Top 10 Immigration and Migration-related Sites in NYC

by Joseph McKeown and Victoria Spagnolo


Immigration Station, Ellis Island from the early 20th Century.  From The New York Public Library .

Immigration Station, Ellis Island from the early 20th Century. From The New York Public Library.

New York City is one of the most diverse places in the world with a rich cultural and immigrant heritage. For those looking to learn more about the city’s (and nation’s) immigration and migration history—including both voluntary and forced migration—we recommend ten locations to visit. We have included both well-known and off-the-radar spots.

Ellis Island 

Ellis Island, of course, is one of the most famous sites for the history of immigration in the United States. Twelve million immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island while it operated as an immigrant processing station from 1892 to 1924. Now a 27.5-acre site located just minutes off the southern tip of Manhattan Island, Ellis Island serves as a historical landmark where visitors can visit the former immigration station to enjoy its exhibits on the history of American immigration and global migration patterns as well as its galleries and interactive kiosks that explore first-hand accounts of the earliest immigrants’ journeys and the challenges and opportunities immigrants face today.

At the American Family Immigration History Center, visitors can access immigrant arrival records and other archives dating back to the 1820s that may help inform one’s own family story. Walking through the Grand Hall, with its mosaic tiles and tall windows and with the Statue of Liberty in the near distance, is an impressive and moving experience that we highly recommend, especially for those who can trace their ancestors’ arrival through the island.  

Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration
Statue of Liberty National Monument

New York, NY 10004

Castle Garden

Castle Garden, which now serves as a ticket booth and gateway for Ellis and Liberty Island trips, is an important immigration site in its own right. Originally built as a fort to protect Manhattan against a possible British attack in the war of 1812, it is America’s first immigration processing center and saw approximately eight million immigrants pass through. From 1855 to 1890, Castle Garden (now known as Castle Clinton) served as an immigration center where the large numbers of European immigrants who were arriving in America could receive lodging and travel information, medical attention, and honest currency exchange.

Castle Garden closed as an immigration center in 1890, shortly before the federal government transferred immigration processing to Ellis Island. Reopening later as an aquarium, the repurposed Castle Garden drew 30,000 people to look at creatures from nearby waters, and soon the aquarium had species from around the globe. In 1946, the aquarium closed, and the structure was saved from destruction only by the work of concerned citizens who were able to classify the building as a national monument in 1946.  

Castle Clinton National Monument
Battery Park
New York, NY 10004

Museum of Chinese in America

Located in NYC’s historic Chinatown, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) is dedicated to preserving Chinese history and culture as well as many facets of the Chinese American experience. The museum provides a vast collection of Chinese American art work, photos, memorabilia, oral histories, documents, and artifacts with the dual mission of fostering a deeper understanding of and appreciation for Chinese culture as well as building and maintaining a dialogue among people of different cultural backgrounds. From its exhibitions to its educational programs, MOCA tells the unvarnished story of Chinese immigrants, including the racism, marginalization, and stereotypes that many have encountered.

Past exhibitions include those on the medicine that Chinese immigrants brought to the US and a photography collection documenting the street life and domestic scenes of Chinatown during a time when NY was experiencing a new wave of immigrants from Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong. Currently on display is an exhibit titled, “With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America,” that offers a chronological journey of Chinese migration and settlement in the United States.

Museum of Chinese in America
215 Centre St.
New York, NY 10013-3601

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

The Schomburg Center for Research forms an important part of the network of research and branch libraries of The New York Public Library. Founded in 1925 and named a National Historical Landmark in 2017, the Center serves as the world’s foremost cultural institution in the field of African American and African Diasporic Studies. Its wide-ranging collection contains library materials in five collection divisions: Art and Artifacts; Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books; Moving Image and Recorded Sound; Photographs and Prints; and the Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division. The Center also hosts a number of public events and exhibitions, which have included, “In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience,” which featured twenty-eight full-color framed panels with image reproductions, maps, and text that explored how voluntary, forced migration, and slavery impacted African Americans between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
515 Malcolm X Boulevard
New York, NY, 10037

El Museo del Barrio

El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem is one of New York’s most prominent Latino cultural institutions, providing a broad range of collections, exhibits, and programs on Latino, Caribbean, and Latin American cultures. The museum’s name is a nod to its site’s immigrant history: the area surrounding the museum became known as El Barrio (Spanish for “neighborhood”) after the arrival of a number of Puerto Ricans to the area. Before that, it was home to immigrant groups from Germany, Ireland, and Italy. Today, the neighborhood remains primarily Latino but has evolved through an ever-changing influx of inhabitants, with immigrants from Mexico, Korea, Dominican Republic, Haiti, China, Central America, and South America.

In the 1960s, a group of African American and Puerto Rican parents of Central and East Harlem urged the school district to provide their children with an education that acknowledged their diverse cultural backgrounds. In response, artist and educator Raphael Montañez Ortiz was commissioned to create educational materials and cultural enrichment programs for the district. Instead, he founded El Museo as a homage to the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States. Now serving as a place to commemorate all Caribbean and Latin American cultures, El Museo exhibits a broad collection of artworks related to key historical figures as well as social and political movements, many of which are tied to on-going challenges immigrants and migrants have faced. El Museo also hosts a series of cultural activities, educational programs, and neighborhood tours to showcase the cultural diversity of El Barrio. 

