Immigrants & Cities: Mapping Ethnic Enclaves in Early 20th Century United States

June 24, 2015

This resource couples a visual and descriptive map of urban ethnic enclaves with an oral interview by an immigrant growing up in New York City. Its goal is to provide different ways of "mapping" or understanding life for immigrants living in cities at the turn of the century.


In the late-19th and early-20th century, most immigrants to the United States worked and lived in large urban centers such as New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. Employment opportunities in major industries, such as the steel, textile, and construction industries, drew many immigrants to urban centers, where they tended to live in crowded all-immigrant tenement housing. Chain migration, the process through which migrants use familial ties to bring friends and family from their same hometown or region, also facilitated the growth of immigrant neighborhoods. Lax municipal housing regulations, discrimination against migrants, and overcrowding combined to make many of these ethnic enclaves unhealthy, congested, and dangerous.

Starting in the late-19th century, social reformers turned their attention to identifying and alleviating problems particular to migrants working and living in cities in the United States. Residents at Chicago's Hull House, for example, served the Near West Side immigrant community by offering services and classes to help immigrants deal with the perils of urbanization. Founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Star in 1889, the Hull House became one of the best known settlement houses in the United States. While many reformers denounced immigrant enclaves as sites of vice, corruption, and antagonism between immigrant groups, migrants often found support and comfort in such environments, where they were surrounded by familiar languages and traditions.


The following resources show how social reformers and migrants depicted immigrant neighborhoods in the United States during the late-19th and early-20th century.

  1. Map of Chicago's Near West Side ethnic neighborhood, which originally accompanied reports by social reformers on urban problems many immigrants faced, including child labor, poverty, and poor working conditions.
    Chicago Map
    Hull-House Maps and Papers: A Presentation of Nationalities and Wages in a Congested District of Chicago. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1895.

  2. PDF icon"The Mixed Crowd" by social reformer and journalist Jacob Riis describing the poor living conditions of immigrants in New York City's "slums."
    Riis, Jacob. "Chapter Three: The Mixed Crowd." In How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, with 100 photographs from the Jacob A. Riis collection, the Museum of the City of New York, and a new preface by Charles A. Madison . New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1971: 19-25. Originally published in Jacob Riis. How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. New York: Scribner's and Sons, 1890.

Discussion Questions

  1. What migrant groups are represented by the Hull-House Map, and which nationalities predominate? Can you identify any specific residential patterns? What does the Hull House Map tell us about the diversity of Chicago's Near West Side neighborhoods?
  2. How does Jacob Riis' depiction of New York's tenement districts differ from the Hull House Map? How does Riis portray relationships between the immigrant groups?
  3. What social problems related to urbanization do the resources discuss? Hypothesize about today's immigrants. Can you identify shared experiences between immigrants from the turn of the century and more recent arrivals to United States cities?

Suggested Readings

Foner, Nancy. From Ellis Island to JFK: New York's Two Great Waves of Immigration. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2000.

Lissak, Rivka Shpak. Pluralism and Progressivism: Hull House and the New Immigrants, 1890-1919. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.