We Built This City: Immigrant Labor & The Fight for a Democratic New York

April 12, 2013

HTC President Peter Ward joined esteemed Irish Consul General Noel Kilkenny as a speaker at the March 27th, 2013 St. Patricks Day Celebration banquet, hosted by NYC Department of Records and O'Dwyer & Bernstien, LLP in honor of New York's Irish Labor Force.

As Peter Ward celebrated the legacy of Irish labor he also cautioned that the "human, legal and social institutions" that Irish and other immigrant laborers helped build over the last century are under attack. Today, he said, labor has a responsibility to protect the public education system, public university system, public parks and all the other institutions that are the pillars of a democratic New York City. Peter closed his speech reminding the audience that the fight that Irish and other immigrant workers started over a century ago to ensure that New York "belongs to its people" is nowhere near over.

The full text of the speech is below.

"The theme of tonight's banquet is 'We Built this City.' Given how breathtaking a work that was, this is quite a claim, and one worthy of the well-known modesty of the Irish. There is nothing wrong with a little honest hyperbole and though the Irish certainly had some help doing the job, from a lot of other people, there is no disputing the fact that Irish workers played a huge and vital role in building this city.

In 1825, the opening of the Erie Canal, which was built by a majority Irish workforce, destined New York for greatness, making it the commercial center of the United States. Between 1810 and 1910, the city's population more than doubled every twenty years, growing from 96,000 to 4.7 million. Fortunately for New York, that period coincided with the great waves of emigration from Ireland, providing the city fathers with a large and desperate workforce ready to be exploited on a massive scale.

When the Irish first arrived in large numbers, New York was a primitive city. Public sanitation was dismal. In the 1830's, the city stank so badly that travelers could smell it from six miles off. New York was repeatedly decimated by cholera and yellow fever epidemics. The city had no adequate water supply, and people drank from polluted wells. The houses were tinder boxes and there was no reliable fire department. One fire alone in 1835 destroyed the southeastern part of Manhattan.

Between 1837 and 1842, using mostly Irish labor, New York City built the Croton dam and aqueduct, which provided New York with fresh, clean water. That was the start of the magnificent water system which today is the envy of municipalities all over the world.

More than half the workforce that built the Brooklyn Bridge were Irish. The Irish also built Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park. Irish workers largely did the low-paid, dangerous, backbreaking and despised work of digging and building the subway system which even today is one of the city's most important economic arteries. The tunnels, the streets, the bridges, the sewers, and so many of the buildings that sprang up from the woods and farms of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens are all here thanks to Irish workers.

But building the city entailed much more than constructing its infrastructure. Institutions like professional police, fire and sanitation departments also had to be built as the city grew in size and complexity. And of course, the Irish served in those roles with legendary distinction.

The economic heart of New York was its great seaport, and most of the city's dockworkers were Irish as well.

In 1855, the Irish were 80% of New York City's laborers. They heaved coal, hauled carts, dug ditches, and worked in the factories.

Roughly half of the Irish workforce in New York were women. Because of the devastating effect of the famine on Irish families, far more single women emigrated from Ireland than from other countries. And these Irish women were the ones who cooked and cleaned for New York's upper and middle classes. And many worked as room attendants in the city's inns.

Despite the essential contribution they were making to this city, New York did not welcome the Irish. We all have heard the stories about the "No Irish Need Apply" signs posted in shop windows, but the sheer hatred and prejudice Irish immigrants encountered here was much worse than that.

The Irish were vilified as racially inferior subhumans by the so-called native Americans of New York. The mainstream press commonly depicted the faces of Irish people with ape- or dog-like features, and many articles were written using pseudo-science to demonstrate that the Irish were of a lower order. The Irish were often described as 'brutes,' 'criminal,' 'lazy,' 'prone to degeneracy,' and 'white negroes.'

President Teddy Roosevelt called Irish Catholics 'of the first generation...low, venal, corrupt, and unintelligent brutes.'

The Chicago Post commented: 'Scratch a convict or a pauper and chances are that you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic. Putting them on a boat and sending them home would end crime in this country.'

