In “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” a fictional account of a biracial man published when the foundation was three years old, James Weldon Johnson described the city as “the most fatally fascinating thing in America.” He wrote, “She sits like a great witch at the gate of the country, showing her alluring white face and hiding her crooked hands and feet under the folds of her wide garments-constantly enticing thousands from far within, and tempting those who come from across the seas to go no farther.”
Throughout its early years, the New York Foundation, founded by immigrants and the children of immigrants, supported newcomers from across Europe. For them, New York symbolized a new beginning.
At the turn of the 20th century, newcomers arrived by the boatload only to become entangled in a web of social and public health problems. In Manhattan, an estimated 70 percent of the population lived in tenements. A quarter of all families on the Lower East Side lived five or more to a room. By 1910, four out of ten New Yorkers were foreign-born, mostly poor immigrants from Italy, Russia, and Eastern Europe. The decade from 1935 to 1945 might well be called the era of the uprooted, for no other era in modern history has witnessed as much widespread migration. Whole populations fled the terror of genocide that culminated in the concentration camps of Europe. Private agencies working largely without government assistance faced the monumental challenge of relocating millions.
Although its charter prohibited the contribution of funds for use outside the United States, the foundation was able to help the uprooted after they arrived in America. Between 1945 and 1957, 600,000 European refugees displaced by the war were admitted to the U.S., and New York was a major port of disembarkation. Foundation funds supported organizations to resettle foreigners whose skills were in demand, including thousands of scholars, scientists, physicians, writers, and artists who were waiting in displaced persons camps in Europe. Large grants were awarded early on for the relief of Jews persecuted by Hitler. These grants supported the resettlement of some of Germany’s brightest scholars and physicians and funded groups that aided refugees and emigrants.
Later in the century, the human ecology of the city shifted. Black Americans had arrived in a great migration from the South and later there was an enormous influx of Puerto Ricans. Between 1940 and 1970, the city’s Puerto Rican population swelled from 61,000 to 818,000, equaling more than 10 percent of the total population. For the many people facing a language barrier, work was difficult to find. The foundation funded organizations that supported young Puerto Rican community leaders. In the late 1960s, it also funded a number of small, newly formed organizations determined to address their community’s economic, housing, and educational needs.
In 1975, the trustees declared New York City and its problems as the foundation’s chief focal point once again. Grants were made to several experimental programs in the city’s public schools and to innovative community schools in poor and minority neighborhoods. The foundation gave a series of grants to organizations concerned with the revitalization of low-income communities and with affordable housing in one of the tightest real estate markets in the nation. It also funded neighborhood preservation groups and awarded grants to economic development organizations for programs that retained industry and commercial enterprises and helped to launch businesses in poor communities. In 1975 and 1976, more than one-third of the grantees were advocacy groups working on behalf of underrepresented populations, and more than half of the grantees served clients who were poor, minority, or victims of discrimination.
The number of newcomers kept rising. In the 1990s, nearly 1.2 million immigrants were admitted to New York, resulting in an almost 10 percent increase in the city’s population. They came from every continent, making the city a Babel of 180 languages. In fact, one in ten of the nation’s foreign-born lived in New York City in 1999.
In the 1980s, 1990s, and so far in the 2000s, just as in its earliest years, the foundation assisted foreign-born residents who were struggling to become New Yorkers in the fullest sense. Foundation grants supported attempts by immigrants to form their own organizations. Immigrant groups-including Afghans, Africans, Albanians, Arabs, Bosnians, Central and South Americans, Indians, Haitians, Poles, and many others-developed a variety of projects, ranging from assistance to victims of human trafficking and domestic workforce empowerment to food justice and reproductive health and rights advocacy.
New York is still a jumble of humanity.
Sixty percent of city residents are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Just as back in the early 1900s, New York personifies globalization unlike any other city on earth, and the foundation’s tapestry of grants continues to reflect this.