On a quiet sunny Wednesday afternoon, 76-year old Margaret warmly greets the kid from next door, a college student whom she has known for several years but, until that day, never quite had occasion to invite into her house. Her home in Rego Park is a townhouse, a near-mirror image of the one adjacent to it. The tranquil interior atmosphere of her house belies an active schedule. Margaret sleeps every night between ten and eleven and rises at six in the morning. Several days a week, she volunteers at the ASPCA, caring for sick animals and training new volunteers. At home, her hands are full with the demands of 3 elderly cats, all adopted from the ASPCA. Their myriad of medical problems require constant medication and special care, work that Margaret nonetheless seems to enjoy. The friendliest of her feline companions, a 12 year old male named Aries, sits curled up on the kitchen table at which Margaret now sits, ready to share her story.
Margaret was born in Switzerland, hailing from a modest farming village in the mountains that was comprised of about 300 inhabitants. Her parents made their living as farmers, keeping cattle and making hay. “There were 3 tiers you had to make the hay in,” she recalled, “you started at the bottom.” Farming was an occupation governed by manual labor, but one that had already felt the pull of mechanized efficiency. “I even remember when it was all done by hand,” Margaret said, “My father, he was one of the first ones to buy a motor so they didn’t have to cut the hay with the scythe.” She remembered a two-room schoolhouse separated between the upper and lower grades, as well as a single communal high school, located in a nearby valley. “Very primitive, but very beautiful,” she reminisced, “It just was an entirely different life.” As she would later see, the hectic urban cityscape of New York could not be more different from the idyllic rural setting where she grew up.
Margaret immigrated to New York City in 1964 at the age of 22, dissatisfied with the work she had been doing in Switzerland, teaching home economics. Her move to the United States was facilitated by the Heisers, a family with whom she was close friends. “I was lucky enough to have friends of mine who were willing to sponsor me so I came right in with a Green Card,” she says. Upon arrival, Margaret expected to find work as a domestic servant in order to gain exposure to the native language. “Most Europeans, what they did, the girls went to France, to England, for a year just to learn the language,” she explains, “they went and worked in a family.” When she asked her benefactors what kind of family she could expect to work for, they simply replied, “Oh no, we don’t do that here. This is America.”
Instead, Margaret spent her first 2 months in the United States on a chicken farm in the Poconos, owned by a brother within the Heiser family. There, she began the difficult task of learning English. After returning to the city, she stayed with the family at their brownstone in Brooklyn, on the edge of Bedford-Stuyvesant. She recalled not being very involved in neighborhood affairs. “You go to work, you come home, and that’s about it.”
Margaret enlisted help from Martha, her adoptive aunt within the family, for her first entry into the American workforce. Since Margaret knew how to sew, a department store seemed like an ideal place for her to get her start. “At that point, department stores, especially on 5th Avenue, they made their own clothes for their customers,” she recalled, “They had actually, seamstresses and everything.” Martha went with her to apply for a position in clothing alterations and, before long, Margaret was working for a department store. Like her, many of her co-workers were immigrants who were trying to get a better grasp of English. “They went to evening classes to learn English and prepare themselves for citizenship,” she said. To expand on the basic skills she developed in those first two months, she too began attending those classes. “It was just conversation, there was no grammar or whatever.”
As Margaret worked to develop her English, she would come to find a mentor in her teacher, who extended a helping hand beyond the classroom. The teacher told her, “That’s no job for you, that has no future. You don’t want to stay in alterations. I’ll help you get a job in a bank.” Through her teacher’s assistance, Margaret obtained a starting position in the stock transfer department of a bank, in spite of what she considered her very poor English skills at the time. Armed with rudimentary computers, the bank issued paper stock certificates to whomever stock was sold. “I got a stack of old certificates that I had to tabulate on a machine,” she recalled.
Although the nature of her work was initially clerical, Margaret soon grew used to the presence of computers. Martha’s sister Alice advised her to broaden her skillset, “You know, you are good with numbers. You really should get into computers.” Reflecting on this encouragement, Margaret said, “She had absolutely no idea what computers were or what that meant.” With the help of some evening classes, Margaret gradually began taking on the more analytical jobs in the bank, first as a computer operator and later as a member of the IT department. As a programmer, she used COBOL, a business-oriented computer language, now largely replaced by newer languages. “When we did our coding, it was all on paper,” she explained, “You had to write your programs on paper, and then you handed that in to a keypunch operator. All the programs were on punched cards. To run something, you had to first put the punch cards into it and compile it and only then would they execute the programs.” This tedious, bygone process of programming also required her to have a working knowledge of the internals of the computer. “If something bombed out on you, you would get a huge printout and it was all printed in hexadecimal. And then you had to go in and try to find out where it bombed and why it bombed on you. From the hexadecimal you had to translate that into machine language that was human readable. I really loved that part,” she recalled fondly. “They didn’t even have as much memory and power as even an iPhone does today,” she said of the computers she worked on.
