Friday, June 10, 2011

Celebrating An Italian Heritage In East Harlem, N.Y. Pt: I (b)

By Miriam B. Medina
(Continue from previous page)
For the children of "Little Italy," the streets were their stomping ground until a park containing two playgrounds, two gymnasiums, baths, and comfort stations were provided by the city on October 7, 1905. Playgrounds were invented as a tool for getting children off the streets, away from harmful influences. The Park's facilities were expanded during the 1930's with the inclusion of public pools and Bocce courts. Bocce was one of the favorite pastimes of the early Italian immigrants. The game was brought to America by northern Italian immigrants. Many of the Italians were physical laborers in demanding jobs, especially in construction. As this sport required little exertion and offered considerable enjoyment, it became exceedingly popular in Italian Harlem. The first Bocce courts in New York City Parks were established by Mayor La Guardia in 1934 at Thomas Jefferson Park in Manhattan, in the heart of what was then a predominantly Italian neighborhood. The local residents named it their "Italian Park" though it was called the "Thomas Jefferson Park," located at 112th Street and East River drive. Adjacent to the park, the Benjamin Franklin High School was built in 1942 and opened not only to the local Italian students but to other ethnic groups from the surrounding area. Both of these places have had their own stories added to the voluminous pages of Italian Harlem's rich, infamous, turbulent history. For more on this era, read my story "Crusin' The 50's in a Volatile East Harlem."

The Italian community has always fiercely defended what they believed was theirs. It was their park, their neighborhood, their "little Italy" as the over-populated tenement district in East Harlem was then known. Italian Harlem was a small village within a big city.

By the 1930s, Italian Harlem became the most densely populated area of Manhattan, boasting the largest colony of Italian-Americans in the entire United States with a population of circa 100,000 or more.

Bonding Relationships

Life in Italian Harlem during the thirties and forties was filled with tight-knit communities and caring neighbors. Courageous Italians, despite discrimination, hardships and suffering, adapted themselves to their new environment. They promoted and celebrated their culture and religious feasts, customs that were handed down through the generations by immigrant ancestors, once the mainstay of civilization in the neighborhood. It was a neighborhood where lasting relationships were continuously formed. So strong was this sense of neighborhood that many families and their descendants would stay there forever.

Simple Pleasures of Life

The neighborhood brought families and friends together. It was like any other Old Italian neighborhood. There was great affection and respect for one another. The Italians are family people; the simple things in life give them immense pleasure, like strolling up and down the streets greeting everyone with a warm "Buongiorno, come stai?" (Good morning, how are you?) Only to hear: "Sto bene, grazie." (I am well thank you.) They love conversing with neighbors on stoops and doorways. When it would be unbearably hot inside the tenement buildings, they would get blankets and take them to the tarred roof and have a picnic. A common summer sight saw the kids cooling off in the water gushing from an open fire hydrant. Most of all, they simply enjoyed gathering around the kitchen table sipping home-made wine, drinking coffee, eating or playing cards with their families and friends. Most of their conversations usually were at the table where food was ever-present.

Music appeals most strongly to the Italian character. They enjoyed family singing, folk-dancing and native music. Open house parties for friends and friends' friends and relatives were always occurring throughout the neighborhood, complete with mandolins, accordions, and sing-a-longs of popular or operatic pieces performed by amateur talent.

As time marched on, this vibrant, tightly knit culture would be ripped apart by "progress", but that portion of the Italian American heritage in East Harlem, along with the importance of family and community, will be covered in part 2 of this 3 part series!

To be continued: Part 2a

If you want to learn more about Miriam's writing, her old neighborhood's religious feasts, or if you want to see the dancing of the giglio and feel the jubilation of the moment, please visit: The
History Box

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