The Ebb and Flow of East Harlem's Ethnic Changes

By Miriam Medina

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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.

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2) Herald Journal Syracuse, New York March 17, 1950.


Website: The History
Article Name: The Ebb and Flow of East Harlem's Ethnic Changes
Researcher/Transcriber written by Miriam Medina


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