Nostra Bella Paese, Piccolo Italia

By The Other Guy | June 29, 2020

New York City - Little Italy
New York City – Little Italy

The late 1800s, into the early 1900s were a very pivotal era for European immigrants, whether they be Irish, Jewish, or Italian nationals.

They each came to America seeking a better life than the poverty and famine they’d known all their lives that they left behind in their beloved homelands. Mostly destitute lives that they now hoped to scratch and claw their way out of.

The cobblestone streets of Little Italy held a magic all its own. The barrels on the flatbed wagon, the formal dress and top hats if the day. Wow! Simply magical.
The cobblestone streets of Little Italy held a magic all its own. The barrels on the flatbed wagon, the formal dress and top hats if the day. Wow! Simply magical.

Their arduous journey would require enduring the worst possible conditions imaginable. Fathers and mothers with their infants and young children. Elderly grandparents, young and old single people alike traveling alone, all stuffed in the bowels of a damp freighter, amid their own excrements, with little food except for hard bread and water, while sailing the vast expanse of the deep blue Atlantic Ocean, in route to the “New World.”

The harshest of conditions: minimal food and provisions, embarrassingly being forced to go to the bathroom in front of each other in a smelly bucket that was passed around. Sickness and disease all around them, loneliness, famine, and more.

Often hundreds would be jammed into cramped quarters like so many heads of cattle. They sometimes had to pile on top of one another, or jammed shoulder to shoulder with hardly enough room to stretch their legs and arms in the damp, dark hull of the ship.

They were treated as “freight” or cattle, as opposed to human beings with feelings, dignity and respect. Cramped quarters with no sunlight or fresh air to breath for weeks on end.

A 1920s street scene featuring street traffic and the typical fashion of the day. Notice how it was so common for people to walk in the center of the street. So few owned automobiles that it didn’t even matter.
A 1920s street scene featuring street traffic and the typical fashion of the day. Notice how it was so common for people to walk in the center of the street. So few owned automobiles that it didn’t even matter.

There were many who didn’t survive that journey. And of the ones that did, who were lucky enough to even reach America’s shores, sailing through New York’s Ellis Island to view Lady Liberty proudly holding her torch of freedom in her raised hand, many were so exhausted and beaten down by the time they arrived, that they could hardly form a smile on their sunken, impoverished faces.

For although they had now arrived to the New World, where the streets were said to be “paved with gold”, most were more frightened than excited by the prospect of starting anew in a strange land, where they couldn’t speak the language and had no idea of its customs or what may lay ahead.

The Italian immigration experience accounted for a huge influx of these early newcomers. They would disembark at New York’s Ellis Island, and go through a rigorous, and often times embarrassing, lonely experience, which served as their first contact with “la americani”.

They were held in quarantine for weeks, sometimes many months, before being released onto New York’s crowded streets.
Most were quickly drawn to neighborhoods throughout the city that became known as “Little Italy’s”. Areas where their fellow Italians had settled before them.

Young Italian teenagers hawking fresh hot loaves of Italian bread on a street in New York’s Little Italy. Note the Avallone Bicycle Shop in the background, and the heavily mustached immigrant in the foreground.
Young Italian teenagers hawking fresh hot loaves of Italian bread on a street in New York’s Little Italy. Note the Avallone Bicycle Shop in the background, and the heavily mustached immigrant in the foreground.

The two largest and best known of which were in Manhattan itself. One was up in East Harlem along First, Second, and Pleasant Avenues.

The other was Downtown on the Lower East Side, bordered by the Bowery and Canal Street, right on up through Houston Street to approximately 15th Street, off First Avenue.

Once there, most settled into rooming houses, or small cramped apartments with family and relatives. Or with “amici” from the old country, who provided shelter and food until the newcomers became adjusted to their new surroundings.

It was a good thing too. Because more often than not, they were faced with a tremendous prejudice and bias against them.
Greaseballs, Dagos, Wops, and Spaghetti Benders were among the favorites names and epithets hurled their way by the Irish, Germans, and English who came before them.

Jobs were very scarce. Good jobs almost unheard of. Many Americans wouldn’t even rent an apartment to an Italian family.

