The Ebb and Flow of East Harlem's Ethnic Changes

By Miriam Medina
The first settlers of the “Town of New Harlem,” broke ground near the foot of 125th Street  and the Harlem River on the fourteenth of August, 1658. (1)

Harlem  is a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Manhattan, long known as a major African-American residential, cultural, and business center. Originally it was a Dutch village, formally organized in 1658 and remained independent of the City of New York until 1873. It is named after the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands.

The story of the settlement of Harlem forms an interesting part of the early history of this City. Like most new places, it was not born without sacrificing some lives and much property; but, when once the breath of life reached it, it flourished and grew, even in the early Dutch times, and it kept on flourishing and growing, until it reached so far down the island that at last it was swallowed up by the great City. (2)

Harlem, was once a district of quiet farms, where lived a few Hollanders, French Huguenots, Danes, Swedes, and Germans. New Harlem was about 10 miles from the little town of New Amsterdam on the island's southern tip. For three decades the Germans were the dominant element, with the Irish ranking second. The immigration waves of the 1880s and 1890s brought in Jews and Italians. Then the African- American began to come in from downtown, from the South, and from the West Indies. By the 1930s half a million people crowded into the largest slum area in New York.

Harlem’s boundaries are the following: The East Harlem/El Barrio (Spanish Harlem) community stretches from First Avenue to Fifth Avenue and from East 96th Street to East 125th Street. Central Harlem stretches from Central Park North to the Harlem River and from Fifth Avenue to St. Nicholas Avenue. West Harlem, including Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill, stretches from 123rd to 155th Streets and from St. Nicholas Avenue to the Hudson River. (3)

East Harlem has been referred to as "German Harlem, Irish Harlem, Jewish Harlem, Italian Harlem and Spanish Harlem, also commonly known today as "El Barrio."

East Harlem, this was where I was born, raised and lived up to 1962 .  With the help of my oldest  brother Barney's memory I was able to create a vividly detailed memoir of my childhood days growing up in the neighborhood of East Harlem. The building where  we  lived  was located at 1791 Lexington Avenue . It was a 6 story tenement building which had four railroad type apartments to each floor. It was a crowded two bedroom apartment,  quite small for my family of nine--seven children and my parents . This memoir will offer the reader a personal glimpse of tenement living in the forties and early fifties.. If you would like to view the article, Click here..

As far back as I can remember, the area was a mixture of Irish, Italians, Puerto Ricans and a small percentage of the Jewish community. There were also some African American families, not too many and other ethnic groups, but it was minimal in population. During those years, the Italians and Puerto Ricans numerically dominated the area of East Harlem.

The atmosphere was volatile with gang confrontations between the Puerto Ricans and the Italians battling one another to establish and maintain their turf and honor. "In East Harlem the dark-skinned Puerto Ricans organized a gang called "the Viceroys," while the
light-skinned rivals formed the "Dragons." These gangs would fight among themselves as well as with the Italian gangs to the east of which one of them was called "The Red Wings." They even fought against the African-American gangs to the west.
" (5) The block I lived on was called "The Red Wing." The Italian Red Wings, who were East Harlem's largest and most powerful Italian street gang, defended Thomas Jefferson Park which was located between First Avenue and the east river, from 111th to 114th Street. Jefferson Park  included a swimming pool, a baseball diamond, handball and basketball courts, a children's playground and an area for the Italian men to play "boccie." It was free to the public.

This is an excerpt from which will give you an insight into the gangs of that time from my old neighborhood. "Italian Harlem consisted of Italians mostly of the poorer southern provinces of Calabria and Sicily, who settled in the area east of 3rd Avenue, between 110th-125th Streets, known as "Dago Harlem." During the 40s, 50s and early 60s, a street gang known as the Harlem Redwings controlled this turf. Their main rivals in East Harlem were the black Dragons and the Enchanters, a few Irish gangs from Irish Harlem, along with the Puerto Rican Viceroys - who controlled 86th Street.” “The RED WINGS and the DARLING DEBS were known to hang around 120TH and Pleasant Avenue in the area of the Wagner Projects. Red Wing hangouts included: Shep's Candy Store on the corner of 115th and Pleasant Ave. right across the street from Franklin, Artistries on 118th St. and Pleasant  Ave, the Night Hawks on 119th St and Pleasant Ave and Osies Candy Store on 116th St. between 1st and Pleasant Ave. "

Since history is my passion, I would like to take you on a walk through a neighborhood that was once German, Jewish, Irish, then it changed into a Little Italy, with a large influx of Puerto Ricans following and soon thereafter East Harlem became Spanish Harlem known as "El Barrio." Today there is a considerable amount of Central and South American immigrant populations moving into the area which have begun to succeed the Puerto Ricans.

