v27-1 Voices from Edgewater: Immigration Then and Now
By Dorothy Nygren
The history of our country, our city, and our community is one of immigration. In 1790 Jean Baptiste Point duSable, a Haitian of African descent and his Potawatomi Indian wife built a cabin at the mouth of the Chicago River. With the passage of time Chicago became a destination for diverse groups of immigrants. In Edgewater, the first permanent non-native settlers came from Luxembourg and Germany in the 1840s establishing market farms and greenhouses.
From these early beginnings Edgewater became one of the most significant ports of entry for immigrants in Chicago as it grew into a vibrant community which embraced its diversity. Since 1950, Edgewater has outpaced both national and city percentages for immigrants. Over the years Edgewater’s immigration demographics have changed and our community is now home to immigrants from nearly 100 countries making up about one third of the population.
Why would people leave their home countries and settle in Edgewater? What factors contribute to Edgewater’s preeminence as an immigrant destination? As you explore the rich history of Edgewater’s immigrants presented in our current exhibition at the museum think about why Edgewater has been – and continues to be – so attractive to immigrants.
1840-1890: Early Edgewater Settlers
The first wave of immigration to the United States was largely from western and northern European countries. Direct federal regulation of immigration began only in 1875 with a law that prohibited entry of prostitutes and convicts. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 not only barred Chinese people. It also excluded persons convicted of political offenses and those likely to become public charges, as well as placing a head tax on immigrants.
In Edgewater, Luxembourger and German immigrants arrived with enough assets to purchase land and establish market farms. Luxembourger Nicholas Kransz acquired 120 acres on the east side of Clark Street from Ardmore to Devon Avenue. Through intermarriage with other immigrants the Kransz family amassed significant amounts of property that they farmed before turning to other economic activities, such as banking, insurance and real estate. Their story is typical of immigrants from other northern European countries who helped develop Edgewater before it was annexed to Chicago in 1889. By that time these settlers had created a community with churches, social clubs, and other organizations that welcomed new immigrants.
1885-1939: Prosperity & Depression
The second wave of immigration nationwide came from southern and eastern Europe peaking in the first decade of the 20th century. By then, there were almost as many Swedes living in Chicago as Stockholm. World War I and the subsequent Great Depression practically ended European immigration. The concept of national origins, defined in 1924, established a preferential quota system, limiting the annual number of immigrants who could be admitted from any country to 2% of the number of people from that country who were already living in the United States, restricted the immigration of Africans and banned outright the immigration of Arabs and Asians.
Edgewater became a destination for Swedish, German, Russian, Canadian and Irish immigrants. A number of German Jews settled in the eastern portion, while many Scandinavians settled in the southwestern corner, an area that later became known as Andersonville. A typical immigrant of this time was Oscar Carlson who left Sweden in 1903 at the age of twenty-three with his tool chest seeking his fortune. He found employment in Chicago as a cabinet maker and, in 1910, established his own cabinet making business at 5207 N. Broadway. By 1926 Edgewater was a well established community offering immigrants a growing network of resources such as affordable housing stock, good transportation and economic opportunities.
1939-1965: Post War Patterns
In 1939 isolationism prompted Congress to vote against admitting a larger number of immigrants. However, 1943 legislation provided for the importation of agricultural workers from North, South, and Central America, essentially beginning a migrant worker program. In 1944 President Roosevelt signed an executive order creating a War Refugee Board to rescue victims of enemy oppression in imminent danger of death. Immigration to the United States increased due to people fleeing from the bloodshed and chaos of World War II, which brought many central and eastern Europeans. The Displaced Persons Act, passed in 1948, authorized for a limited period of time the admission into the United States of certain European displaced persons for permanent residence. Then in 1952 Congress combined multiple laws into one comprehensive statute. This reaffirmed the national origin quota system; established preferences for skilled workers and relatives of U.S. citizens; focused on excluding immoral, diseased, and politically radical individuals; and provided for the deportation of immigrants and naturalized citizens suspected of subversive activities.