El Museo del Barrio
1230 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10029
  

Tenement Museum

In the 1840s, the Port of New York served as a major entry point for migrants all around the world with most newcomers permanently residing in New York. Many of these migrants lived in tenement buildings, where working class and immigrants lived in overcrowded apartments that often lacked adequate amenities and sanitation. Reconstructing the apartments and businesses of actual past residents and merchants on Orchard Street with historical accuracy, the Tenement Museum provides a truly immersive experience of what life was like for immigrants in Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the late 19th and 20th centuries. The Museum offers guided tours and exhibits on a range of issues affecting immigrant populations throughout New York’s history, and, regardless of their backgrounds, visitors are inevitably able to find some connection to these immigrants and their stories.  The tour guides at the Tenement Museum are especially knowledgeable and informed, and do a great job of leading the tour groups in discussions about key issues surrounding the exhibits.

Tenement Museum
103 Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002

Eldridge Street Synagogue 

The wave of immigrants arriving in Manhattan’s Lower East side in the 19th and 20th century included over 60,000 immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe. Fleeing from persecution, political discrimination, and economic hardship, many Jewish people arrived in the United States with a strong desire to live independent and free lives. By 1887, Jewish migrants constructed the Eldridge Street Synagogue, one of the first great houses of worship in the US that served as a beautiful sanctuary for the those who lived in the surrounding area. Today, as part of a vibrant Chinatown, the synagogue and now museum stands as a remnant of Jewish migration to the Lower East Side. With its impressive façade combining Gothic, Moorish, and Romanesque elements and its striking stained-glass windows, the synagogue and museum  contains a permanent collection of Jewish ritual objects, Yiddish signs, archival documents, photographs, excerpts from oral histories, and artifacts from the building’s twenty-year restoration, as well as interactive displays on Jewish history and immigration history. The museum encourages diversity and openness, welcoming people of all cultures and faiths.

Eldridge Street Synagogue
12 Eldridge Street
New York, NY 10002

Museum of the City of New York

Not far from El Museo del Barrio is the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY). Founded in 1923, MCNY is committed to fostering an understanding of New York and its past, present, and future. Naturally, with such a focus, MCNY has a number of immigrant-related exhibits, including a permanent collection of the work of Jacob Riis, an immigrant to New York who documented the lives of New Yorkers of all nationalities in his influential book How the Other Half Lives. Past events include programs on sanctuary cities and immigration, and current exhibits include, “City of Workers, City of Struggle: How Labor Movements Changed New York,” which traces the social, political, and economic story of workers, including immigrants, and “NY at its Core,” which highlights the creativity and diversity of New York City through the stories of generations of New Yorkers, from its politicians and master builders to its dreamers, immigrants, and ordinary people. 

Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Ave at 103rd Street
New York, NY 10029

New-York Historical Society Museum

Established in 1804, the New-York Historical Society Museum is the city’s first museum, hosting a vast collection of art, objects, artifacts, and archives to provide visitors with a broad grasp of history’s ongoing importance. Not only has the museum examined the historical experience of immigrants to America through such exhibits as “The First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World,” and “Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion,” but it also participates in programs supporting today’s immigrants. Partnering with the City University of New York’s Citizenship Now! immigration legal services, the New-York Historical Society provides free civics and American history classes and other educational tools to assist future citizens with the naturalization exam. Last year, the New-York Historical Society hosted a special ceremony where Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg administered the citizenship oath to 201 new citizens. Protima was in attendance to celebrate her sister becoming a citizen!

New-York Historical Society Museum
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024

Brooklyn Historical Society

19th century Brooklyn was a time of drastic change. As Brooklyn was on its way to becoming the third largest city in the country with diverse groups of people who arrived from all around the world, the Long Island Historical Society—the precursor to the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS)—was founded in 1863 to commemorate the city’s rural past. Today, BHS is a center dedicated to the preservation of Brooklyn’s broader history as well as that of the greater city of New York and Long Island. In the midst of Brooklyn brownstones is BHS’ landmark building at 128 Pierrepont Street which houses the Othmer Library and Archives. With its manuscript collections, photographs, historic maps, and other historic materials, this library contains the most comprehensive collection of materials related to Brooklyn’s history and culture in the world. A short and scenic walk will take you to its second location, BHS Dumbo on Water Street, which contains a number of interactive displays and exhibitions. Currently on exhibit is “Waterfront,” a multimedia experience which explores the coastline’s local and global significance and walks you through the stories of Brooklyn’s distinct history of workers, families, activists, industries, enslaved people, and neighborhoods. While the exhibits are not exclusively related to immigration, Brooklynites featured in their displays provide unique insight into the different ways immigrants and their international ties helped shape Brooklyn into the diverse community we know today.

Brooklyn Historical Society
128 Pierrepont Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201

55 Water Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201