—Caribbean immigration to Harlem. Lexile 730L. A girl from Barbados comes to New York City and is appalled at the poverty surrounding her in Harlem. She judges her surroundings and classmates in school until she makes a friend who helps support her through the loss of her mother and her difficult relationship with her strict father.

One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping: The Diary of Julie Weiss by Barry Denenberg Historical fiction—Austrian Jewish. Lexile 950L. Fleeing the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Austria, twelve-year-old Julie escapes to America to live with her relatives in New York City. She is torn between sorrow at leaving her family and the joy of her success performing on Broadway.

Goodbye, Vietnam By Gloria Whelan. Historical fiction, Vietnam. Lexile 810L. Thirteen-year-old Mai and her family embark on a dangerous sea voyage from Vietnam to Hong Kong to escape the unpredictable and often brutal Vietnamese government.

Inside Out & Back Again By Thanhha Lai. Historical fiction—Vietnam. Lexile 800L. Through a series of poems, a young girl chronicles the life-changing year of 1975, when she, her mother, and her brothers leave Vietnam and resettle in Alabama.

Shooting Kabul By N.H. Senzai. Current historical fiction—Afghanistan. Lexile 800L. Escaping from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in the summer of 2001, eleven-year-old Fadi and his family immigrate to the San Francisco Bay Area, where Fadi schemes to return to the Pakistani refugee camp where his little sister was accidentally left behind.

Katerina's Wish By Jeannie Mobley. Historical fiction—Germany to Western US. Lexile 780L. Thirteen-year-old Trina's family left Bohemia for a Colorado coal town to earn money to buy a farm, but by 1901 she doubts that either hard work or hoping will be enough, even after a strange fish seems to grant her sisters' wishes.

The Day of the Pelican By Katherine Paterson. Historical fiction—Albania. Lexile 770L. In 1998, when the Kosovo hostilities escalate, Meli's life as an ethnic Albanian changes forever after her brother escapes his Serbian captors and their family flees from one refugee camp to another until they can get to America.

Drita, My Homegirl by Jenny Lombard. Realistic fiction—Albanian & African-American. Lexile 690L. For younger readers. A poignant story about the difficulties of leaving everything behind and the friendships that help you get through it. Fleeing war-torn Kosovo, ten-year-old Drita and her family move to America with the dream of living a typical American life. But with this hope comes the struggle to adapt and fit in. How can Drita find her place at school and in her new neighborhood when she doesn't speak any English?

Star in the Forest By Laura Resau. Realistic fiction—Mexican-American. Lexile 780L. After eleven-year-old Zitlally's father is deported to Mexico, she takes refuge in her trailer park's forest of rusted car parts, where she befriends a spunky neighbor and finds a stray dog that she nurses back to health and believes she must keep safe so that her father will return.

Kira-kira By Cynthia Kadohata. Realistic fiction—Japanese-American. LEXILE 740 but mature content. Chronicles the close friendship between two Japanese-American sisters growing up in rural Georgia during the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the despair when one sister becomes terminally ill. Kira-kira (kee' ra kee' ra): glittering; shining Glittering. That's how Katie Takeshima's sister, Lynn, makes everything seem. The sky is kira-kira because its color is deep but see-through at the same time. The sea is kira-kira for the same reason. And so are people's eyes. When Katie and her family move from a Japanese community in Iowa to the Deep South of Georgia, it's Lynn who explains to her why people stop them on the street to stare. And it's Lynn who, with her special way of viewing the world, teaches Katie to look beyond tomorrow. But when Lynn becomes desperately ill, and the whole family begins to fall apart, it is up to Katie to find a way to remind them all that there is always something glittering—kira-kira—in the future. Luminous in its persistence of love and hope, Kira-Kira is Cynthia Kadohata's stunning debut in middle-grade fiction.

Common Core State Standards for this Texts and Task Unit

English Language Arts:

R.L.6-8.1 Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.R.L. 6-8.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.R.I. 6-8.1 Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.R.I. 6-8.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.R.I. 6-8.6 Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author acknowledges and responds to conflicting evidence or viewpoints.W.6-8.1 Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence

History/Social Studies: Reading History

R.H.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.RH.6-8.6 Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author's point of view or purpose (i.e., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular texts).RH.6-8.7 Integrate visual information (i.e. in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.WHST.6-8.1 Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.Historical Thinking Skills (WTS): Students will be able to analyze cause-and-effect relationships

Want to use these texts in the Classroom?