Circa 1940s - at its peak, New York’s Little Italy hosted the “Festa di San Gennaro”, the largest and most elaborate Italian Street feast in all of the United States. It ran for almost 15 city blocks in length, and was 4 blocks wide...
Circa 1940s – at its peak, New York’s Little Italy hosted the “Festa di San Gennaro”, the largest and most elaborate Italian Street feast in all of the United States. It ran for almost 15 city blocks in length, and was 4 blocks wide…

There was no such thing as health insurance or a welfare system. Not that Italians would ever accept welfare anyhow. The Italian people were much too proud for any of that!

They dug holes. They cleaned sewers. They worked as scours on garbage tugboats, and on sanitation gangs on the city’s streets…and those were the lucky ones!

Because by and large many couldn’t even find work at any wage. And if they did on occasion, It was for a single days labor at slave wages, typically at the hands of some Irish work boss, who treated the Italian worker as lower than dirt. Hence the term “Dago”, which meant “work for the “day”, and then “let go”.

Many Italians were looked upon as no better than a negro. With our typical darker Mediterranean olive skin, dark hair and eye color, we were often cast as “white ni- – – rs.

Side Note: Most of these arriving Italians were either from Sicily, or the Southern Italian regions of Campania and Calabria…the forgotten “il Mezzo Giorno”, or “The Half Day”.

They were the other half of Italy’s people who had long been forgotten and discarded by the snooty north, the “Alti Italiani”, or “High Italians”, as we Southern Italians disparagingly referred to them as.

Pushcarts were a common sight in Little Italy, not only along Mulberry Street, but throughout the entire area. Many an immigrant eked out a living by pushing the their cart all day long hawking his wares, whether it be fruit and vegetables, clothes, or whatever else he could buy and sell.
Pushcarts were a common sight in Little Italy, not only along Mulberry Street, but throughout the entire area. Many an immigrant eked out a living by pushing the their cart all day long hawking his wares, whether it be fruit and vegetables, clothes, or whatever else he could buy and sell.

You see in Italy’s history, we had what was known as “The Kingdom of the Two Italy’s”…A more appropriate terminology might have been “the haves and have nots!”

The wealthier and better educated Italians, the northern half of the country, often looked down on the poorer southern half of its populous.

In addition, no government help, financial or otherwise, was typically ever forthcoming from the powers that be up in Rome. It was as if the South was discarded. And this mentality was reflected in the services that the Italian government provided the south, or should I say the lack thereof.

So, it was a blessing that many had connections to their former countrymen who had arrived before them, and formed this human platform by which the newest immigrants could attach themselves, and help springboard into a secure lifestyle…but it wasn’t easy..Because many an immigrant struggled even with such connections and “ties that bind”.

Side Note: We learned to help ourselves, and each other. Because outsiders, which included the government and all strangers were not to be trusted! Only immediate family and the closest of friends, or “amici”, could be depended upon in times of real need…THIS is also one of the pillars that “the brotherhood”, or Mafia, was built around. To take care of our own people. Our own problems…it is a very Italian based mindset!

In truth, the Mafia in many ways is just one small facet and extension of the Italian mentality. It was formed in part to combat these prejudices. To even up the “playing field” so to speak, in order to give a downtrodden people the upper hand.

A 1920s photo of a typical Italian neighborhood combo bakery-sweets shop, the S. Gennaro Napoli “cosa dolce” shop.
A 1920s photo of a typical Italian neighborhood combo bakery-sweets shop, the S. Gennaro Napoli “cosa dolce” shop.

It was built on a foundation of the Italian pillars for love of family, respect for our elders and superiors, cohesion and solidarity between our family and close amici, tenets of the Catholic Religion, and us helping one another in times of need, etc… it may be a corrupted version of those traits, but the brotherhood was built on them nonetheless.

I have gathered together some very unique old photos that I think help to capture the flavor and mood of the day. Many of these classic pictures were taken back in the early 1900s through 1920s era.

I followed up with several snapshots through the 1950s to 1970s era, while these classic Little Italy neighborhoods were still mostly intact and retained the flavor and essence of what Little Italy was, and had meant to people, not only to Italians but to New York’s general populous as well.

