A look back at the old quarter
Italian Harlem, you could say it was a fantastic 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 packed with Italian immigrants who ran businesses. Since his arrival several generations before, Italians sixteen years in business opportunities, establishing small independent and family businesses. Bakeries, fruit and vegetable stores, grocery stores, funeral homes, restaurants, charcoal and ice distribution, tile and marble, candy stores, delicatessens, pizzerias and barber shops began to proliferate throughout Italian Harlem, particularly during the 1940s and ’40s. 50. Italian Harlem with all its small businesses was thriving economically. It was packed and as busy as ever before and into the late 50’s.
The streets were filled with people as the daily hustle and bustle of the neighborhood bustled continuously. Amid the congestion that filled the sidewalks and streets was the familiar sight of 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 it. the annual Mount Carmel festival, where thousands flocked to the party, enjoying food and games, bands and dancing, the Virgin’s parade through the streets of neighborhoods where fireworks launched with prayers to the sky exploded . The Giglio dance festival on 106th Street was also crucial for these Italian harlemites.
One could not escape the divine, irresistible and tempting aroma of Italian cuisine carried by the summer breeze from the many cafes and small restaurants located along Market Street. Cafes were the neighborhood hangouts, filled with lively chatter, raucous laughter, and cigar smoke over steaming espressos and rich pastries. Spread around the neighborhood, you could hear the screams and laughter of children and young people who actively participated in street games. Although there were many street games that neighborhood children entertained over the years, such as marbles, jumping jacks, jumping rope, handball, and more, stick-ball became a favorite pastime. This game was popular as early as the early 20th century, especially among Italian working-class families, as most were poor and had little money to waste. 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 of it. They believed that playing was a waste of time; children must get a job and contribute to the well-being of the family.
Stick-ball was one of the first versions 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 their mother’s broomstick as a bat. They would tape it down for a better grip. The surrounding fire escapes were their bleachers and the men’s holes became bases. You had to see the look of joy on their faces as they hit that rubber ball with the broom handle with all their might. It was an exciting moment to see that ball fly as high and far as it could as they placed their bets in the process. Stick-ball has been one of East Harlem’s most treasured street games. Since then, homesick older adults have tried to revive this game, but at a much slower pace. For 21 years, the “Father and 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 October 7, 1905, when the city provided a park with two play areas, two gyms, 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 courts. Petanque was one of the favorite pastimes of the first Italian immigrants. The game was brought to the United States by immigrants from northern Italy. Many of the Italians were physical workers in demanding jobs, especially in construction. Because 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 at 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 was opened not only to local Italian students but to other ethnic groups in 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 fiercely defended what it believed was its own. It was her park, her neighborhood, her “little Italy,” as the overcrowded housing district in East Harlem was known then. Italian Harlem was a small town within a big city.
In the 1930s, Italian Harlem became the most densely populated area in Manhattan, with the largest colony of Italian Americans in the entire United States with a population of around 100,000 or more.
Life in Italian Harlem during the 1930s and 1940s was filled with close-knit communities and caring neighbors. Brave Italians, despite discrimination, difficulties and suffering, adapted to their new environment. 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 civilization in the neighborhood. It was a neighborhood where lasting relationships were continually being formed. This feeling of neighborliness was so strong that many families and their descendants would stay there forever.
Simple pleasures of life
The neighborhood brought together families and friends. It was like any other neighborhood in old Italy. There was great affection and respect for each other. Italians are family people; the simple things in life give them immense pleasure, like strolling the streets greeting everyone with a warm “Buongiorno, come stai?” (Good morning, how are you?) Just to hear: “Sto bene, grazie”. (I’m fine, thank you.) They love chatting with the neighbors at the driveways and driveways. When it was unbearably hot inside the apartment buildings, they would grab blankets and carry them up 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 drinking homemade wine, drinking coffee, eating, or playing cards with their family and friends. Most of their conversations generally took place 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 house parties for friends and friends and relatives of friends always occurred throughout the neighborhood, with mandolins, accordions, and songs from folk or opera pieces performed by amateur talents.
As time passed, this vibrant and closely knit culture would be shattered by “progress,” but that part 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!