In one of the largest population transfers of the modern era, millions of southern and eastern Europeans poured into New York from 1880 to 1920. Among the first were Italian men who traded poverty-stricken villages for the promises of labor recruiters known as padroni. Families and friends came eventually through an intricate network of village paesani, making an arduous journey to relocate to New York neighborhoods that would become known as "Little Italies."

Of the roughly five million Italians who arrived at Ellis Island by the early twentieth century, more than one million remained in New York. Today, the passports, immigration papers and wooden trunks that have passed through their families are silent testimony to that immense human drama.