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A Backward Glance at the Old Neighborhood

Italian Harlem, you could say it was a helluva’ neighborhood. Previously known as the “Little Italy of East Harlem”, it was located between 104th and 119th streets, from Third Avenue to the East River, and it once teemed with Italian immigrants running businesses. Since their arrival several generations earlier, the Italians would seize upon entrepreneurial opportunities, establishing small independent and family enterprises. Bakeries, fruit and vegetable stores, grocery stores, funeral homes, restaurants, coal and ice distribution, tile and marble, candy stores, delicatessens, pizza parlors and barber shops began mushrooming all over Italian Harlem, particularly during the 40’s and 50’s. Italian Harlem with all its small businesses was thriving economically. It was packed and as busy as ever prior to and up to the late 50’s.

The streets crawled with people as the everyday hustle and bustle of the neighborhood raged continuously. Amidst the congestion that filled the sidewalks and streets was the familiar sight of the Italian vendors displaying their wares from the push carts lined up along First Avenue, from 107th to 116th Streets. These vendors also looked forward to the yearly festival of Mount Carmel, where thousands flocked to the feast, enjoying the food and games, bands and dancing, the parading of the Madonna through the neighborhoods streets where fireworks exploded launched with prayers heavenward. The Feast of the dance of the Giglio on 106th Street was also crucial to these Italian Harlemites.

One could not escape the divine, irresistible, enticing aroma of the Italian cuisine carried along by the summer breeze from the many cafe and small restaurants located along the Market Street. The coffee shops were the neighborhood gathering places, filled with lively chatter, raucous laughter and cigar smoke over steaming espressos and rich pastries. Scattered throughout the neighborhood, one could hear the shouts and laughter of children and youth actively involved in street games. Although there were many street games that the neighborhood kids entertained themselves with over the years, such as marbles, jumping jacks, jump rope, handball, and more, stick-ball became one of the favorite pastimes. This game was popular as far back as the turn of the 20th century, especially among the Italian working class families since most were poor with little money to waste. It was the best game. The kids would play on the street until early evening, much to everyone’s relief. Mothers welcomed the warmer weather to get the kids out of their overcrowded homes, but the Italian fathers did not approve of it. They believed that play was a waste of time; children should get a job and contribute to the welfare of the family.

Stick-ball was an early version of “baseball”, called the “poor man’s baseball”. It was the rage during the 1930’s and 1940’s on the streets of New York. All the players needed were a stick and a rubber ball. Originally the stick-ball players used their mom’s broom handle for a bat. They would tape it up to get a better grip. The surrounding fire escapes were their bleachers and the man holes became bases. You had to see the expression of joy on their faces when they would whack that rubber ball with the broom handle with all their might. It was an exhilarating moment to see that ball fly as high and as far as it could as they placed their bets in the process. Stick-ball has been one of the most treasured street games in East Harlem. Nostalgic older adults have since tried to revive this game, but at a much slower pace. For 21 years, the “Father/Son Stick-ball Game” has been held annually on Pleasant Avenue in East Harlem.

For the children of “Little Italy,” the streets were their stomping ground until a park containing two playgrounds, two gymnasiums, baths, and comfort stations were provided by the city on October 7, 1905. Playgrounds were invented as a tool for getting children off the streets, away from harmful influences. The Park’s facilities were expanded during the 1930’s with the inclusion of public pools and Bocce courts. Bocce was one of the favorite pastimes of the early Italian immigrants. The game was brought to America by northern Italian immigrants. Many of the Italians were physical laborers in demanding jobs, especially in construction. As this sport required little exertion and offered considerable enjoyment, it became exceedingly popular in Italian Harlem. The first Bocce courts in New York City Parks were established by Mayor La Guardia in 1934 at Thomas Jefferson Park in Manhattan, in the heart of what was then a predominantly Italian neighborhood. The local residents named it their “Italian Park” though it was called the “Thomas Jefferson Park,” located at 112th Street and East River drive. Adjacent to the park, the Benjamin Franklin High School was built in 1942 and opened not only to the local Italian students but to other ethnic groups from the surrounding area. Both of these places have had their own stories added to the voluminous pages of Italian Harlem’s rich, infamous, turbulent history. For more on this era, read my story “Crusin’ The 50’s in a Volatile East Harlem.”

The Italian community has always fiercely defended what they believed was theirs. It was their park, their neighborhood, their “little Italy” as the over-populated tenement district in East Harlem was then known. Italian Harlem was a small village within a big city.

By the 1930s, Italian Harlem became the most densely populated area of Manhattan, boasting the largest colony of Italian-Americans in the entire United States with a population of circa 100,000 or more.

Bonding Relationships

Life in Italian Harlem during the thirties and forties was filled with tight-knit communities and caring neighbors. Courageous Italians, despite discrimination, hardships and suffering, adapted themselves to their new environment. They promoted and celebrated their culture and religious feasts, customs that were handed down through the generations by immigrant ancestors, once the mainstay of civilization in the neighborhood. It was a neighborhood where lasting relationships were continuously formed. So strong was this sense of neighborhood that many families and their descendants would stay there forever.

Simple Pleasures of Life

The neighborhood brought families and friends together. It was like any other Old Italian neighborhood. There was great affection and respect for one another. The Italians are family people; the simple things in life give them immense pleasure, like strolling up and down the streets greeting everyone with a warm “Buongiorno, come stai?” (Good morning, how are you?) Only to hear: “Sto bene, grazie.” (I am well thank you.) They love conversing with neighbors on stoops and doorways. When it would be unbearably hot inside the tenement buildings, they would get blankets and take them to the tarred roof and have a picnic. A common summer sight saw the kids cooling off in the water gushing from an open fire hydrant. Most of all, they simply enjoyed gathering around the kitchen table sipping home-made wine, drinking coffee, eating or playing cards with their families and friends. Most of their conversations usually were at the table where food was ever-present.

Music appeals most strongly to the Italian character. They enjoyed family singing, folk-dancing and native music. Open house parties for friends and friends’ friends and relatives were always occurring throughout the neighborhood, complete with mandolins, accordions, and sing-a-longs of popular or operatic pieces performed by amateur talent.

As time marched on, this vibrant, tightly knit culture would be ripped apart by “progress”, but that portion of the Italian American heritage in East Harlem, along with the importance of family and community, will be covered in part 2 of this 3 part series!

Celebrating An Italian Heritage In East Harlem, New York: Part I Of A 3 Part Series

Celebrating An Italian Heritage In East Harlem, New York: Part I Of A 3 Part Series