Of the present Harlem communities Italian Harlem was formed the earliest,
drawing upon immigration from the 1880's through the 1910's. The Sicilian and
southern Italians who crowded into Harlem's five story tenements had left farm
and village behind. Those from the same village clustered together, so that,
like a jig-saw map, Italy fell town by town along the streets of Harlem. The new
generation grew up in closely packed tenements, and its children now play about
the dark cavernous doorways of these same buildings. by force of numbers the
Italians stamped their imprint upon the neighborhood, although a score of
nationalities live in adjoining streets. The 150,000 persons in this area of one
square mile make it the most densely populated section of Manhattan and the
largest colony of Italian-Americans in the country.
The traditionally carefree singing spirit of Italians pervades the crowded
sidewalks of first Avenue, from 107th to 116th Streets. As in the market place
of a Neapolitan village, the Italian housewives, and often the men themselves,
haggle for greens, oils, and olives; cheese and macaroni; sea urchins,
devilfish, and razor clams which might have come directly from the Aegean Sea.
The delicious and curiously shaped bread of Italy is displayed alongside
children's underwear and men's work gloves. Finochio and pomegranates lie in
bins next to those containing potatoes and the garlic-onions so relished by
Along the market street are many cafes and restaurants small, modest places
which preserve the air of their prototypes in Palermo, Naples, or Rome. The menu
consists of native dishes, spaghetti, minestrone, scallopine, chicken alla
cacciatore, pizza. The coffee houses, neighborhood meeting places usually filled
with sprightly conversation and cigar smoke, serve caffe espresso (Italian
coffee made to order), and a wide variety of gaudy pastries.
Thomas Jefferson Park, between First Avenue and the river, from 111th to 114th
Street, is known as the Italian park. This is no vast landscaped stretch of
green, but its area of six square blocks is a retreat for the teeming section.
It includes a swimming pool, a baseball diamond, handball and basketball courts,
a children's playground, and alleys for boccie (the italian version of bowling).
In winter the bathhouse is used as a children's game room.
The center of the religious life of the district is the Church of Our Lady of
Mount Carmel, 449 East 115th Street. Overhead, from the rectory windows, two
large Italian flags flap briskly. Inside the church is the shrine of Our Lady,
enriched with precious jewels. The fiesta of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the great
religious and social event of the community, takes place on July 15, 16, and 17.
It is suggestive of an old-world spectacle: the ritual procession, headed by a
brass band and followed by clergy and the statue of the virgin borne by the
beneficiaries of "miracles, winds slowly through the bedecked streets.
Donations, fluttering from the tenement windows, are caught and tossed into an
outspread cloth or pinned to ornate banners. Many pilgrims walk barefooted.
Occasionally the procession halts under the window of a particularly generous
donor and the priest recites the Dispensorio while firecrackers explode and the
throng stands with bowed heads.