Section:  Italian Harlem: Cruisin' the 50s #2

Directory: New York City History

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The Third Avenue "El"

The Third Avenue "El" one of the many important features of East Harlem, brings back memories of the old neighborhood.

The elevated train is described from a passenger's point of view in the following manner:" the fleeting intimacy you formed with people in second-and third-floor interiors, while all the usual street life went on underneath, had a domestic intensity mixed with a perfect repose that was the last effect of good society with all its security and exclusiveness. He said it was better than the theater, of which reminded him, to see those people through their windows: a family party of workfolk at a late tea, some of the men in their short-sleeves; a woman sewing by a lamp; a mother laying her child in it's cradle; a man with his head fallen on his hands upon a table; a girl and her lover leaning over the windowsill together. What suggestion! What drama! What infinite interest! "

In the past, the presence of the El generated some negative reactions from the public and horse-car drivers. Citizens complained about how close the el was almost touching the buildings , the thunderous sounds from the train of cars whizzing by, the horrible shriek and squeak of metal on metal, sparks falling upon the pedestrians and igniting store awnings, scaring and causing the horses to buck and madly run away crashing their vehicles against the columns of the El and most of all the lack of privacy and exposure to the dirt floating into their windows for those who lived in the upper tenement floors, as well as darkening the streets and lower apartments of the dwellings.

The Third avenue "El" came down in the early 1950s and Third Avenue became a business center with high rise office and residential buildings.







(The Last Train Ride Through East Harlem) 1955





Photo Courtesy: Bobby Maida (Photographer)-Giglio Society All Rights Reserved.


Bobby's East Harlem Website



Photo Courtesy:

"The popularity of bocce meant that by the 1950s, bocce courts had become common features alongside shuffleboard courts, handball courts, and horseshoe pits in playgrounds across the city. By the 1950s, Parks Department counted bocce as one of the "popular activities that lure New Yorkers. Bocce is played predominantly by Italian communities, especially those in New York. 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 middle of what was then a predominantly Italian neighborhood." (


Photo Courtesy: Ben Piven (Photographer)  All Rights Reserved


Visit Ben Piven's Blog: "Italian Harlem: Claudio's Barber Shop"



Courtesy of History


This was my brother Micheal. He was a boxer at the Boy's Club. The Parking Lot was on 111th Street across from the Gas Tanks in italian Harlem. The Parking Lot belonged to the Salernos, my brother in law's family business. See the cars from the 50s in the background.


New York Gangs

A sociological in-depth study of gangs, in order to give the American society a better understanding of the gang lifestyle.


So while all these changes were going on throughout the United States, what was happening in East Harlem during the 1950s?

First of all, let me give you a little bit of background as to how the early Italian immigrants came to East Harlem prior to the 1950s. In the late 1870s a padrone arranged for a group of immigrant Italians to work on the extension of the First Avenue trolley tracks. They worked under horrifying conditions for terribly low wages. The Irish were already living in East Harlem and resentment from the Irish was starting to build up against the newly arrived Italians who began competing for their jobs. The first Italians in East Harlem were strike-breakers hired by Irish American Contractor, J. D. Crimmins, to work on the First Avenue Trolley Tracks when strikes occurred, angering the Irish workers greatly. As a result of this the striking Irish workers were all fired. Great tension existed between the fired workers and the newly arrived Italians as they co-existed within blocks of each other in East Harlem . There were also frequent gang violence encounters between the Irish and Italians over their terfs.

A large number of southern Italians that arrived in NYC during the last quarter of the 19th century from the regions of Basilicata, Calabria and Sicily established their communities in East Harlem which by the 1930s became the largest Italian settlement in the city. In the 1930s they lived mostly between 104th and 119th streets, from Third Avenue to the East River. By 1880, elevated trains ran as far north as 129th Street. In the 1890s, eager to escape the congestion of the notorious Mulberry bend area of lower Manhattan with its filthy overcrowded tenements, inadequate water and sanitation provisions, the early Italian immigrants moved by the masses to East Harlem. They lived mainly around 106th street in the area east of Third Avenue to the East River, housed in single-story lean-to shanties that were built along the water.

