The history of this lower east side of New York is one of immigrants. Over the centuries, English settlers gave way first to German immigrants, then the Irish, then Italians and Jews, and most recently to the Chinese. Canal Street used to be the divider between Chinatown (to the south) and Little Italy (to the north), but Little Italy has shrunk to the point that it now is really just a few blocks along one main street (Mulberry), while Chinatown continually threatens to overspill any boundaries put up. This mix of people, history, and cultures defines the area today. A Chinatown didn't begin in New York City until the late 1860s and early 1870s, after the completion of the trancontinental railroad system in the US (many Chinese migrated to the US during the Gold Rush of 1848, then went to work on the railroads, with more than 100K more Chinese moving to the US in the 1870s). The orginal Chinatown formed around Mott Street, Doyer, and Pell Street, growing from a few hundred residents in 1870 to about 2,000 by 1882. The United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which largely halted Chinese immigration until it was repealed in 1943. This made it almost impossible for immigrant Chinese men to bring their wives and families to their new country, resulting in a 1900 New York Chinatown of 7000 men and only a few hundred Chinese women. Between language and cultural barriers, along with open racism, Chinatown really remained cutoff and isolated from the rest of the city. In the decades since, Chinese immigration to New York has exploded, resulting in New York's Chinatown having the 2nd largest Chinese population in the West (after San Francisco). Chinatown has expanded greatly, taking over much of Little Italy to the north and the Lower East Side. Our walk will cover the historic center of Chinatown.
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