Friday, June 10, 2011

Celebrating An Italian Heritage In East Harlem, N.Y. Pt: 1(a)

A Back
ward Glance at the Old Neighborhood

Italian Harlem, you could say it was a helluva' neighborhood. Previously known as the "Little Italy of East Harlem", it was located between 104th and 119th streets, from Third Avenue to the East River, and it once teemed with Italian immigrants running businesses. Since their arrival several generations earlier, the Italians would seize upon entrepreneurial opportunities, establishing small independent and family enterprises. Bakeries, fruit and vegetable stores, grocery stores, funeral homes, restaurants, coal and ice distribution, tile and marble, candy stores, delicatessens, pizza parlors and barber shops began mushrooming all over Italian Harlem, particularly during the 40's and 50's. Italian Harlem with all its small businesses was thriving economically. It was packed and as busy as ever prior to and up to the late 50's.

The streets crawled with people as the everyday hustle and bustle of the neighborhood raged continuously. Amidst the congestion that filled the sidewalks and streets was the familiar sight of the 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 the yearly festival of Mount Carmel, where thousands flocked to the feast, enjoying the food and games, bands and dancing, the parading of the Madonna through the neighborhoods streets where fireworks exploded launched with prayers heavenward. The Feast of the dance of the Giglio on 106th Street was also crucial to these Italian Harlemites.

One could not escape the divine, irresistible, enticing aroma of the Italian cuisine carried along by the summer breeze from the many cafe and small restaurants located along the Market Street. The coffee shops were the neighborhood gathering places, filled with lively chatter, raucous laughter and cigar smoke over steaming espressos and rich pastries. Scattered throughout the neighborhood, one could hear the shouts and laughter of children and youth actively involved in street games. Although there were many street games that the neighborhood kids entertained themselves with over the years, such as marbles, jumping jacks, jump rope, handball, and more, stick-ball became one of the favorite pastimes. This game was popular as far back as the turn of the 20th century, especially among the Italian working class families since most were poor with little money to waste. It was the best game. The kids would play on the street until early evening, much to everyone's relief. Mothers welcomed the warmer weather to get the kids out of their overcrowded homes, but the Italian fathers did not approve of it. They believed that play was a waste of time; children should get a job and contribute to the welfare of the family.

Stick-ball was an early version of "baseball", called the "poor man's baseball". It was the rage during the 1930's and 1940's on the streets of New York. All the players needed were a stick and a rubber ball. Originally the stick-ball players used their mom's broom handle for a bat. They would tape it up to get a better grip. The surrounding fire escapes were their bleachers and the man holes became bases. You had to see the expression of joy on their faces when they would whack that rubber ball with the broom handle with all their might. It was an exhilarating moment to see that ball fly as high and as far as it could as they placed their bets in the process. Stick-ball has been one of the most treasured street games in East Harlem. Nostalgic older adults have since tried to revive this game, but at a much slower pace. For 21 years, the "Father/Son Stick-ball Game" has been held annually on Pleasant Avenue in East Harlem.

To be continued: Part I (b)

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