The above documents and texts are compiled in NYPL Classroom Connections Texts & Tasks Unit - for Common Core Lesson Plans: Immigration to Washington Heights/Inwood Gr. 6-8 (PDF). This Texts and Task unit can be used for lesson planning or to supplement and enhance current lessons. This Texts and Tasks Unit includes information on text complexity, text dependent questions, and recommended performance tasks for a Common Core State Standards-aligned Social Studies infused English Language Arts (ELA) unit.

Immigration Washington Heights/Inwood: Texts & Tasks Unit for Common Core lesson planning (click to view downloadable PDF)

Final Focus

"The happy and powerful do not go into exile, and there are no surer guarantees of equality among men than poverty and misfortune." –Alexis De Toqueville, Democracy in America

"The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources—because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples." –Lyndon B. Johnson (p. 87 in Debating American Immigration, 1882-Present)

"These days, it feels to me like you make a devil's pact when you walk into this country. You hand over your passport at the check-in, you get stamped, you want to make a little money, get yourself started... but you mean to go back! Who would want to stay? Cold, wet, miserable; terrible food, dreadful newspapers - who would want to stay? In a place where you are never welcomed, only tolerated. Just tolerated. Like you are an animal finally house-trained." –Zadie Smith, White Teeth

"People come here penniless but not cultureless. They bring us gifts. We can synthesize the best of our traditions with the best of theirs. We can teach and learn from each other to produce a better America…" -Mary Pipher, The Middle of Everywhere: The World's Refugees Come to Our Town

So many perspectives to take in along the course of this journey.

On the occasion of the 97th anniversary of the founding of the Washington Heights Free Library, this poem was displayed on the back cover of the program:

Living on the Heights
We are Washington Heights—
Hilltop community
Famed for taking the high ground
Like General Washington
Who headquartered this roof top of Manhattan
To keep our fort city free.
We see all points of the compass
And welcome all to our island heights
For wider views and bigger skies
Point new directions for
Bringing everyone together.

Living on the level plain
Is not for heights dwellers
Who make their own traditions
By taking the high ground of every problem
As a chance to improve living for all—
This is living on the heights.

-J. Lennon

While I have been unable to verify or deny its authenticity, I would like students to reflect on what they think of the point of view this poem puts forward. As this story unfolds, how are we woven into it and how might we direct its evolving pattern?

Additional Resources for Further Reading:

Immigration, Then and Now: Immigration to Washington Heights, NYC Grades 6-8 Expanded booklist from this blog post with recommended primary and secondary source materials - all available at the NYPL.

NYC Booklists: What Were New Yorkers Reading in 1882? inspired by the novel, Time and Again by Jack Finney, this resource describes the newspaper articles, headlines, novels, and popular nonfiction read, and published in January 1882. An comprehensive snapshot of the literary and cultural environment at the time. A more modern booklist - We Are New Yorkers: Immigrant Memoirs and Biographies compiled by the NYPL Mid-Manhattan Library.

Online Exhibits: (A) Exhibits from the NYPL including Immigrant City: Online Exhibit - the history, documents, and people of New York City - from 1609 to Present (includes lesson plans); (B) Exhibits from the New York Historical Society Online Exhibitions with corresponding curriculum materials on such topics as: Lincoln and New York, the Great New York Debate over the Constitution 1787-1788New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War; (C) Information and Exhibits from DiMenna Children's History Museum – including profiles of famous and notable New Yorkers.

New York, Then & Now: Additional study guides and resources from the New York Public Library including: (1) East Harlem Study Guide (downloadable PDF guide with primary and secondary sources - includng census records, text dependent questions and more tools for teaching); (2) Lower East Side Study Guide (downloadable PDF guide with primary and secondary sources - including census records, text dependent questions and more tools for teaching); (3) Grace Aguilar's American Journey: A Common Core-aligned Research Experience (teacher created content - includes Texts and Task Unit on NYC in the Progressive Era plus information on the NYPL Aguilar Library and how it came to be named after Grace Aguilar)

Feel free to add additional reading suggestions, lesson plans, and other educational resources in the comments below. 

Francesca Burns has taught Literacy in New York City public schools since 1989. She enjoys the thinking, joy and dilemmas that come with reading and writing with adolescents on a daily basis. At home, she loves to cook and relax with her daughters, Eva and Leila, husband Mike and dog, Jax.