New York City - Little Italy
( Originally Published 1924 )
THE downtown Italian quarter extends on the east as far as Forsyth Street, with small infiltrations into Rivington, Houston, Stanton, and Delancey Streets, southward to Pearl and Oliver Streets, and west from Bayard Street through Elizabeth, Mott, Mulberry, and all the streets that run westward to Seventh Avenue, and northward to about Tenth Street, encompassing almost all of Greenwich Village, which was, and still is in a measure, the American quarter of New York. On Bayard Street the Chinese quarter fringes off. The sign of Chon Tu Fa swings in the wind against the sign of the Italian levatrice, the midwife, next door to him. Wherever a few Italian families come to settle, among other evidences the sign of a midwife springs up immediately. And so if by some order all push-carts and names on windows were to be suddenly wiped out, these levatrice signs would be a perfectly safe guide through an Italian quarter.
In former years, before the first generation of Italians had somehow acclimatized itself to conditions, a night visit through Little Italy was not a very safe one. There was too much revolver- and knife-play in the neighborhood. Whether it has been due to stern police reprisals, education, or Americanization, or perhaps prohibition, I do not know, but the fact is that Little Italy, which furnished such a large percentage of the criminal elements of the city, is no longer entitled to that infamy. And if prohibition has done one thing, it has emptied the streets of the Italian quarters of their dangerous gangsters and of their houses of ill fame and their votaries. One is no longer pulled in by women standing in open hallways, offering sensual pleasures within, in the same tone of voice hardware or fish is offered in Turin or Naples. It is, I am told, much more difficult and expensive than it ever was to hire a gangster for some dirty work. These women and men have settled down somewhere to a much more Iucrative and safer profession. They have become respectable citizens, building homes for themselves and raising families. Prohibition has done all that. Bootlegging has reduced the number of prostitutes and gangsters in New York City.
You go down through Park Street, sloping down from around the corner of the Church of the Transfiguration on Mott Street. Mysterious Chinese signs hang on both sides of the street. You come upon the open square of Mulberry Park, deserted in the daytime, and the place of trysts at night. You are in Little Italy, Elizabeth Street, with fruit push-carts on the sidewalks, groaning heavily with all the colors; with deep cellar stores and cellar restaurants, and the odor of fried fish and oil; the cries of the venders in that open-mouthed Latin of the southern Italians are hurled at you. In the upper stores are banking-offices and export-houses combined with cheese and olive wholesalers. The tooting from a boat on the river near-by completes the illusion that you are in Naples. The men, tall and blue eyed, with coal-black mustaches and sonorous voices, and little tufts of hair over the forehead, are mostly Neapolitans. One can easily distinguish them from the rest of the Italians. There is something gay and easy about them, something of the blue sea of their homes. Even as they call out their wares, whether fish or peaches, apples or oranges, dates or figs, they interpolate little phrases from the Italian canzonettas. "0 Sole Mio" or "Santa Lucia."
Go as far as West Houston Street, or better still to Bleecker Street. Don't pass hurriedly by the former residence of Thomas Paine, the Revolutionary patriot. The wash of several Italian families, colored, patched, and clean, fluttering in the wind, hangs. from the window he used' to lean out of when tired reading and smoking. Bleecker Street was once a great residential center. It is now just like any of the shore streets of an Italian port, with music stores combined with barber shops, and dressmaking shops combined with grocers. You may want to stop at one of the music stores where some new canzonetta is tried out. There will be no objection. These canzonettas are turned out by the hundreds weekly, sentimental love-songs, or clever ditties about the eternal subject of mirth, mothers-in-law.
Pass under the elevated station and hurry down further, until you come to Elizabeth Street, then turn back to your right. Pass the old Paradise Park, with its brick-inclosed walls, and you are in the heart of one of the most extraordinary industries of the city.
All that has conic out of garbage-pails--old forks, old knives, broken plates, collar-buttons, old shoes, worn coats, trousers, vests, women's dresses, all that has been discarded by the rest of New York as unfit, as unusable—is being hawked and sold by men dressed in the very. things they buy and sell. It is here that those who have lingered too long in the Bowery come down to change their "good" coat for a worse one, so as to get a few cents in exchange. Vests and hats are being sold from head and body. Shoes are being taken off from feet and sold; pocket-knives, cigarette-cases, everything that can bring in a penny. Things that have been stolen, small things not valuable enough to be pawned, are being disposed of in this way. Across from the power-house, there are several saloons where all these buyers and sellers come together, and in the back rooms the old clothing exchange, where things are thrown in a balance-scale, weighed, and paid for across the counter, re-mind one of the old Moulin de la Galette and the old Place Maube of Paris. The smell of dirt and sweat, and a hundred other indefinable odors, the appearance of the merchants and the sellers, drive one out into the street, despairing of ever breathing fresh air again. The whole street is lined with stores and sweat-shops where bearded old men, bent and half blind, work away to put these old things in a wearable condition, whereupon they are shipped south, after being washed and steamed, for the colored trade.