Margaret made it clear that she originally did not intend for her move to New York to be a permanent relocation. “It was a big change, but it wasn’t meant to be forever. I came over here to learn English and I had every intention to go back after 2 years,” she says, “It just didn’t work out that way.” Two years after Margaret immigrated to New York, her mother passed away, leading her to return home for the funeral and make her first trip back to Switzerland since her departure. Back home, her father spoke to her regarding her future, “I don’t want you to stay here and think you have to take your mother’s place. If you’re not sure what you want to do, go back and do what you want to do there.” These events occurred before Margaret joined the IT department and established a stable career. “I still was not knowing what I wanted to do with my life,” she said. Nonetheless, as she explained, she was aware that the death of her mother marked an irreversible change, “I knew a lot of things changed at that point. I wouldn’t be able to go to the home…when your parents go, it’s no longer the same thing.” Before she left for New York to find her niche, her father told her, “Just come back on vacation while I’m alive.”
Reflecting on her time in New York, Margaret described unexpected elements of her immigrant experience. She said, “I think just about everything [surprised me].” For one, she was pleasantly surprised by the friendliness and openness of New Yorkers. “Just because you couldn’t speak nobody looked down at you,” she said. “When we had somebody with an accent coming in, as kids, we used to laugh, ‘How come people speak so funny?’ Little did I know I was gonna speak funny for another 50 years.”
Upon arriving in the United States, Margaret found herself with more opportunities available to her in the public sphere, citing women’s right to vote in the United States as another welcome surprise. “When I left Switzerland, women didn’t have the right to vote yet,” she said. The United States granted women’s suffrage in 1920 with the passage of the 19th amendment. Meanwhile, Switzerland did not grant women the right to vote on a national level until February 1971 as per the results of a referendum. Student protests beginning in 1968 pressured the Swiss government to hold the referendum, which was preceded by a similar one in 1959 in which the “no” vote prevailed.
Yet, Margaret’s newfound opportunities extended beyond the right to vote. Being a Swiss immigrant herself, her first application for a job in a bank in New York went to a Swiss bank. “I thought that might be easier. I couldn’t even get to the first step,” she said, “[In Switzerland] they go for a three to four year apprenticeship. Or you could go to school. I had none of that.” Meanwhile, Margaret remembered a very different experience when she applied again at an American bank. The employers there overlooked her lack of a financial background and were willing to train her for the role she was to fill. “They just didn’t expect anything,” she said. She recalled the diverse pool of applicants she joined when she sought the application banker job opening, “One girl, she was Cuban. I was Swiss. There were three guys, they were all Americans, one of them was black, the other two were white.” She was surprised to discover that, out of the five applicants, the bank had hired both women. “I wasn’t even a citizen at the time and neither was Maria,” she recalled. In the workplace, Margaret continued to be surprised by how insignificant of an impediment her status as a female immigrant appeared to be. “I don’t really think, when it comes to salaries, that there was any difference at the same level between me and the guys, which is kind of strange,” she mused. “Even today, you have that discrepancy.”
Despite personally feeling its effects minimally, Margaret acknowledged the presence of workplace discrimination in the lives of others around her. She described one of her neighbors in Brooklyn, an attractive woman in her forties who was born to a black mother and white father. Her social status as a black person barred her from employment opportunities that would otherwise have been accessible to her as a white person. “She wasn’t lazy by any chance, but she just didn’t feel she had gotten a fair share in life,” said Margaret. “And then I come along, as a foreigner, an immigrant, I had a good family that I could stay with, and then I got a good job in the IT department. Where is the fairness here? As an interloper I came in there and I got the job and she never had that opportunity…That sort of bothered me all along.”
As Margaret gradually adjusted to life in New York, she became aware that Bedford-Stuyvesant was “really really going downhill.” In 1964, when she moved in, the neighborhood was relatively integrated, with both white and black residents. As years went by, the white residents gradually moved out. She cited the declining safety of Bedford-Stuyvesant as one of the primary reasons she eventually moved to Rego Park in 1980. “The neighbors were great, but there were elements around that were really bad,” Margaret explained. She remembered a local teenage boy named Junior who was a gang member. “He was very bad,” she described disapprovingly. Margaret recalled that, during this time, her aunt Martha was an active member of the community, frequently speaking to their neighbors. “When people needed help, she would help them. If anybody needed help, a letter written, they could always come to Martha,” she said. One day, Junior approached Martha and told her, “Mrs. Heiser, if anybody does anything to you, just let me know. I’m gonna take care of them.” Junior’s double-edged personality fascinated Margaret. “As bad a kid as he was, in and out of jail for all sorts of things, he felt she was a good person and he was going to protect her. Isn’t it interesting?” she said. Margaret also mentioned the gentrification that occurred in Bedford-Stuyvesant since she moved out, “Interestingly enough, if you go back there now, it’s still integrated, but it’s a very good neighborhood now, very expensive.” By 2015, there existed a massive disparity between the median household incomes of new and long-time residents, which stood at $50,000 and $28,000, respectively. Accompanying these economic effects of gentrification was a substantial 44% decrease in violent crime from 2000 to 2016.