By the 1950s, the area of East Harlem 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, nevertheless it was enough to produce an atmosphere of tension, especially following the years of the depression and  world war II . This tension  was progressively heightened within the mixed groups. .  East Harlem contained the largest established Italian community which grew substantially during the 1920s into the 30s and 40s. As a result of air travel commencing in 1945 and a one-way ticket from San Juan to New York costing less than $50,  the steady flow of Puerto Rican migration which had begun during World War I, had reached  an immense proportion, of circa 70,000 to 250,000 between 1940-1950 that it overwhelmed the communities that were already established  since the 40s, and began forming their own distinctive neighborhoods. One of the first areas to settle was 116th street and Third avenue before moving on much later to the South Bronx. By the time the 50s came around, the Italians and Puerto Ricans numerically dominated the area of East Harlem.. The Puerto Ricans became such a significant and obvious presence in East Harlem in the 1950s that the area gained the familiar name of "Spanish Harlem" known also as "El Barrio."  While the Puerto Rican population began saturating the East Harlem area, both Italians and Puerto Ricans found themselves in constant conflict competing for housing, educational and employment resources.

Despite their fierce ethnic clashes, these two separate groups, Italians and Puerto Ricans were integrated, even though  in different ways, into the texture of East Harlem. The  simple and complicated circumstances that affected each of these groups that were actively engaged in a constant counter-struggle for culture and ethnic identity during the 50s ,are explored briefly in this narrative, in the hopes of establishing some probable reasons for the change  from the "Little Italy"  of East Harlem to Spanish Harlem, known as "El Barrio."

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. "  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 . "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. "
Italians, since their arrival several generations earlier  would seize upon entrepreneurial opportunities, establishing small self-employed and family enterprises. Bakeries, fruit and vegetable stores, grocery stores, funeral homes, restaurants, coal and ice delivery, tile and marble, candy stores, delicatessens, pizza parlors and barber shops began mushrooming during the 40s and 50s, all over Italian Harlem. Down by First avenue, near Jefferson Pool area, there was an Italian vendor who had a stand that would fry the zeppoli right there. This vendor made alot of money with that stand, because he knew that after a day of exercise of playing in the park, pool, everyone would be  hungry and ready for his fried zeppolis. Italian Harlem with all its little businesses, was thriving economically  All the vendors looked forward to the yearly festival of Mount Carmel, where thousands would flock  to the festa, enjoying the food and games, bands and dancing , the parading of La Madonna through the neighborhood's streets where  fireworks were lit, and  prayers launched heavenward.. The church on 115th street was transformed more into an Italian-American parish during the 40s and 50s. The Feast of the Dance of the Giglio on 106th street  became the largest street fair in Italian Harlem, remaining that way until 1955 then moving a couple of blocks to 108th street where it continued until 1971.

 Statistics say that in 1952, about one million American teenagers were in trouble with the police. In New York City during the 50s there existed at least several hundreds of gangs.  Benjamin Franklin High School was opened in 1942 on Pleasant Avenue between 114th and 116th streets. In the late 1940s, the area around the Benjamin Franklin High School was controlled by Italian youth gangs, some say it was the Red Wings. "It was their Turf," and if any African-American or Puerto Rican, tried to use the Jefferson Park pool, they would be attacked. To make matters worse, even inside the school the Puerto Rican students were assaulted. Benjamin Franklin was a volatile mixture comprised of young people with active gang affiliation and kids from different neighborhoods.  The dominant group, claiming their rights to Benjamin Franklin as "Their Turf," would threaten and attack gang members that were a minority. The  atmosphere was continually charged with verbal and physical violence, which were prevalent in frequent confrontations in the school yards, hallways or even in the bathrooms with vandalism against school property .   Not only were the Latinos assaulted by the Italian gangs, but the black students as well  would be targeted as a barrage of bricks, bottles and rotted garbage would be thrown from the rooftops of the tenement buildings near the school. It was dangerous to go to school, and a lot of the students were plain scared of being jumped on, beaten up every time, or knifed, so they had no choice but  to fight and defend themselves, be called a punk or run as fast as their legs could carry them.  Some students would even join gangs from either side, just for protection, whereas many would drop out of school at ages 14-17.  One day in 1946, Mayor LaGuardia , brought with him Frank Sinatra, Josh White, Nat King Cole and Paul Robeson, to the Benjamin Franklin High School (where my oldest brother Barney was attending at the time  and who was also a member of one of the well known gangs of the area)  to bring harmony to the neighborhood. In 1957 the Leonard Covello Scholarship Fund at Benjamin Franklin was established.

