Thursday, August 12, 2010

Manhattan Memories: Recollections of the Old Neighborhood-Italian Harlem (1)

A memoir of Miriam Medina's childhood years in the old neighborhood of Italian Harlem known as East Harlem .

As a start, I came across this beautiful piece of inspiring music/video on You-tube sung by Josh Groban by the title of: "You Raise Me Up" which I would like to share with you.

I was very young back then, to remember in detail the old neighborhood, so I asked my oldest brother Barney, to help me fill in some of those details for this memoir. We'll start with my building which was located at 1791 Lexington Avenue between 111th and 112th street in Harlem, known to many as El Barrio. I was born and raised there. It was a 5 story tenement building which had four railroad type apartments to each floor. Our apartment faced the backyard, where the only scenery we would look at on a daily basis were the fire-escapes of the other buildings, the courtyard and clotheslines hanging from one building to the other. (view period photo ) There was always the Irish man who entertained us, singing up a storm from the courtyard, and the people would throw money to him from their windows. He had a nice voice.

It was a two bedroom apartment, where I lived, quite small for 9 people, my parents and us seven kids, of which I am the youngest and a German Shepherd by the name of Brownie. Papa was much older than mama, at least by 20 years. The neighborhood we lived in was predominantly Italian and Puerto Rican. It was a safe building, we always had our front door to the hallway open, to let the fresh air in, when it was hot. Outside the building, the neighborhood was always in a turmoil of fights between the Italians and the Puerto Ricans over their turfs. Each block had its own name, our block was called the Red Wing. Sometime in the forties, between 1943-1947, Harlem was in a riot. There were gang wars between the blacks and the whites. The Puerto Ricans sided with the blacks against the Italians. One day Mayor LaGuardia , brought with him Frank Sinatra, Josh White and Paul Robeson, to the Benjamin Franklin High School (where my brother Barney was attending) which was located on Pleasant Avenue between 115th street and 116th street, to bring harmony to the neighborhood.

Some of the neighbors at 1791 Lexington Avenue, were nice, and others were interesting. Across the hall from us, lived an Italian family by the name of Giovanellos. The aromas of Italian cooking coming from their apartment was so overwhelming. Probably we all had our heads out the door, drooling and hoping for a little portion. Mrs. Giovanello, was a real sweetheart, she helped us through many emergencies. They had two children, Marie and Otto. Mr. Giovanello, was the neighborhood ice man. In those days, we had the ice box, which we used in the summer and spring. Then in the winter, the food would be placed on the outside window sill. Mr. Giovanello must have been a very strong man, to walk two or three blocks from Park Avenue, with the block of ice on his shoulders, and up three flights of stairs. He was such a nice man.

The Fitzgerald's had two sons, one who became a priest and the other suffered a nervous breakdown from World War II. He was so handsome. Every so often, you would hear him screaming from the apartment, as if he was at that moment in the war. Since I was so young, I became nervous. Poor Mrs. Fitzgerald, it must have been very difficult for her. Next door to the Fitzgerald's lived a couple, who every so often were involved in domestic violence. She was an Italian war bride, and he an alcoholic and a wife beater. She was always screaming at her kids. Downstairs on the ground floor, was an Italian lady by the name of Mary Calabra. She was the nosy body and instigator of the building. Every time we would go past her apartment up the stairs, she would open her door, and give us such a look that made us feel uneasy.

To be continued: Recollections of the Old neighborhood (2)

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