Displaced persons and refugees escaping persecution in their homelands swelled Edgewater’s foreign-born population. During the ‘50s and ‘60s, Greeks, Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Japanese and Korean immigrants found a home in Edgewater. Census data reveal Edgewater leading national and city percentages in foreign born residents. With the redevelopment of lower density housing into high-rise and mid-rise structures, which greatly expanded the number of available and affordable dwelling units, the area east of Broadway became more reflective of the striking diversity of Edgewater’s immigrants.
1965-1990: Changing the Rules
The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act removed the racial restrictions on immigration by establishing a new policy based on a seven-category preference system. This policy dramatically changed the demographic makeup of the American population. The third wave of immigration consisted largely of Asians, together with some Latin Americans.
Immigrants are mainly people who choose to leave their countries of origin to seek better economic opportunities. Refugees, as defined by the 1980 Refugee Act, are those pushed out of their homelands due to political, religious, tribal or ethnic persecution. This act created a new definition based on the United Nations Convention and Protocol on the Status of Refugees, provided systematic procedures for admission, and authorized federal assistance for resettlement and absorption. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act was a comprehensive reform effort designed to combine “amnesty” with tighter border enforcement and practical restrictions for employing undocumented workers. As thankful immigrant Dealina Peon (Cuba) tells it “I am very proud of my heritage and, as well, I am very proud that I am living in the United States. The United States opened a door for me. They didn’t have to, but they did. And they gave me the opportunity of being in this country, serve this society the best that I could, and, like I said, I feel at home.”
Conflicts in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Africa have resulted in a huge increase in immigration from these countries. Refugees from the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Syria arrived in Edgewater. They joined an ever expanding immigrant population, including Vietnamese, Thais and other Asians. Many Assyrians, Nigerians, Bosnians and Ethiopians also found a home here. Unlike many other areas in Chicago, Edgewater has been particularly receptive to these newcomers. Immigrants have settled throughout all nine census tracts in Edgewater. Patrick Augustin (Haiti) offers this perspective “The Edgewater community is one that I can always count on. Refugees are good people, hard working individuals, who have been through trauma, and have lost everything. All they want is to be given the opportunity and the assistance to begin their life in their new society.”
1990-present: New Perspectives
The Immigration Act of 1990 constituted a major revision in immigration law. Its primary focus was on increasing total overall immigration, as well as a revised preference system regulating permanent legal immigration to increase skilled labor positions in the United States. Other aspects included revising the English language testing process for naturalization and eliminating the exclusion of homosexuals. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 adopted stronger penalties against undocumented immigrants. In 2014 President Obama signed two executive orders that applied to parents of U.S. citizens and to young people brought into the U.S. illegally, effectively delaying deportation for millions. Since then Congress continues to struggle with the issue of people entering the U.S. under other circumstances. Public perceptions and values continue to dominate the national dialogue on immigration reform.
By 2000 Chicago was the third major destination for immigrants to the U.S. with the percentage of foreign born at almost twice the national average. Edgewater was the leading port of entry for immigrants in the city. Five refugee agencies near Edgewater help people resettle. Edgewater also offers them excellent transportation and a range of affordable housing stock. Community organizations, both religious and secular, have emerged to welcome immigrants and to respond to social-justice issues they encounter. Recent immigrant Renata Stowasser (Austria) describes the process of coming to Edgewater. “The first thing that happens when you go somewhere else, you will tend to always be considered not from here and you have to learn to deal with that… I think that we all need to be friends, and we have to ask questions, and not pass judgment. We can find out a lot.” Suhair Jascevicius (Palestine) gives some advice on how to move from one country to another. “I would say take what you like and leave the rest. So I took what’s the best, I think, from my culture and I took from what is the best from the American culture and I made it my own. Sometimes, some people make me feel that I am not American. I am not criticizing this country because I don’t like this country; I criticize it because it’s my country.” It is this sense of ownership and allegiance that makes an immigrant an active participant in their new home.
Over the years, Edgewater’s immigration demographics have changed as the mix evolves. The acceptance and celebration of diversity is the hallmark of our community. We see it in the rich cultural heritage all around us. As the influx of immigrants from all over the world continues, how will Edgewater continue to welcome them and respond to a need for support that is greater than ever?