Turn around and go into Mulberry Street, where both sides are lined with fruit-stand push-carts. What strikes one first is the beauty and the variety of the vegetables and fruits sold there in what is supposed to be one of the poorest quarters. Peaches with blooms on, and the softest and the most luscious plums, the largest apples and most beautiful pears, the cleanest salads, are sorted and handled in the most expert and delicate way, lying near and between each other so as to form a color-scheme--the most
unusual vegetable leaves and roots, coming from the Italian gardens around New York and grown especially for the people here.
Whether winter or summer, the Italians of the district live much more on the street than in their houses. In the summer the houses are almost completely deserted; mother and children, mostly very numerous broods of small ones, wait outside on the steps, or at the hallway, until the last minute before the return of the paterfamilias. And as one looks up and sees the green growth on every window-sill, it makes one think these houses serve no other purpose but to hold these flower-boxes on the windows, and the fire-escapes to serve as poles for the wash-lines hanging between them. It is as if the street were in continual holiday, with the wash of all nations unfolded and fluttering in the wind. And all the time there is the cry of the vender, and the canzonetta sung by the idle merchant, and the sound of the mandolin and the guitar coming from the numerous barber shops in the neighborhood. Oh, these barbers! Each one a cousin of Caruso and a nephew of Verdi.
You may still be able to get a passably good glass of wine in some of the restaurants. It is extraterritorial as far as prohibition is concerned. And a good many Italians speak now with contempt of those who left the country after the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment. Those fools feared not to be able to get their glass of wine with their meal, and did not know how they could live without it. I met an old friend of mine not long ago who had returned to Italy then, swearing never to come back to America. When I asked him what he was doing here again he answered :
"Me did not know `prohibish' was one of the best laws for the poor in this country. You no need no lis', nothing at all."
That is the manner most of the Italians view prohibition. The best law for the poor, bootlegger.
It is in these houses that for years the first inrush of Italians thought the bath-tub was a coal-receptacle, and wondered profoundly when the real use for which the tubs were intended was explained to them. They were outraged to know that children could not go to work before they had reached a certain age, and resented any interference when they had transformed the homes they were living in into sweat-shops. mother, grandmother, and the whole family, to the little suckling, working at something or other. And until a branch of the Garment-workers' Union had been specially formed from them, ameliorating conditions of work and standard of living, I have no doubt that many diseases, the white plague especially, were frequently carried in the garments finished in these decrepit homes. To this day hundreds of homes are really sweat-shops, factories where Fifth Avenue lingerie and the finest of silk gowns are being made for less than one twentieth of the price obtained for them in the big stores.
It is to be expected that the Italian native population, although it has shown a tremendous advance over the native population of any other group till now, will be reduced, though the number of levatrices in the neighborhood is in-creasing. But I have heard a woman singing the praises of one levatrice as follows:
"She is one good. levatrice. I know twenty women, her customers, and in five years they did not get one child. She one good levatrice."
The priests of the neighborhood thunder and cry. Greater powers are competing with them. There is an inverse relation between the increase in the cost of rent and the birth of children. A family of ten or twelve, living in a three-room apartment, is not considered overcrowded by the Italians themselves. On visiting one family some time ago, I expressed wonder to the lady of the house that she was able to live with eight children in a two-room-andkitchen apartment, whereupon the good woman exclaimed:
"We no live in all the apartment. My husband's sister she got four children and she live with us. Half my children, half this room, and half the other room."
"And how do you get on?" I asked.
"Not so very bad," the lady replied. "Only my sister-in-law she take in boarders. They got children. That makes too much noise, a little bit." Of course rent in the Italian quarter is, considering space and service, higher than on Riverside Drive.
The saying that children should be seen and not heard is not a dictum of the Italians. Their children are more frequently heard than seen. There is a continual shouting up from the children on the street to the mothers at the windows and vice versa. There are no curtains to Italian windows. The people are too Latin for that.
There is very little effort on the part of the Italians to learn the language of the country. Being over a million in the city, they are so complete an entity that they do not find it necessary to learn English. Indeed, those who have any business with them must learn Italian, if they intend to get along at all.
