Our early ancestors, in pursuit of the American Dream and the "Hope" that it
inspired, dared to explore new horizons, freedom of choices and action ,
enduring great injustices, inhumanities, and severe hardships, as they were
woven into the texture of the American life. Often stereotyped and discriminated
against, they suffered verbal and physical abuse because they were "different."
Yet, undaunted by poverty, illiteracy , discrimination and discouragement, they
sacrificed and toiled incessantly making major contributions to the economic
strength of America and to a richer cultural diversity in the field of arts,
music, education, language and cuisine.
The new image created out of the foreign wilderness helped mold and maintain the
enterprise system that has made America what it is today, the financial center
of the World. Whether they worked on the farms, in the factories, building
railroads, bridges, towns and cities, their rewards were greater than any land
could ever offer...
During the 1800's Harlem was undergoing all sorts of transportation projects
to encourage northward expansion. In 1831 the New York and Harlem Railroad
Company was incorporated for the purpose of constructing a railroad from the
central part of the city to Harlem. This encouraged the residents of lower
Manhattan to move northward to Harlem. The Third Avenue Horse Railroad was built
in 1870; the Third Avenue elevated railway was built in 1878 and the Second
Avenue elevated railway was built in 1880, the First Avenue Trolley in the
1880s, the elevated rail lines that extended north along the eighth and Ninth
avenues were built during the 1880s and finally the IRT Lexington Avenue Subway,
which opened in 1903. "But it wasn't until 1879, when the third and second
avenue elevated train lines were built that the population of Harlem began to
rapidly increase. "With the construction of the "els," urbanized development
occurred very rapidly, precipitating the construction of apartment buildings and
brownstones. This availability of reasonable housing and faster transportation
allowed the working class to be able to live in East Harlem and travel to their
places of employment downtown.
These construction projects attracted many immigrant wage laborers mostly
during the 1880s and 1890s. The steady flow of cheap labor gave the ruthless
entrepreneurs a superb opportunity to reap profits. The first group were the
German and Irish workers who laid down the trolley tracks and dug the subway
tunnels. Because of East Harlem's cheap tenement rent and convenience of public
transportation, many central and eastern European factory workers were able to
commute from lower Manhattans sweatshops. As a result of this construction East
Harlem became highly populated with the Irish and Italian community.
America faced one of its greatest tests of mass accommodation and tolerance
with the immigration wave of the 1840s and 1850s, the Irish and Germans the
largest ethnic groups represented.
The German Community
During the early part of the nineteenth century many ambitious Germans would
seek their fortune in the United States and elsewhere.
The western and southern German states had experienced economic crisis similar
to southern Ireland, and the Germans too were affected by the potato blight, as
well as the evils of landlordism. The Craftsmen who couldn't find employment in
the factory would also escape to America, hoping that in this prosperous economy
they could find their niche. During the nineteenth century over 6,000,000 people
emigrated from Germany.
The majority of the German craftsmen and artisans settled in the states of Ohio,
New Jersey and Pennsylvania as well as the cities of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati,
Indianapolis, Louisville, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
Then came 1848, when after an unsuccessful revolution in Germany the best minds,
were compelled to flee their country.
"In the 1850ís, German craftsmen, poor because of the industrialization, came
also. Many small farmers also came from Hessen, Rheinland, Pfalz, Bavaria and
Westphalia. German refugees who stayed in New York settled mainly in the Upper
West Side . They formed a sort of German colony."
"Unlike other nationalities, the Germans, except in the Harlem district, which
was taken over by the negroes, have never completely abandoned a region in which
they have lived by moving westward or northward. Wherever the Germans settled,
early in the history of the city, down on the East Side toward Clinton and
Norfolk Streets, at the time Clinton Hall was the Astor Opera-house, they have
clung to that district and held on to it, spreading only as they multiplied,
without ever completely giving ground. The German district stretches as far as
Eighty-sixth Street and Lexington Avenue. From there on it begins to dwindle as
it goes upward." (1)
The Irish in East Harlem
The Irish people relied heavily on potatoes for their diet and their economy.
When disease ruined their crops, they had nothing else to rely on, and the most
attractive option was for them to emigrate to America. These Irish refugees
faced incredible hardships during the early 1800s. As a result of the potato
crop failure during 1845-1847, Ireland suffered from a famine where
approximately one and a half million of people died. Between 1847 and 1860 more
than 1,000,000 Irish immigrants passed through the port of New York. Because the
price of the passage would cost anywhere from $12.50 to $25.00 a head, those who
were penniless had to borrow the money from whoever would pay for their
transportation. Such poor people started the journey in bad physical condition,
worsened by their treatment during their voyage. One ship, for instance,
registered more than 200 who died from disease and starvation during the long
and perilous trip.
Numerous Irish refugees came to the United States as indentured servants. Once
in the United States, they had to look for work, leading them to labor several
years to pay off their debt to the lender (the loan shark), before they could be
free of this obligation. These Irish immigrants were forced to accept low-paying
jobs and live in deplorable conditions, such as lean to shanties and cellars of
dilapidated unsanitary buildings in the slum areas (2)
The potato famine of the 1840s sent a steady stream of Irish immigrants to the
U.S., most of whom didn't have money to buy land out west. These immigrants
settled in the city of New York, which was the chief port of entry. The
unskilled and unlettered Irishmen, pushing aside the American Negroes, their
chief competitors in the labor market, went to work on construction gangs,
finding jobs building the Erie Canal, which "employed 3000 Irish in 1818, as
well as laying railroad tracks."
Unfortunately, most avenues for financial improvement were closed to these new
Americans due to their lack of skills and education. "The prejudices of mostly
Protestant America towards the mostly Catholic Irish only made matters worse."
Everywhere they went in response to the want ads, the anti-Irish sentiment
loomed. Employers posted signs, "No Irish Need Apply" which eventually
disappeared over the years as new ethnic groups immigrated to America and were
targeted by the anti-immigrant sentiment. New prejudice substituted for old
prejudice. Some of the Irish who couldn't find employment lived in dirty
shanties that surrounded the dumping places. They would sift through the garbage
trying to find something to eat, whether decaying vegetables, bread or even
bones. Frustrated and angry, they would seek refuge in the bars, which on many
occasions they would behave wildly, resulting in domestic and street violence.
The unskilled and unlettered Irishmen, would take whatever job they could find.
Irish immigrants continued arriving by the thousands, eventually forming large
communities in regions like East Harlem.
(Continue on Page: 3)
2) Herald Journal Syracuse, New York March 17, 1950.