Celebrating an Italian Heritage in East Harlem, New York: Part I of a 3-part series

A look back at the old quarter

Italian Harlem, you could say it was an amazing neighborhood. Formerly known as the “Little Italy of East Harlem,” it was located between 104th and 119th streets, from Third Avenue to the East River, and was once teeming with Italian immigrants running businesses. Since their arrival several generations earlier, Italians would take advantage of entrepreneurial opportunities, establishing small independent and family businesses. Bakeries, fruit and vegetable stores, supermarkets, funeral homes, restaurants, coal and ice distribution, tile and marble, candy stores, delicatessens, pizzerias, and barber shops began to multiply throughout Italian Harlem, particularly during the 1940s and 1950s. Italian Harlem with all its small businesses was thriving economically. It was full and as busy as ever before and up until the late 50’s.

The streets were filled with people as the daily hustle and bustle of the neighborhood roared on continuously. Amid the congestion that filled the sidewalks and streets was the familiar sight of Italian vendors displaying their wares on carts lining First Avenue from 107th to 116th streets. These vendors also looked forward to the annual festival of Mount Carmel, where thousands flocked to the feast, enjoying food and games, bands and dancing, the parade of Our Lady through the neighborhood streets where fireworks burst into the sky with prayers. The Giglio dance party on 106th Street was also crucial to these Italian Harlemites.

One could not escape the divine, irresistible and tempting aroma of Italian cuisine, carried on the summer breeze from the many cafes and small restaurants located along Market Street. Coffee shops were the neighborhood gathering places, filled with lively conversation, raucous laughter, and cigar smoke over steaming espressos and rich pastries. Distributed throughout the neighborhood, the shouts and laughter of children and young people who actively participated in street games could be heard. Although there were many street games that neighborhood kids played over the years, including marbles, jumping jacks, jump rope, handball, and more, stick-ball became a favorite pastime. This game was popular since the beginning of the 20th century, especially among Italian working-class families, since most of them were poor and had little money to spend. It was the best game. The children played in the street until the afternoon, to everyone’s relief. Mothers welcomed the warmer weather to get children out of their overcrowded homes, but Italian parents did not approve. They believed that gambling was a waste of time; children must get a job and contribute to the welfare of the family.

Stick-ball was an early version of “baseball”, called “poor man’s baseball”. It was all the rage during the 1930s and 1940s on the streets of New York. All the players needed was a stick and a rubber ball. Originally, stick-ball players used the handle of their mom’s broom as a bat. They would tape it to get a better grip. The surrounding fire escapes were its steps, and the manholes became bases. You had to see the look of joy on their faces when they hit that rubber ball with the broom handle with all their might. It was an exciting moment to see the ball fly as high and as far as they could while placing their bets in the process. Stick-ball has been one of the most prized street games in East Harlem. Since then, nostalgic older adults have 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 playground until on October 7, 1905, the city provided a park containing two playgrounds, two gymnasiums, restrooms, and comfort stations. Playgrounds were invented as a tool to get children off the streets, away from harmful influences. The park’s facilities were expanded during the 1930s with the inclusion of public swimming pools and bocce ball courts. Bocce ball was one of the favorite pastimes of the early Italian immigrants. The game was brought to the United States by immigrants from northern Italy. Many of the Italians were physical laborers in demanding jobs, especially construction. Since this sport required little effort and offered considerable enjoyment, it became extremely popular in Italian Harlem. The first bocce courts in New York City parks were established by Mayor La Guardia in 1934 in Thomas Jefferson Park in Manhattan, in the heart of what was then a predominantly Italian neighborhood. Local residents called it their “Italian Park”, although it was called “Thomas Jefferson Park”, located at 112th Street and East River Drive. Adjacent to the park, Benjamin Franklin High School was built in 1942 and opened not only to local Italian students but also to other ethnic groups from the surrounding area. Both places have had their own stories added to the voluminous pages of the rich, infamous and turbulent history of Italian Harlem. For more on this era, read my story “Crusin’ The 50’s in a Volatile East Harlem.”

The Italian community has always proudly defended what it believed to be its own. It was his park, his neighborhood, his “Little Italy,” as the overcrowded housing district in East Harlem was then known. Italian Harlem was a small town within a big city.

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

join relations

Life in Italian Harlem during the 1930s and 1940s was filled with close-knit communities and supportive neighbors. Brave Italians, despite discrimination, hardship and suffering, adapted to their new surroundings. They promoted and celebrated their culture and religious festivals, customs that were passed down from generation to generation by immigrant ancestors, once the mainstay of the neighborhood’s civilization. It was a neighborhood where lasting relationships were continually 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 neighborhood in old Italy. There was great affection and mutual respect. Italians are family people; the simple things in life give them immense pleasure, like walking through the streets greeting everyone with a warm “Buongiorno, come stai?” (Good morning, how are you?) Just to hear: “Sto bene, grazie.” (I’m fine, thanks.) They love to chat with neighbors in driveways and driveways. When it was unbearably hot inside the tenement buildings, they would take blankets and take them to the tarred roof for a picnic. A common summer sight saw children cooling off in water gushing from an open fire hydrant. Most of all, they simply enjoyed gathering around the kitchen table to drink homemade wine, drink coffee, eat, or play cards with their family and friends. Most of their conversations were usually at the table where food was always present.

The music appeals more strongly to the Italian character. They enjoyed family singing, folk dancing and native music. Open houses for friends and friends and relatives of friends always occurred throughout the neighborhood, with mandolins, accordions, and chants of popular or operatic pieces performed by amateur talent.

As time went by, this vibrant and close-knit culture would be torn apart by “progress,” but that part of Italian-American heritage in East Harlem, along with the importance of family and community, will be covered in part 2 of this 3 partial series!

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