My essay focuses a particularly long lens on New York City's early immigration as well as the progression of East Harlem's ethnic changes. This ebb and flow of a diverse ethnic population has had a tremendous historical significance forming an interesting part of the early history of this city.

Immigration to the United States during the period of the 19th century into the early 20th century has been the focus of much attention. A great mass of emigrants from various origins would leave their places of birth in pursuit of the "American Dream", which
symbolized for them democracy, equality, liberty, justice and most of all material well- being. These emigrants with only the clothes on their backs, lacking funds to support themselves, were totally unprepared for the difficulty of "Reaching for the American

Many of Europe's inhabitants suffered tremendous hardships. Wars, calamities generating poverty, racial prejudices, religious persecution, political oppression, economic causes, tyranny, and prevention of individuals from reaping the rewards of their hard work, were a consistent part of the emigrant's daily existence. As long as those who were victimized remained in their countries, they knew they would continue to be subjected to more of the same.

Of course, not all Europeans were affected; some would choose to leave their country on a temporary nature, seeking better economic opportunities elsewhere before returning home. Often, however, those that ventured to America and prospered economically would remain in their adopted country.

Everyone was looking for a piece of the action as America expanded. Steamship companies, railroad companies, state immigration bureaus, as well as industrial firms and private enterprises, turned to workers in Europe. Ruthless businessmen hired unscrupulous agents to work on commission. They were sent to Europe with a collection of enticing pamphlets, advertisements, drawings and pictures. "Remember promise them anything, just get them over here. There's big bucks in it for you.

The commissioned agents, the "Smooth Operators," exploited the vulnerability of the masses. These operators promised wealth that would prove an illusion. But to the oppressed people of Europe, the hope of economic betterment for themselves and their children was the promise of a life they had long dreamed of. The smooth operator convinced the downtrodden that land was cheap, that jobs were plentiful and that some day they could return to their home country as wealthy land owners.

Approximately 30 million people left Europe for the United States, during the period of 1861-1914.

Industrialization and the establishment of the factory system throughout America offered hope of employment to the destitute of Europe. Most industrialists in America depended on cheap labor from Europe to man the factories, without caring one bit of what would happen to the immigrant laborers after their arrival. The masses flooded the market. With industrialization, vast changes in the United States began taking effect, which would eventually lead to positive as well as grave negative consequences . As a result of these developments, overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions leading to deaths and diseases became evident. The American people began harboring a strong antagonism toward the foreign-born and lower-class groups, whose culture did not fit the role that was to them acceptable . This anti-immigrant sentiment erupted into hate crimes  and violent protest

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In 1895 the Americans were in an uproar to restrict Immigration. Americans urged Congress to pass a measure providing that American consuls in foreign ports would examine all emigrants. Only those with a clean bill of health and a certificate of good character would be permitted to land on these shores. "The great danger from such immigration has in it two aspects at least which are alarming. The first is that while it is steadily increasing in quantity it is also degenerating in quality until our fair and noble land has become the natural cesspool for the reception of the scum and sewerage of all Europe.


 The danger is that our American customs will be supplanted by foreign ideas and that our institutions will be overshadowed and finally overthrown. Look at the immigrants that besiege our shores today. We are crowded with Italians, Poles, Russians, Slavaks, Bohemians and mixed races of the Austrian provinces-people who have the smallest possible, if any, affinity to the people of America, and who do not assimilate and will not take up Americanism, and will not pull in with American institutions and be woven into the texture of American life. We shall find the thousands who are coming here will soon be great enough to eat us, and we'll become foreigners and not foreigners become Americans." (4)


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1) New Harlem Past and Present by Carl Horton Pierce, New Harlem Publishing Company 1903

2) The New York Times January 11, 1880


4) Newspaper: The Brooklyn Eagle February 22, 1895

5) Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings: Youth Gangs in Postwar New York By Eric C. Schneider; Princeton University Press, 1999.


Website: The History
Article Name: The Ebb and Flow of East Harlem's Ethnic Changes
Author written by Miriam Medina


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