Little Italy is as much a part of the intrinsic fabric of The Big Apple as Chinatown, Greenwich Village, or any other section ever was.

1950s - Summer in NYC’s Little Italy
1950s – Summer in NYC’s Little Italy

In fact, its values are national in scope because so many millions and millions of Italians who later fanned out to other parts of the country had first settled into its environs.

Side Note: For lack of a better word, they were in essence ghettos. Italian ghettos, but ghettos nonetheless. Yet we never thought of them like that. Because we Italian people always took great pride in our neighborhoods and kept our neighborhoods “spic and span” clean. These areas were vibrant Meccas of Italian life.

Little expresso cafes and family-run restaurants that served the most delicious foods and delicacies one could imagine. Neighborhood shops and stores of every stripe that catered to every need it’s residents had.

Butcher shops with the finest cuts of meat, fresh fish stores, salumerias, fruit and vegetable stands, pizzerias, candy and fountain shops, cafes and delicious Italian bakeries that sold fresh, hot bread and the finest of pastries.

Pharmacies, barbers, beauty shops, and stores that sold imported Italian-fashion clothes and shoes, laundromats, dry cleaners and expert tailors, book stops, real estate offices…the list of thriving small businesses in these Little Italy’s was seemingly never ending.

My own immediate family, as well as those of untold thousands of other Italian families started out in these areas, before later fanning out to the outer boroughs and suburbs of Long Island, Westchester and New Jersey.

The boroughs of Brooklyn and the Bronx had many such pockets of strong Italian neighborhoods.

1950s - Italian Festa in Cleveland’s Italian section.
1950s – Italian Festa in Cleveland’s Italian section.

The Bronx had its Arthur Avenue and Morris Park sections. Brooklyn had it’s Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, Coney Island, Red Hook, Downtown Brooklyn, and Williamsburg sections, to name but a few. Staten Island had its South Shore and many other pockets of Italians.

Queens had its Ridgewood, Maspeth-Middle Village, Corona, Astoria, Jamaica, and South Ozone Park sections.

Others journeyed to the Northern areas of the state such as Troy, Schenectady, Utica, Syracuse, and the City of Buffalo, where each had its own version of a Little Italy.

Many Italians would make the additional trek to other states, drawn by the prospect of blood family and friends, or the possibility of steady employment, where “Little Italy’s” and “Little Sicily’s” had similarly formed.

Good examples of this exodus are Federal Hill in Providence, Rhode Island. The Italian stronghold of Bloomfield in Pittsburgh. Boston’s North End, South Philadelphia’s Italian Market section, The Hill and Mayfield Road section of Cleveland, Southeast Baltimore’s Little Italy, and Chicago’s Little Sicily on the Near North Side.

Florida had it’s Tampa, San Francisco’s had its North Beach and Wharf area, and so on.

Side Note: If you notice, these locations correlate almost perfectly with cities across the country where the mafia formed “borgatas” or Families. Twenty-six such Families, and many more satellite regimes and outposts in various smaller locales and towns. Nearly everywhere a major “Little Italy” sprung up, a correlating mafia network formed as well. It’s just how things were back in the old days.

Many who became members were drawn from our family and friends. Fathers, grandfathers, uncles, cousins, brothers, boyhood buddies. It was a common neighborhood occurrence and just the way life was…it was no big deal to us.

If there was only one photo available to explain what New York’s Mulberry Street area looked like, THIS would be it! Note the laundry hanging out of the apartment windows and along the fire escapes. The vendors pushcarts all loaded lining the curbs, the horse and wagon ready for local deliveries, and residents going about their day.
If there was only one photo available to explain what New York’s Mulberry Street area looked like, THIS would be it! Note the laundry hanging out of the apartment windows and along the fire escapes. The vendors pushcarts all loaded lining the curbs, the horse and wagon ready for local deliveries, and residents going about their day.

As the Italians assimilated into this country, becoming better educated and rising in wealth and status, they and their children would move out from these original Little Italy’s to purchase their own homes in the outer suburbs and counties.

They had achieved “The American Dream” as the old saying goes.

