Monday, January 17, 2011

Crusin' The 50s In a Volatile East Harlem (1)

By Miriam B. Medina

The 1950s were the most significant, productive, vital years in American history. Many pivotal social and technological changes revolutionized the American society during the Golden Age. World War II was over. The American economy exploded. Industrialization peaked. There was expansion of higher education, suburbanization and government assistance to veterans in the post-World War II years. These conditions provided favorable factors for economic advancements. Targeted to the urban working-class, who generally desired a better lifestyle for themselves, the intense construction of thousands of residential houses began. These suburban homes reflected the new domesticity of post-war prosperity. Not only was it a boom year of plentiful bounty, it was also a decade that birthed rock and roll, a decade where young actors like James Dean, Marlon Brando, Sal Mineo, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis became big-time favorites and role models among the youth. American icons.

So while significant changes and economic improvements were going on throughout the United States, what was happening in the area of East Harlem, New York? During the 1940's and 1950's, the area of East Harlem was a mixture of Irish, Italians, Puerto Ricans and a small percentage of people from the Jewish community. There were also a few African American families and some other ethnic groups too, but it was minimal in population. Nevertheless, it was enough to create an atmosphere of tension, especially following the years of the Great Depression and World War II. This strain was progressively heightened within the mixed ethnic groups. East Harlem contained the largest established Italian community, a community that grew substantially during the 1920's into the 30's and 40's.

As a result of commercial air travel taking off in 1945, a one-way ticket from San Juan to New York all of a sudden cost less than $50, so the steady stream of Puerto Rican migration which had begun during World War I reached a vast population; Circa 70,000 to 250,000 people within the years of 1940-1950. As the Puerto Ricans continued to move to East Harlem they encroached communities that were already established, and began forming their own distinctive neighborhoods, establishing their own values, traditions and cuisine. By the time the 50's rolled around, the Italians and Puerto Ricans numerically dominated the area of East Harlem. The Puerto Ricans became such a significant and visible presence in East Harlem during the 50's, that the area gained the familiar name of "Spanish Harlem". At the same time, the Puerto Rican people began saturating the East Harlem district. Both Italians and Puerto Ricans found themselves in a constant battle, competing for housing as well as educational and employment resources.

To be continued: Crusin' the 50s (2)
Miriam B. Medina is an Expert Author at Platinum Level at

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