Cruisin' the 50s in Spanish Harlem
 

By Miriam Medina
 
 

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In New York, especially within East Harlem, the Puerto Ricans also suffered the same hardships and racial discrimination that earlier immigrants such as the Irish, the Italians and the Jewish Community had to endure . Good paying jobs were not available to them due to the lack of the English language and special working skills. They were labeled as minorities suffering widespread discrimination by the hiring practices of businesses.

To the already established Jewish and Italian community who then dominated East Harlem and its economy prior to World War II, the Puerto Ricans with their culture and businesses were becoming a threat because they were catering to their own community and expanding far too rapidly throughout the neighborhood. The Puerto Ricans were apparently different. They had and still have great pride in their national heritage. They spoke the Spanish language that nobody understood, maintaining strong links to their homeland. They just didn't fit the image of what was expected by the current residents. They began replacing the Jewish Delis and Italian grocery stores and markets with their religious shops, bodegas (grocery stores) and restaurants, as well as filling the air with their Latin cuisine and loud Latin' music. The Jewish and the Italian community felt they were taking over and a terrible resentment started to build up and exploded into the "East Harlem Riot of 1926."

These are excerpts from two sources that reflect on the Riot of 1926.

"The precarious proximity of disparate groups exploded in the East Harlem Riot of 1926. The trouble started during July when a heat wave drove people out of their stifling apartments into the streets. Arguments arose, tempers flared, fights broke out, and bottles were thrown. For a week, gangs of old residents battled gangs of new residents. Pushcarts and stores were vandalized on both sides of the ethnic divide. Each group boycotted the other groups' businesses. Over fifty people were badly hurt and three Puerto Ricans were arrested. " (1)

" In July 1926, Puerto Ricans were attacked by non-Hispanics as their numbers were becoming larger in Manhattan neighborhoods. the "riots," took place in the intense heat when Harlem residents literally lived in the streets to escape their suffocating dwellings. The influx of Puerto Ricans, the most recent arrivals in the area of Manhattan called Spanish Harlem, provoked racist hostility among non-Hispanic neighbors, who were mainly of Italian and Irish stock. . The overwhelming heat accelerated this already smoldering resentment, which led to the attacks." (2)

After this incident, many of the Jewish merchants kept their shops and adjusted to the new inhabitants, willingly accepting the Puerto Rican businessmen and learning Spanish.

The projects that were started in the forties, accelerated during the 1950s, where many of deteriorating apartment buildings that had been built before 1901 in East Harlem, were razed. The projects were massive structures that covered whole city blocks, replacing the smaller apartment buildings and brownstones. As a result of these projects, African Americans and Puerto Ricans began moving into them. The Italians were in a better financial scale, and did not qualify for entry, so they moved out of East Harlem. In order to build these projects, 1500 shops were closed and 4,500 people unemployed in the process.

One of the features of the area was the Cosmo Movie Theater that was on 115th Street between 3rd Avenue & Lexington. It was founded in 1922, a one story building with 1405 seats. It was closed down in the 1980s.What a swarm of people to get in. My family used to get free passes from the local cop by the name of "Jack". I use to go a lot to the Cosmo during the 50s, even though gang members would hang out in the area.

The first Puerto Rican Day Parade was held on Sunday, April 13, 1958, in Manhattan and takes place annually along Fifth Avenue and has grown to become the largest parade in New York City, attracting many politicians and celebrities.

The famous "La Marqueta" on Park Avenue, during the 50s was the shopping center for everybody in the neighborhood. It was then and still is a marketplace located under the Metro North elevated railway tracks between 111th street and 116th Street on Park Avenue. It was a unique place known for its hustle and bustle of shoppers chattering and hands gestulating wildly at the Jewish vendors, and, where trains seem to rumble eternally overhead. The Jewish vendors there knew enough Italian and Spanish in order to make a sale.

East Harlem now home to many recent diverse immigrants, is referred to as Spanish Harlem or better yet "El Barrio." When asked "where do you live in Manhattan? They would also proudly identify themselves with their block and neighborhood and say , " Yo soy del Barrio. Vivo en la calle 110. (I'm from El Barrio and I live on 110th street.) In the summer there is always the familiar sight of the piragua man on each corner as well as the sidewalk domino players. The delicious alluring aromas of roast pork, fried steaks with garlic and rice with chicken, from the little cafes and restaurants located throughout Spanish Harlem are carried by the summer breeze, enticing tourists as well as local residents to enter through their doors.

So there you have now some background of what the 40s and 50s were like in East Harlem, or better said Italian Harlem and Spanish Harlem.

FOOTNOTES (for the riot of 1926)

1) The restless city, A Short History of New York From Colonial Times to the Present By Joanne R. Reitano (2006)

2) Dictionary of Latino Civil Rights History by F. Arturo Rosales (2006)
 

 

Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Cruisin' the 50s in Spanish Harlem
Author Miriam Medina

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