A well-known historian, Edward Freeman wrote of America in 1881: 'This would be a grand land if only every Irishman would kill a Negro, and be hanged for it.'

In the 1850's, 55% of all the people arrested in New York City were Irish. In the 1880's, the Irish constituted 56% of those sent to prison, and 70% of those committed to Bellevue.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, New York City was what some misguided or forgetful individuals today might call a free market paradise. It was a place where taxes, house servants and factory workers were dirt cheap. It was a place where politicians licked the boots of the rich and government did not interfere with business. Believe it or not, this did not prove to be a blessing for most people in New York.

The truth is that New York City was not a land of opportunity where a man or woman could advance themselves through hard work alone. Immigrants, including the Irish, and African Americans were relegated to dirty crowded slums, and a life of cruel drudgery for barely subsistence pay.

So, we need to remember that, besides hard work, it also took a lot of fighting to build this city.

Our immigrant grandparents and great grandparents understood this. They organized unions. They struck. They marched. They made noise. They caused trouble. They kicked out politicians who ignored their interests. And they demanded radical reforms and regulation. They completely changed the social order in New York.

The Irish played an important part in that essential aspect of the building of our city. They brought with them from Ireland, tactics like the strike and the boycott, and a tradition of solidarity and rebellion, forged by many years of struggle against the horrors of British capitalism.

Together, the lower classes in New York, mostly immigrants, including the Irish, forced the city to adopt building regulations, health regulations, fire regulations, labor regulations, and to build a bureaucracy to enforce them. They built a great public school system and a first class city university, funded entirely by taxes levied progressively, providing immigrant children with an excellent free education. They built public hospitals that served all the people. They built parks for everyone to enjoy, paid for by taxes, and controlled by the city government, not by private so-called "conservancies." They built decent public housing, and swimming pools, and playgrounds.

They demanded and won from employers, high wages, 8 hour days, 5 day weeks, vacations, tenure and due process, overtime pay, free healthcare, and pensions, and they insisted that the city have a high quality civil service working for all the people, and compensated and treated fairly.

That was how New York was built, by hard work, certainly, but just as importantly, by fighting to ensure that the city would belong to its people and not to a few great land owners, like the lords and ladies the Irish had to escape back in Ireland.

Unbelievably, today, with high-handed contempt for the lessons of history, some seriously wish to dismantle that city we built, if not brick by brick, then by demolishing the human, legal and social institutions the people of New York depend on. They want to take us back to the nineteenth century. They want to destroy public education, deregulate business, divest the people of the right to bargain collectively, prevent us from organizing politically and protesting effectively, turn the working middle class into a fond memory, and return absolute control to the super-wealthy.

If we allow them to do it, then shame on us. My father was an Irish American, born poor in Brooklyn, who succeeded in the city our grandparents and great grandparents worked and fought to build. He always told me that I should never forget where I came from. I knew he didn't mean our neighborhood of Marine Park and he didn't mean Ireland. He meant that I came from working people and immigrants who had to struggle against prejudice and great adversity. The Irish should never forget where we came from because that is who we are.

As I'm sure many of you would agree, when I look at those black and white pictures of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island from many countries, I don't see the inferior subhumans that many of the so-called native Americans saw. I see heroes and heroines with courage and determination, ready to work and fight for a better future. They gave us the right to say 'We Built this City.' That's how I think of my grandparents and great grandparents.

And they are still coming. The pictures are now in color. The clothing and the luggage is different. They arrive at JFK, not Ellis Island, but they are no different than our grandparents and great grandparents. They bring with them the same courage and determination, and they too face persecution, prejudice and vicious exploitation.

Like our grandparents and great grandparents, they came here to build a life and a legacy for themselves that their children's children will look back on with pride. Our future, and the future of this great city are inexorably tied to them. They are also who we are.

So when we say 'We Built this City,' let us remember two things: first, that the word 'we' includes all the working people of New York, from Europe, Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas; and second, that the work of building this city, and the fight to ensure that it belongs to its people are far from finished."