The colored people living in Carmine Street speak Italian as well as the Italians. There is an occasional intermarriage between Italians and colored people, as well as be tween Italians and Jews, the latter because of their proximity and because of the garment factories abounding in the neighborhood. On a visit: to Little Italy with my friend Maria Lombardi, who was in search of some canzonettas, we found a colored man, black as pitch, in the store. And it was he who tried out the songs for her, singing them in a full-throated voice, phrasing the Italian much more roundly than the best singers at some of our operas. Upon expressing her wonder she was told the son of Ham was partly Italian.
Of the hundred. societe, mutual-benefit lodges, political groups, named after famous prize-fighters and politicians, most of them are joined for the handsome burials they give their members. Not an Italian family but is indebted , to its neck for burying some one. If you are lucky enough, on turning from Mulberry Street to Bayard Street, you will hear from a distance the blare of trumpets and the roll of drums, playing some funeral music. The musicians march ahead and are followed closely by the members of the società to which the decreased belonged. Some of them are dressed in gala clothes, and others are in their working-garb; they have been just able to jump out for the two or three hours that it takes to accompany the deceased to the Brooklyn Bridge. Then comes the gorgeous-looking hearse and a number of caparisoned carriages, with the under taker acting as major-domo. Burial seems to be held in much greater honor by the Italians than either birth or marriage. People canvassing for such societe are continually' putting forward the number of members who, because of' the heavy fine imposed upon those who refuse, will eventually follow the deceased one, and the number of carriages-after the hearse, as well as the funeral decorations over doors and windows.
Each street has its own patron saint, sometimes several saints, for whom festas and processions are being given at stated days of the year. The particular street, or part of the street, as the case may be, is then decorated with flags and lanterns, and rows of colored oil-lamps overhead. The image of the patron saint is placed on a high pedestal against a wall, with tens of big, tall wax candles burning right and left, and a large collection-box near-by. The societa which had arranged the festa, to which every merchant and every family has contributed, each according to his wealth, is marching to the blare of fanfares in front and in the rear of the procession. Different floats, naively and childishly crude in their arrangement, pass back and forth. Behind the holy image, carried in a baldaquin by bareheaded men holding colored wax candles six feet high in their hands, are carried stretched-out flags for the collection of different moneys supposed to go for this, that, or the other charitable institution.
There is great rivalry between the organizations in charge of the different saints' processions. Many of them are really nothing else but grafting gangs to whom the religiosity of the ceremony is nothing but an excuse. To hear a discussion between such opposing gangs, when the respective saints are being reviled, is a Homeric treat.
Architecturally, Little Italy gives the impression of a town that had suddenly been left by the native inhabitants following an invasion. The invaders, having occupied the houses, let them go to seed, not knowing how long they were to remain there, lest the vanquished suddenly return' to their own homes. The whole district presents the most, pell-mell throwing together imaginable. There is not the, slightest order in the alinement of the streets or in the residential qualities of the adjoining houses. Crumbling-down brick houses lean on wooden barracks which were erected temporarily and have remained so for the last forty or fifty years. Shanties lean on million-dollar industrial buildings. Crooked archways built on ten-foot frontages bulge in the center like a card-house ready to fall.
On Broome Street near Elizabeth Street, where the Ogden Hall once was, between a saloon and a fire-engine company, stands the beautiful Salvatore Church with windows painted loudly, audibly, in red, green, blue, and yellow, as if it were a Village tea-shop. The Broome Street Tabernacle, a most magnificent brick building, ornate and aged, faces Police Headquarters on Center Street, and leans on houses that seem to have been blown there by some wind from the east. From a distance the tall, angular buildings, erected on narrow triangular strips, look like toys built too tall, ready to topple over at a first shake.
There is St. Patrick's Church on Mulberry Street, going through and occupying a full block to Mott Street, squat and square, as though sitting on the ground, surrounded by a brick wall with iron-clad doors pierced through the brick that time has somewhat worn. The broken windows of the colored panels, running all around and almost to the ground of the edifice, the leaking roof, the patches of re-pair on the cracked walls, leave one with the feeling that this church was built within a fortress, as though in inimical territory, though the few trees within the fortress are the only ones in the neighborhood. Fantastic, the cracked toy building, as if erected by the hasty hands of some children playing at building, stands a little brick house on the corner of Houston Street leaning on the church. The window-frames are oblique; the doors are hinged on a side, with a little toy balcony over the first roof. And as if to mock the whole thing, the enormous Puck Building, with its severe and magnificent: doorway, looms up near-by. Crowding one another as if drunken and afraid of falling, trying to support one another, stand all the houses on Mott Street from one end to the other. A little further up is Colonnade Row, in Lafayette Street, from one of whose houses President Tyler married Julia Gardiner of Gardiner's Island. John Jacob Astor was once a resident of Colonnade Row. . . . Colonnade Row, like the architectural survival of some remote past.
