Manhattan’s one-time biggest Little Italy

Mulberry Street does a better job of selling itself as Manhattan’s authentic Italian enclave.

But before World War II, the Little Italy of East Harlem had three times the population of the Little Italy centered around Mulberry Street.

In 1930, about 89,000 Italians of various regions lived in mostly crummy tenements from 96th Street to 125 Street East of Lexington Avenue.

“In Italian Harlem there was on East 112th Street, a settlement from Bari; on East 107th Street between First Avenue and the East River, people from Sarno near Naples,” writes historian Gerald Meyer.

“On East 100th Street between First and Second Avenues, Sicilians from Santiago; on East 100th Street, many Northern Italians from Piscento; and on East 109th Street, a large settlement of Calabrians.”

Uptown Little Italy’s biggest festival was the feast of the Madonna of Monte Carmelo. Crowds of half a million would attend. (The photo above documents the festival in 1954.)

After World War II, many of the old tenements were razed to make way for new public housing projects; Italian Americans moved out as the Hispanic population swelled.

The main drags of East Harlem, 106th and 116th Streets, have long since lost an Italian feel; the elegant Italian Savings Bank on 116th Street is now a funeral home.

But a few Italian businesses still exist, like famous Patsy’s Pizza, at First Avenue and 117th Street.

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11 Responses to “Manhattan’s one-time biggest Little Italy”

  1. Peteski Says:

    No news here, my grandmother wanted to move to Harlem when she came to America because – according to my Grandfather – “she liked gangsters”. Swear to Christ.

  2. T.J. Connick Says:

    Your readers can find absorbing interviews with old residents of Harlem in Jeff Kisseloff’s You Must Remember This. So apart were some residents in mind and spirit from the great storm of activity outside the district that they referred to a trip downtown as “going to America”.

    A secondary factor contributing to the dissolution of the old neighborhood was a significant move – accelerated by the opening of the Triborough in the 1930s – across the river to Astoria and, to a lesser extent, Corona. Astoria had its own “settlements” to which Harlem residents were drawn. To those with a bit of capital, it also offered modest home-owning possibilities that were unavailable in Harlem. A high-profile manifestation of the phenomenon was seen in the well respected Farengas, who maintained for generations distinguished funeral homes on both sides of the river.

    It is an overlooked, but nonetheless bitter truth that Italians long suffered terrific discrimination. Well after other immigrant groups had attained position fueled by the mighty stream of jobs, the Italians found themselves languishing. Changes got underway with solidifying and expanding positions in some of the building trades, teamed with initially small, but ever-widening presence in the Post Office, Sanitation, and Parks. Families did not thereby enjoy instant wealth, but began to escape the repudiation that had so sharply constrained the actions and movements of their parents and grandparents.

  3. Tweets that mention Manhattan’s one-time biggest Little Italy « Ephemeral New York -- Topsy.com Says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Marco Romano, Rob Starobin. Rob Starobin said: Manhattan’s one-time biggest Little Italy http://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/2011/02/14/manhattans-one-time-biggest-little-italy [...]

  4. Julian Says:

    That sure looks like Marcus Garvey in the procession photo, on the right, with the sword.

    Great site. Thanks.

    • wildnewyork Says:

      Thank you. He does look like Marcus Garvey . . . who had a penchant for high school marching band-like hats and uniforms!

  5. Mike Amato Says:

    my grandfather and great-grandparents were a few of those 89,000 living in East Harlem then, and great-granddad was one of the thousands of Italians building the subway.

  6. When Harlem was Manhattan’s “Finntown” « Ephemeral New York Says:

    [...] century. That didn’t stop other ethnic groups from carving out neighborhoods there—such as Little Italy on First Avenue and El Barrio east of Lexington [...]

  7. Three ways of looking at a Lexington Avenue corner « Ephemeral New York Says:

    [...] 1915, when this photo was taken, Lexington Avenue at 116th Street was firmly in the Little Italy of East Harlem, hence the Italian in the signs on the far right above a chemist’s [...]

  8. Italian Savings Bank, East Harlem 1928 | Says:

    [...] From Ephemeral New York: [...]

  9. Italian Savings Bank, East Harlem 1923 | Says:

    [...] From Ephemeral New York: [...]

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