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Connecting the Past and Present : Author of 1863 Riots Novel Says Immigrants Have Always Been Seen as a Threat

March 11, 1995|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mid-19th-Century New York City: a squalid urban battleground where "hordes" of impoverished new immigrants are excoriated as a violent threat to U.S. culture, values and the rule of law.

Such is the historical parallel that Peter A. Quinn invokes when he hears the harsh rhetoric emanating from contemporary California--complaints that today's immigrants refuse to assimilate, are welfare cheats, commit crimes and take jobs from citizens.

"It strikes me that what we saw in New York in the 1840s and '50s and 1860s is the kind of process we're now seeing in Los Angeles," said Quinn, a New York native and student of the Irish exodus. "There's an element of hysteria that creeps in."

Quinn spoke Thursday at the Irish Theater Arts Center in West Hollywood about his book, "Banished Children of Eve." The novel's paperback release comes on the 150th anniversary of the Irish Potato Famine, which led to the deaths of more than 1 million and set in motion one of the world's great migrations.

The novel, the first by the longtime speech writer, is set amid the New York City Draft Riots of 1863--a five-day frenzy of looting, arson and lynching that remains the nation's deadliest urban uprising.

Rebelling against conscription into the Union Army, the enraged Irish "rabble" targeted an even more outcast group--blacks, mostly refugees from Southern slavery, whom the immigrants viewed as competition for low-wage jobs. The convulsion left a confirmed total of 119 dead--some say the fatality toll was much higher--and thousands injured.

Now largely clouded in the mists of history, the social tumult that followed the agrarian Irish into U.S. cities would not be equaled for another century, until the massive migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North.

California has long since supplanted New York as the U.S. destination of choice for immigrants. And Latin America, Asia, and the Caribbean now far outstrip Europe as the primary sending region.

Those broad shifts have provided Quinn during his book tour with a kind of singular mission: to draw the connection between past and present immigrant experiences.

Despite romanticized versions to the contrary, Quinn notes that immigrants to the United States have long been reviled for their beliefs and culture, however much their work contributed to the economy.

"There was a feeling in the 19th Century that these people would never acculturate to us," said Quinn, the grandson of Irish immigrants who is chief speech writer at Time Warner in New York. Today, many observers bemoan the onslaught of alien cultures accused of fomenting conflict and fracturing U.S. society and culture.

"We're reacting today to an invasion of the United States, and, in my judgment, a subversion not only of the culture of the United States, with an inability to assimilate these people, but possibly a subversion of our political system," said Glenn Spencer, founder of the Voice of Citizens Together, a Sherman Oaks-based group that was a major supporter of Proposition 187. Spencer called Quinn's comparisons to the earlier wave of immigrants nonsense.

But Quinn wrote in a recent essay that "the Irish were swiftly identified in the popular mind with poverty, disease, alcohol abuse, crime and violence--all the enduring social pathologies of the urban poor."

The roiling, inflamed Lower Eastside of the Draft Riots, Quinn says, is in many ways more analogous to contemporary U.S. reality than many might suppose. In his view, the churning urban conflicts so apparent today--embodied by the 1992 riots in Los Angeles--hark back to that earlier tumult in Manhattan.

"Our cities," Quinn wrote recently, "remain places where different races and immigrant groups claw at one another to pull their way out of poverty."

At the outbreak of New York's 1863 riots, Irish and blacks were mired in the depths of the era's socioeconomic rankings. "The people at the bottom tend to strike out at whomever is closest," said Quinn, 47. "It's not a rational decision."

Amid the immigration backlash of the last century, the Know-Nothing Party emerged as a potent political force, founded in large part on a revulsion against Irish Catholic newcomers. Quinn sees a historical continuity to today's immigration restrictionists--a position heatedly disputed by Gov. Pete Wilson (who is partly descended from Irish immigrants) and other Proposition 187 champions.

"It angers us when people try to say the governor's a nativist or comes from a Know-Nothing perspective," said Sean Walsh, a Wilson spokesman. The governor, Walsh noted, has focused criticism on illegal immigration, not today's lawful flow or the legal, albeit chaotic, process of the 19th Century.

But with U.S. authorities clamping down on new entries, Quinn doubts that his ancestors would even have been allowed in the front door today. "They would have starved," he said.

Notwithstanding Quinn's bleak evocations of the past, the author exudes a certain optimism about the future of Los Angeles (a place he admittedly does not know) and other cities grappling with jarring demographic and economic displacements. The dire forecasts of impending doom and cultural usurpation so prevalent during the 19th Century, he noted, seem absurd today.

"These people who were so 'foreign,' " Quinn said, "turned out to be great assets to our country."

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