Overall, Margaret believes New York City has changed in positive ways since her arrival. Although she acknowledges that the city is still racially segregated, she is grateful that it has gotten much safer. She remembers the 1970s as a time when “the city was really crime-ridden.” “All of the subways had the graffiti on it,” she said. Now, she feels much more comfortable travelling on the subway. “I’m never afraid on the subway,” she said. “But if you have that many people in one place, and too many different kinds, you’re gonna get the weird ones. That’s just part of life.” The sharpest decline in New York City’s crime rates occurred in the 1990s, which saw the crime rate nearly halve from 1990 to 1999. Since 1999, the crime rate has continued to steadily decline, with the crime rate in 2016 being just one-third of what it was in 1990.
Despite the New York City’s extensive progress over the last several decades, Margaret made it clear she believed the city still had much room for improvement. For instance, she held that New York could do a better job aiding its homeless population and welfare recipients. “I don’t mind the helping part, but I think we should help people get a job and if they don’t make enough money, we should supplement that,” she explained. She added that taking the needy off public assistance only serves to propagate the same problem and instead advocated an approach that would help them, as she put it, “pull themselves up by the bootstraps.” Margaret also lamented the plight faced by inner city children. “It’s very rough for them to get out of that situation,” she said, noting that people often regard them with suspicion. “That doesn’t do them much good.”
In the present day, most of Margaret’s frequent activities take place in Manhattan. “To me, the whole city has something about it, I just love to go into Manhattan,” she said. For a time, she even considered living there, but one thing stopped her. “Every time I go there, I listen to the noise. Then I come back here to the quiet, and I say ‘Mmm, I don’t think so!’” she laughed. Some of the city’s skyscrapers rank among her favorite places in New York, chiefly the World Trade Center. “Even to this day, when I get visitors, they want to go up to the Empire State or Rockefeller Center,” she said. “I never get tired of going up there and seeing the view.” However, her “very very favorite” place is the ASPCA on 92nd Street and York Avenue, where she volunteers at least two days per week. “I always loved animals,” she said. “I think that really started at home, except we had cows.” Looking back, she recognized that she had come to prefer the active metropolis that is New York to the small village she grew up in. “That’s not where I want to be anymore,” she said of the latter. “And do I like the politicians? No. But that doesn’t mean anything. I like the city!”
Margaret feels she has been very fortunate since the beginning of her immigrant experience. “It wasn’t the United States I really had in mind,” she said, adding that her friends in Zurich helped her arrange her trip. “I guess it was meant to be but there was no true planning. It just fell into my lap.” She considers herself lucky to have been able to rely on the Heisers, from the day she arrived to the present. The connections they had already established by the time she immigrated to New York proved to be invaluable for her. Even though she has no blood relationship with the Heisers, they have remained as close as family. Recently, they came to stay with her for a few days while she recuperated from a thyroid operation. “I have a very good support team,” she said. Nonetheless, she acknowledges that not every immigrant experiences the smooth sailing she has. “It’s very easy to say things are good, they’re good for me. I do know, for a lot of people, they’re not that good,” she said. “I have my house here, I have my cats, I have nobody bothering me. It’s very easy to put the blinders on.”
Margaret feels she has become so integrated into American society over the 54 years she spent in New York that she has become disconnected from Switzerland. “I’m truly not interested in what’s happening there, politically or whatever,” she said. “I’m here, and that’s where my life is. That’s what I’m interested in. That’s where my friends are.” She recalled a recent trip to Switzerland she took to visit her family. The time she spent there made her realize that she no longer fit in among the Swiss. Even a language barrier, which served as a major obstacle for her as a new immigrant in the United States, emerged in her interactions with family members. Upon hearing new Swiss-German expressions by her nieces and their children, Margaret could only ask “What in the world does that mean?”
“I know I’m an immigrant,” she said, “but I keep forgetting.”
DiNapoli, Thomas P., and Kenneth B. Bleiwas. “An Economic Snapshot of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Neighborhood.”Office Of The New York State Comptroller, www.osc.state.ny.us/osdc/rpt5-2018.pdf.
Effgen, Christopher. “New York Crime Rates 1960 – 2016.” The Disaster Center, www.disastercenter.com/crime/nycrime.htm.
Jud, Markus G. “Women’s Right to Vote.” History of Switzerland: Federal Constitution 1848, 2004, history-switzerland.geschichte-schweiz.ch/chronology-womens-right-vote-switzerland.html.