Vito Marcantonio 1902-1954

Vito Marcantonio, "Defender of Human Rights," a Congressman from East Harlem from 1935 to 1950, was known for his undying commitment to his constituents, which included Italian, Puerto Rican and African Americans. He was born and raised in East Harlem and he knew everybody in that district: good, bad, doctors, lawyers, thieves, honest people and just about everybody. Many recalled his reaching into his pockets to help those facing eviction or in need of school clothing for their children. He was born in 1902 in Italian Harlem which was the largest and most Italian of all the Little Italies, where he lived throughout his entire life, maintaining his boyhood friendships including those who had joined the Mafia. He even got a shave every morning in the barbershop across the street from his home on 116th street. He was a familiar figure to all, as he marched in the annual procession of the festa of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Everywhere in East Harlem he was loved by its remarkable community. On August 9, 1954 on the east side of Broadway at Warren Street, Vito Marantonio fell dead. Italian Harlem, responded in unity by organizing the largest funeral in its history. "Over 20,000 people passed his bier and his 97-vehicle cortege, which included 15 flower cars, passed a community where black-draped signs read "We Mourn Our Loss." He was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery, 50 feet from LaGuardia's burial place.

Life in Italian Harlem during the 30's-40's was one of tight-knit communities and supportive neighbors, but the character of the community changed in the years after the war. Public housing which began in the forties, accelerated during the 1950s, where many of the deteriorating tenement buildings which had been built before 1901 in Italian Harlem , were razed. Nearly 85% of those tenements lacked a tub or a shower, and some didn't even have private toilets. The projects which  were massive structures covering whole city blocks, began replacing the smaller tenement buildings and brownstones.  Since the Italian-Americans and their families in East Harlem were in a better earning capacity  during the 50s ,they were not able to meet the income requirements for admission. As a result of these projects,  East Harlem changed, as African Americans and Latinos began moving into the projects and at least 1500 retail stores employing 4,500 people had been eliminated in the process. By the time World War II broke out, and in the post-war years,  Italians by then had achieved some political power as well as greatness in sports,  arts and sciences. . Improvement in the American economy, expansion of higher education, suburbanization and government assistance to veterans were conditions in the post-World War II years. These conditions provided favorable circumstances for economic advancements. During the postwar  years, the money that the Italians were able to scrimp and save gave them the opportunity for sweeter prospects, namely a house in the suburbia, with a patch of grass, two car garage and a driveway with a basketball net. Thus began a steady migration of  Italian Americans moving away from East Harlem to private home ownership in other suburban areas of New York City (the 5 boroughs) and Westchester County and those that remained in East Harlem resided along First or Pleasant Avenues.

Nostalgia for an era that once existed.......

Italian Harlem and its memory is still cherished by those who moved on to the "Dolce vita Lifestyle." Sadly to say,  an entire generation of our parents and grandparents, who once lived there most of their lives, have passed on. It is  the second and third generation of Italian-American children and past residents of  the 40s-60s, that are now parents and grandparents who continue to cherish the vivid memories of their youth growing up in the old neighborhood of Italian Harlem. Since then, everything seems to have changed .

Even though East Harlem is now home to many recent diverse immigrants, there are still Italian Americans that continue to promote and celebrate their heritage and religious feasts; customs that were handed down through the generations by their immigrant ancestors who were once the cornerstone of civilization in this neighborhood. Today Italian Harlem has become a mere shadow of its former self, yet inexplicably there still seems to linger, those unforgettable touching memories of an era that has long ceased to exist.

Nostalgic  pleasant memories of the open house parties for friends and their friend's friends and relatives, complete with mandolins, accordions, sing-a-longs of popular and operatic pieces by amateur talent; an unforgettable place where they would return annually to the hustle and bustle of the feast to express their ancestors' struggles and achievements;, sit with old friends and reminisce or just wander around the old neighborhood, stopping in at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, to say their novenas, visit the unforgettable Patsy's pizza parlor, or if they are lucky to get in, the hyper exclusive Rao's restaurant..

Most of all, those who once  lived in Italian Harlem whether it be in the 40s-60s, whenever they would refer to her even to this day, would proudly identify themselves with their blocks and neighborhoods, such as "I'm from a hun' twelve,  he's from a hun'six , and guess what,  yours truly once lived between a hun' leven and a hun' twelve on Lex and I can truly say with the others,  I am damn proud of it. .


 So now let's go cruisin' through the other part of East Harlem which is "Spanish Harlem."  Are you ready?


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