Throughout the Gilded rapid industrial growth led to demand for cheap labor. US government eliminated most immigration restrictions, and millions of people flooded into American cities lured by the promise of economic opportunity and political freedom.
This large "New" wave of immigrants differed from those who arrived in previous decades. Many more of the new arrivals were unskilled poorly and educated. Many more arrived from Southern and Eastern Europe. They did not speak English, had different religious beliefs and customs. Some came to escape religious persecution, and political instability in Europe. Others hoped that burgeoning American industry will offer a better chance for economic advancement.
For many, the decision to leave was a family affair. Advice was sought – and help was freely given by entire families, friends, and even villages. The practice of one member of a family going to America first, then bringing others over, was common.
For many, simply getting to the port was the first major journey of their lives. Sometimes travelers would have to wait days, weeks and even months at the port, either for their paperwork to be completed or for their ship to arrive
Three types of accommodations on the ships brought immigrants to America: first class, second class, and steerage. larger ships could hold 2,000 – 2,500 immigrants. For most, the experience of steerage was a nightmare. The conditions were crowded, dark, unsanitary, and foul smelling. In spite of the miserable conditions, they had faith in the future. To pass the time they would play cards, sing, dance, and talk. They rehearsed answering the immigration inspectors’ questions, and hours were spent learning the new language.
ON ELLIS ISLAND
With the ground still swaying beneath their feet, and the shouts of a dozen different languages assaulting their ears, they met their first Americans.
As they passed, a doctor, with an interpreter at his side, would examine the immigrant. On about 20% of the immigrants who passed he would scrawl a large chalk white letter; which meant the immigrant was to be detained for further medical inspection.
If immigrants had any of the diseases proscribed by the immigration laws, or were too ill or feeble-minded to earn a living, they would be deported.
Immigrants who passed their medical exams were now ready to take the final test from the "primary line" inspector, with the ship’s manifest on a desk in front of him and an interpreter at his side. This process was designed to verify the 29 items of information contained on the manifest. Each inspector had about two minutes to decide whether an immigrant was "clearly and beyond a doubt entitled to land," nearly all of the immigrants received nods of approval, were handed landing cards, and proceeded to NY
AS DIFFERENT GROUPS OF IMMIGRANTS MOVED INTO A CITY, THEY GATHERED IN NEIGHBORHOODS WITH PEOPLE OF THEIR OWN NATIONALITY AND ETHNICITY. (AN ETHNIC GROUP ARE PEOPLE WHO SHARE A COMMON CULTURAL BACKGROUND.) THESE SECTIONS OF A CITY BECAME KNOWN AS GHETTOS, AND WERE CROWDED WITH POOR WORKING PEOPLE LIVING IN TENEMENTS
Everybody lived in little cliques, the Polish, the Ukrainian, the Russian. So they would help each other out, whatever. Maybe one knew a few words more than the other. They used to live, I don't know how many, maybe ten, twelve people in one room, because one was helping the other to get established here.We wanted to be Americans so quickly that we were embarrassed if our parents couldn't speak English. My father was reading a Polish paper. And somebody was supposed to come to the house. I remember sticking it under something. We were that ashamed of being foreign.
Louise Nagy, Polish immigrant, 1913
Tenements were 5 or 6 stories high buildings constructed or refurbished to hold as many tenants as possible.
Tenement apartments were known as "railroad flats" because they were arranged in a straight line, one room after the other. Families often had to share an already crowded apartment with relatives and friends recently a rived from Europe. Many apartments had no bathroom. A single toilet might be available for an entire floor.
Because of poverty, overcrowding, and neglect, the old residential neighborhoods of the cities gradually declined. Trees and grass disappeared beneath the tenements. The air seemed dark and foul even in daylight. Hundreds of people were crammed into spaces meant only for only a few families. Open sewers and backyard privies attracted rats and other disease-spreading vermin
In 1905 journalist Eleanor McMain quoted a university student who visited a block of tenements in New Orleans' Italian district and described them as
... death traps, closely built, jammed together, with no side openings. Twenty-five per cent of the yard space is damp and gloomy... . Where the houses are three or more rooms in depth, the middle ones are dark, without outside ventilator... . There is no fire protection whatever.