But their hearts always remained back in the original little apartments and tenements they grew up in, back in the respective Little Italy neighborhoods of their youth.

Because those walls still echoed the hallowed voices of their grandmothers and grandfathers, moms and dads, uncles, aunts, cousins and childhood friends of yesteryear.

Sitting on the stoop, or on beech Chairs on the sidewalk was a favorite pastime in Italian neighborhoods. Especially during the hot summers before air conditioning was invented.
Sitting on the stoop, or on beech Chairs on the sidewalk was a favorite pastime in Italian neighborhoods. Especially during the hot summers before air conditioning was invented.

A simpler time for sure. And I think quite possibly a purer time as well. When Family was closer and more involved in each other’s lives.

We lived in the same apartment house as my grandparents, three of my uncles and aunts, and a small tribe of first and second cousins.

Directly across the street lived three more uncles and aunts, and another half dozen cousins to boot! And within six, seven blocks were even more relatives.

And in between all that resided hundreds of families of friends who either hailed from the same villages back in Italy and Sicily as my grandparents and parents and uncles, or had lived in our same New York neighborhood for 40-50 years. They were like family…”ah bella paese!”

The result was a cohesion and love expressed for each other, that mere written words that I’ve put down on this page cannot properly begin to properly convey, or do justice to.

Side Note: Lol…I know that this is a website devoted to all things Mafia. And that our readers follow my stories hoping to learn more about various mafiosi, the organization, and “the life.”

Knockaround, neighborhood guys sitting outside on folding chairs in front of a Little Italy social club. A very typical street scene on Mulberry Street. Note the tracksuits and sneakers...these fellas don’t look like 9 to 5’ers if you ask me. Lol
Knockaround, neighborhood guys sitting outside on folding chairs in front of a Little Italy social club. A very typical street scene on Mulberry Street. Note the tracksuits and sneakers…these fellas don’t look like 9 to 5’ers if you ask me. Lol

But I want you all to know that although these neighborhoods were typically chock full of mafiosi, many of whom were indeed top bosses of Cosa Nostra nationwide, our neighborhoods were so much more than the Mafia.

Nearly everyone I knew, if not in the brotherhood themselves, had a connected father, grandfather, uncle, brother or cousin. Friends? Lol…hundreds of mafiosi were around our neighborhood daily.

Everybody got to know everybody over the years. And if you didn’t know the guy direct, you knew his cousin or your friend knew his cousin. Lol…

Many grew up in the area. It was a generational thing. They still lived or owned businesses there. Operated private social clubs, which they frequented daily in order to operate their rackets.

Even after they started making big bucks and moved their wives and kids to the suburbs out on Long Island, Jersey, and Westchester, most wiseguys still had family back in the old neighborhood. So many of them still came back constantly, daily in fact. It was like they’d never left.

You didn’t even need to own a telephone to contact anybody because all you needed to do was walk down the block to the corner and speak with the guy in question. Or ask where he was, and be directed to where he was hanging out in the neighborhood.

I hope you enjoy these photos. I know I did. And I hope that some of the flavor of these wonderful old neighborhoods come through a bit on these pages. Enjoy!

Footnote:

Ignazio Saietta aka “Lupo the Wolf”, one of the most important early mafiosi in New York, lived and operated primarily in Downtown’s Little Italy.

Ciro Terranova aka “The Artichoke King”, and his half brothers the Morello’s, lived and operated up in East Harlem’s Little Italy.

Giuseppe Morello aka “The Clutch Hand”, was one of the most important of mafiosi in all of America. He lived and operated in both Harlem and Downtown Manhattan.

Giuseppe Masseria aka “Joe the Boss”, was a Downtown guy himself. He would rise up to dominate most of New York City.

Salvatore Maranzano aka “Don Turiddo”, and his Castellammarese amici were based in the Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But he too operated in Downtown’s Little Italy neighborhood.

There were thousands more…men with surnames such as Luciano and Genovese of Mulberry Street, Lucchese and Costello of East Harlem, Gambino and Profaci of Brooklyn.

These men were neighbors to all the residents of various Little Italy’s throughout the five boroughs. And it was a daily occurrence to see them, bump into them and converse.


This article was originally posted “here