There is a passageway about four feet wide between 311 and 313 Lafayette Street, between two tall buildings. Half the bootleg traffic of the quarter is transacted there. Not very long ago, the meeting-place of the C. K. Club of the neighborhood was here. The C. K. Club, which I joined many, many years ago, was the Captain Kidd Exploration Club. It was composed of about twenty-five Italian boys of the neighborhood, who met regularly every morning with demountable spades under their coats, to go down to Liberty Street, to the supposed site of the home of Captain Kidd, and dig under the buildings in search of hidden treasure. Those were exciting days, and my little friends hoped to some day . . . but time is cruel, more so than age. .
When I last visited the C. K. Alley, most of ny old C. K. "brothers" were there, only in spats and expensive furcoats, with goggles and leather gloves, while the running engines of their big cars were waiting for them outside. They were still out for treasures, and they had found an easier way than to dig for the ones under Captain Kidd's house, the house of our dreams.
"Where is Pietro?"
"Pietro was shot dead," Moreno informed me. "And Joseph?"
"Joseph is in jail."
"Amato is all right."
"All right," also were Cordova and Charles, and Nardo. And "all right" meant he was in the Volstead business.
Next to C. K. Alley is Shinbone Alley, the dirtiest shame of the whole city. One can literally wallow in dirt to his knees after a rainy day. A suffocating stench vapors from the ground on the warm days; children play in the gutter; the little mothers in charge of the tots, left with them by the mothers who have gone to work in the factories around, play in the dirt, and black flies cover their pale, sickly faces. It is just across from the Speyer Hospital for Animals. Really there is much greater concern for the welfare of dogs in this city than for children.
As if to show that there is still something of old romance and adoration left in the hearts of men, there is a brick building on Lafayette Street with the word "Mary" in big gold letters over it. Cleveland Place is a little square between Kenmare and Lafayette Streets, just facing the office of "La Folia," the humorous Italian weekly. It still presents some appearance of orderliness, for t was until not very long ago inhabited by a survival of the great number of French people who had once occupied 1. hat district.
As early as seven o'clock in the morning num erous children wait on the door-steps of the public schools in the neighborhood. Their parents having gone to work, there is no other place for them. For their delectat on and edification there are daily dog-fights in the street, between dogs of rival kennels, kept in the cellars of the neighbor-hood.
The beautiful Church of Our Lady of Pompeii, with most magnificent round panel windows, is a near neighbor of Jimmy's Restaurant, from which emanates so much interesting news in the daily papers—news of battles and fights and scandals. It is not very far from the Garret, now Grace's 'Tea-;coin, in which Washington is supposed once to have lived. It is in this garret that the. first Village newspaper was published. When a fire destro yed it partly a few years ago, many original manuscripts of Wilde, owned by the man who inhabited the place, ,'ere burned, as well as several original drawings by Aubrey Beardsley. To-day the Garret, once a meeting-place of artists of all branches, is the rendezvous of those who come "to see" the Village.
Then there are the dark streets of Mercer, Greene, and Wooster, dark and deserted at night; for they, are occupied ' mostly by factories in which work fourteen nationalities elbow to elbow, hatting, dressing, and clothing the rest. of the country. The streets are completely dead a ter nightfall except for the hollow sound of the hickory club of the night-watchman on the sidewalk, an occasional fire, and the unsupportable odor coming out from the windows of the factories being cleaned for the following day's work.
By reason of a thousand causes, little barracks on ten or twelve-foot frontages separate huge buildings. There are empty places in which all the refuse of the neighbor-hood is being thrown.
Coming upward, there is little Congress Street, back of the old Republican Club on King Street, with an old brick stable that-was built in the days when this was still Greenwich, and horse-carriages were a necessity and in style. A minute's walk from there is a beautiful row of buildings erected by Frenchmen, with love for vine-covered fronts and lace portals, now occupied by Dante Alighieri pastry-shops, pleasure-clubs, and such like. Across from it, on Macdougal Street, where the invasion has not completely destroyed all the old homes of the only American quarter of the city, stands a new row of studio buildings, just below Bleecker Street, in which some of the old architecture of the neighborhood has been revived. There are any number of magnificent doorways and windows in the vicinity that should be retrieved and conserved, which are now being hacked to pieces every time one of the old buildings crumbles down and a new one goes up in its place. Such doorways and windows will never be made again.