Immigrants Mean Business: An Enduring History of Entrepreneurship

The Tenement Museum and the NYC Department of Small Business Services (SBS) honor New York City’s small business owners struggling during the COVID-19 crisis. May we celebrate the contributions they continue to make in their communities every day.

Few things shape New York City’s identity as decisively as immigration and migration. For well over a century, foreign-born New Yorkers have left a deep imprint on our city’s culture and economy, from the red-checkered tablecloths of Italian restaurants to the beloved German delicatessen to the corner stores we call by their Spanish name – bodegas. Today, 38 percent of New Yorkers have immigrated here from other countries. Together, they make up 46% of the city’s workforce, and 83,000 own their own businesses.

In celebration of the enduring tradition of immigrant entrepreneurship, the NYC Department of Small Business Services (SBS) and the Tenement Museum partnered to present Immigrants Mean Business: An Enduring History of Entrepreneurship as an onsite exhibit in 2019. In recognition of the crisis immigrant-owned small businesses are facing today, this new digital version of the original exhibit captures a glimpse into the lives of six entrepreneurs who began their businesses with hopes of being able to support their family and give back to their new communities, and links past and present via archival photos from the late nineteenth century through the 1970s.

Throughout its history, New York’s immigrant small businesses and the communities they serve have weathered innumerable crises, from public health emergencies like the 1832 Cholera Epidemic and 1918 Influenza Pandemic to economic catastrophes like the Panic of 1873 and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Each has its own story of confronting the challenges these crises brought, and some did not survive. But, in the face of difficult odds, many immigrant small businesses have been able to find inspiring ways to adapt and thrive, emerging strengthened to serve their neighbors.

Immigrants Mean Business: An Enduring History of Entrepreneurship is a digital exhibit and photo essay, designed for you to absorb the worlds of these businesses, both past and present, and see all the loving details these entrepreneurs put into their work.

Presented by: