The Initial Flood & Those That Came After

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Melvin, his nine siblings and thier parents at 303 South 4th Street. 

As I mentioned earlier, I was very intrigued by what Melvin described as “the initial flood” of Dominicans who came to the States in the late 60s. Why the 60s though? It is mostly owed to a bill called Immigration and Nationality Act.

In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the Hart–Celler Act, was passed. The bill was a radical break from the US’s previous immigration policies. The quota system based on national origins that had been in use for four decades was abolished, visa categories that focused on skills and family relationships with citizens or U.S. residents were created, and immediate relatives of U.S. citizens had no restrictions. The Latin American population in the States boomed following the bill’s passage. So that explains “the initial flood” that Melvin articulated. The Estrellas arrived in New York in 1969 so they were one of many families who were reaping the benefits of this new policy.

Melvin’s parents in many ways represented the American dream. By 1973, his parents owned and ran the first dry cleaners in Williamsburg called, ‘Brothers Cleaners’ on Driggs and North 7th Street. He described his childhood, and growing up in Williamsburg, as overall amazing. But he was careful to emphasize how different things were for him (a kid who came in the 1960s/70s) and those who came after him (1980s/90s). In some ways those who came later had it much easier because of the normalization of speaking Spanish and the establishment of better social services. These new arrivals entered a city that had created new programs and services in response to the post-1965 influx of immigrants, including special immigrant schools, language programs, and translating services in hospitals that were either not available, or less available, to those who came several decades previously. Despite all the services that were available to the families that came after Melvin’s, in many ways these families had it a lot harder. 

Deindustrialization is cited a lot in research surrounding gentrification. It is, more often than not, one of the biggest culprits in a neighborhood going into economic downturn and Williamsburg was certainly no exception. The decline and or relocation of smokestack industries, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and the rise of white-collar professionals in New York City created a kind of sinkhole for the working classes, especially those who resided in Williamsburg which had long been a factory town. These jobs historically offered a path to a better life for immigrants and low skill workers. An individual could get a job on the factory floor, possibly work his way up to management, and provide their dependents. But by the 1980s and 1990s most of the low skill work available in New York had moved to the service sector. The was, and still is, that service-sector jobs have low wages and little security. One would be hard-pressed to find a job in the service sector where one could earn more above the minimum wage. To add onto that, because so many people are paid ‘under the table’, many of these workers earn less than the minimum wage. 

Melvin expressed that those who immigrated after the era that his family did, were not aware of the rapidly shrinking employment opportunities in New York. He explained, “People just kept coming and expecting to find work, but there was no work to be had so many turned to…other means to survive.” For those who are skilled when it comes to recognizing euphemisms, essentially many residents of Williamsburg participated in illegal activity in order to get by. This was also the era that the neighborhood began to become known for its crime and drug use, but still people kept immigrating in the hope to find a better life and continue to do so today. But why though? I like this explanation from Nancy Foner, “In New York City, the continued replenishment of immigrant communities with new members from the home country has created a more welcoming environment for the latest arrivals as compared to their compatriots who came in the early inflow several decades ago.” And perhaps the other reason is that the American dream remains an amorphous intangible, but ever present, object in the psyches of so many people. 


The Initial Flood & Those That Came After