Monday, November 22, 2010

East Harlem, New York: Microcosm of the Melting Pot (3)

By Miriam B. Medina

East Harlem was one of the major locations for Jewish residences at this time as well. It was the veritable melting pot of diversity that the United States prides itself on. During the 1920's, East Harlem had a Jewish population of circa 177,000, to continue with its German, Irish and Italian populations, all living together, working to make Harlem, New York, and America a better place. At that time, Harlem was predominately Jewish, and East Harlem had the largest Jewish section overall. As the population broadened, as African Americans and eventually Hispanics began moving into East Harlem, the borough's Jewish population began to dwindle.

With their small thriving, businesses, the remaining Jewish merchants maintained strong connections with the inhabitants of East Harlem, further strengthening the diverse character of East Harlem

Between 1915 to 1920, hundreds of thousands of African Americans began to migrate to Harlem from the "economically depressed" rural South, still recovering from the Civil War 50 years earlier, to the thriving industrial cities of the North. Like all Americans, they wanted to benefit from the urban, economic opportunities in steel mills, auto factories and packing houses. They wanted to succeed and improve their lives. They wanted that "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" that they were promised. Thousands of African-Americans would fan throughout the black ghettos of New York City, seeking work wherever and however, they could get it. Since Harlem could not accommodate all of the numerous new arrivals, the overflowing migration of African Americans moved into East Harlem, right about the same time that the Puerto Ricans began establishing themselves in the borough. The roaring 20's was a boom period for the U.S., and East Harlem was literally bursting at the seams.

A large number of southern Italians that arrived in NYC during the last quarter of the 19th century from the regions of Basilicata, Calabria and Sicily, also established their communities in East Harlem. By the 1930s, it was the largest Italian settlement in the city. The Italian community lived mostly around 106th street, in the area east of Third Avenue all the way to the East River, often housed in a single story lean-to shanties that were built along the water because there simply was not enough housing to shelter everybody. They also endured.

Then it happened, it all started to fall apart. The Great Depression set in, and America and its inhabitants were actually broke. The years of the Great Depression took a heavy toll on the Italian Americans, especially the men that worked in the construction industry, as new construction ground to a halt Nationwide. Regular employment was difficult to come by, and it was nearly impossible to maintain and feed large families. Often, the wives then had to take on menial housekeeping work just to keep their families afloat. Even the children were forced to work. Nonetheless in Harlem, there was such a diverse culture that already had to endure so many hardships, The Great Depression was just another day hustling to make ends meet. It was that grit, determination and sacrifice that helped save the fledgling Nation.

By the 1940's there were still a large amount of unemployed Italians in Harlem, but the economy started to improve by the 1950's, thanks in part to World War II. The nation began to recover, and better housing and sanitary living conditions improved for many in East Harlem as well.

Since the early 1990's, the face of East Harlem continues to change, as it always has, broadening its ethnic scope. With new arrivals from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Central and South America, Harlem is again forging a new, diverse personality. As America has grown, and Hollywood has come of age, the Nation has occasionally needed a facelift to keep its allure and beauty. In East Harlem, with a constant influx of new cultures, this always seems to be the case. Today you will find many immigrants from West Africa, the Caribbean, China and even Turkey, all working and living together, seeking to find that elusive American Dream. As long as America is viewed as the land of opportunity, the constant ebb and flow of East Harlem's endless ethnic succession will never cease to paint the pages of New York City's rich and turbulent history with stories of sacrifice, effort and hope. Likewise, these are the things that real dreams are made of.

Miriam B. Medina is an Expert Author Platinum Level at

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