From the acclaimed book, by William Giovinazzo:
Life in Little Italy
As we transitioned from the 19th to the 20th century, immigration to the United States grew at such a phenomenal rate the government put much stricter regulations on the number of people allowed to enter the country. The majority of all immigrants who came to the States at this time were Italian. While there were many immigrants who came from Central and Northern Italy, nearly four-fifths of Italian immigrants came from the south. Although there was a small percentage of professionals, such as doctors, among the immigrants, most came with calloused hands. As a result, Italian-American culture is primarily a derivative of Southern-Italian contadini culture. Many of the ways that the Italian-American culture differs from Italian culture is based on the differences between the northern and southern regions as well as the differences in social class.
The Italians who landed in places such as New York, Boston, or Pittsburgh, had a very different experience from those who settled in the Western and Southern United States. These rural farm workers, many of whom were accustomed to a rustic life based on generations of tradition, suddenly found themselves in modern cities and intermingling with vastly different cultures. While immigrants to California mixed well with the Hispanic community, and Italians who resettled in New Orleans integrated with African-Americans, those who landed in the large cities of the North East clustered together, forming their own communities (described by some as Italian colonies).
It wasn’t long until most major cities in the United States boasted of having their own Italian section of town, their own Little Italy. East Harlem, in the northern part of New York City, became known as Italian Harlem. Also, with cheap rents and easy access to the downtown garment industry, the area around Mulberry Street and the Lower East Side was especially attractive to Italian immigrants.
Some cities’ Little Italies still survive, such as San Diego’s with its excellent restaurants, pasticcerie, and Italian cinema. Others have faded as Italian-Americans moved to the suburbs where they learned to eat fettuccini Alfredo and pineapple & Canadian bacon pizza. Although the heart of Italian-American culture has been for so long New York City’s Little Italy, even this enclave of Italians is not what it once was.
The fleeting existence of Little Italy, any Little Italy in any American city, began in the first half of the 20th century. The formation of these communities had a practical application beyond the convenience of retaining some semblance of a life left behind in Italy. Little Italy assisted the immigrants in establishing themselves. These communities provided the newly-arrived immigrant with an extended support system. If a baby decided to arrive sooner than expected, Rosa in the apartment upstairs was a midwife. If you needed to find work, Guido Bacciagalupe down the street, who was the cousin of your Uncle’s goombade, could put in a good word for you on the construction site. And every nonna e zia (grandmother and aunt) acted as a member of the neighborhood watch, keeping vigilant guard against any mischief makers.
It is interesting that these communities were further subdivided, reflecting the factional nature of Italy itself. On one block, you might have Italians from Puglia, while on another block over you would have the people from Campania or Basilicata. The immigrants carried with them the regionalism of Italy, the campanilismo described in the previous chapter. Again, this was a practical consideration; your closest neighbors practiced the same food customs, followed the same traditions, celebrated the same holidays, and spoke the same dialect. Each of these could vary widely by region, especially language. There was no definitive common Italian language among the immigrants per se; mostly it was an Italian-American pidgin. The Italian my mother spoke, which was basically a mixture of Sicilian and Calabrese, was significantly different from what I learned in school which was Tuscan.
Chain migration was another factor that contributed to the regional divisions of Little Italy. In chain migration, once a family member is established in the new country, other members follow, settling in the same community. This is certainly nothing unique to Italians; I have seen this occur with immigrants to the United States even today. During the Italian Diaspora, the new family member or friend from the village would settle in Little Italy. Typically, not simply in the same general area, but on the same block and street of the already established relative. If possible, being in the same building was better yet.
Life in Little Italy
The stereotype of Little Italy is based on what these neighborhoods were during the diaspora. The idealized images of this time are of happy immigrants, children playing stickball, and laundry hanging on lines stretched between buildings. You could hear mothers calling their kids to dinner – “Tony, su tavolo!!” (Tony, it’s on the table!!) Along the street, various mom & pop corner stores would be festooned with aged meats and cheeses as the pushcarts would roll along with fresh produce. “Come getta you tomatoes! Apples! … Aye lady no squeeza da’ tomatoes! Ah fa napala!”
The reality of these times was much harsher.
The Little Italy of this era was composed of tenement buildings; five or six-story structures that housed as many as 30 families. The buildings stood wall to wall with little or no space between. The crowded conditions were made worse by a lack of light and poor air circulation. Sometimes people would refer to these as railway flats, or railway apartments, because the layout was similar to a railway passenger car. The rooms were in a row with one hallway down the side providing access.
The typical tenement apartment consisted of three basic rooms: kitchen, main room, and bedroom. The main room served as a workroom, women would bring in piece work from the local textile factories. In the winter, this work would be done in the kitchen close to the stove, the source of heat. There was no central heating or even radiators; the apartments were typically warmed by a coal or kerosene stove. Although the tenements had no central heating, they did have central plumbing; by that I mean there was typically a common toilet at the end of the hallway or in a courtyard which was shared by multiple families.
The main room of these apartments served as the bedroom for the children at night. These rooms were not large, but they would squeeze in a couple of beds which would be shared by the kids. Being Catholic, it was typical for Italian families to have as many as eight to ten children. The parents’ room was the furthest from the kitchen. With so many children in such a small space, no one had or even expected to have any privacy. Frequently, these children – due in part to the conditions in which they lived – died before reaching adulthood.