Monday, January 17, 2011

Crusin' The 50s In a Volatile East Harlem (3)

By Miriam B. Medina

(Continued from Page: 2)

The familiar sound of loud Latin Rhythmic music blasting through the open windows and doorways of apartment dwellings in Spanish Harlem would penetrate the ears of reluctant inhabitants and passersby. Puerto Ricans have always loved their music. For many of the Puerto Ricans in "El Barrio", dancing was a distraction from the frustrations of their daily lives. It did not matter how tired they felt or how miserable their lives were, as soon as their bodies reacted to the frenzied rhythm, they would become rejuvenated, literally dancing until they dropped.

The weekends were their time to go to the local nightclubs. As musicians played their instruments to the greatest tunes in Latino music, the partners, skins flushed with perspiration, would revolve around the dance floor, whirling around each other. Their hips and shoulders would sway while their feet marked the beat to the music. The young busty Latin women would heat up the atmosphere as they moved seductively, swaying their curvaceous hips to the beat of the drums. Occasionally, a flirtatious remark made by an intoxicated male dancer would set off a verbal confrontation between both men. This would lead to an absolute street fight filled with switchblades and broken bottles, as others would rush to their defense.

Those that did not go the nightclubs would stay home and have their own wild and loud parties. These parties would continue to the wee hours of the morning, much to the displeasure of the neighbors who wanted to sleep.

It was becoming increasingly difficult for the Jewish and Italian vendors, as Puerto Rican grocery stores, barber shops, religious shops and restaurants began mushrooming all over East Harlem. Tensions accelerated as frustrated Jewish and Italian merchants witnessed the shifting of their clients, who were now soliciting their competitors. After several verbal and physical confrontations, including a riot, many of the Jewish merchants decided to keep their shops, but they adapted to the new inhabitants, willingly accepting the Puerto Rican businessmen, even learning Spanish. As a result of the projects, East Harlem changed, with the increased presence of African American and Latino populations. To a certain extent, the elimination of 1500 retail stores left 4,500 people unemployed. Thus, a steady migration of Italian Americans began moving away from East Harlem, moving onto private property in the suburban areas of New York City.

Despite their fierce antagonisms, and in defense of ethnic identity during those volatile years of the 1920's through the 1950's, these two distinct groups, Italians and Puerto Ricans, remained mixed, but in different ways, in the texture of East Harlem.

In comparison, East Harlem now is a mere shadow of what it was during the 50's. With the arrival of a vast amount of new, diverse immigrants who have made East Harlem their home, can we safely assume that this once turbulent territory has finally reached a plateau of normalcy and peaceful coexistence? Or will further prejudices substitute for the old ones? What is your opinion?

Miriam B. Medina is an Expert Author at Platinum Level at

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