Section: Italian Harlem: Cruisin' the 50s #2a

Directory: New York City History

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Play Mambo Song




Dancing the Cha, Cha, Cha.

This dance was first seen in the dance-halls of America, in the early 50s, following closely Mambo, from which it was developed. The music is slower than Mambo. Mambo dancing was a sensual Cuban dance and it was one of the most popular form of dances in the United States. After the World War II the Mambo was pushed aside by the Cha, Cha, Cha which became popular around 1956.


Nosotros: Orquesta Aragon



New York Gangs

A sociological in-depth study of gangs, in order to give the American society a better understanding of the gang lifestyle.



During the 1890s, a first small group of Puerto Ricans arrived in East Harlem. The United States took possession of Puerto Rico at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and has retained sovereignty ever since. In 1917 the Jones-Shafroth Act gave the islanders U.S. citizenship along with the obligation of serving in the American armed forces . This newly acquired citizenship allowed them to work and live in the United States as well as travel without the need of a passport between the island and the United States mainland. Puerto Ricans, in search of a better existence than what they had in Puerto Rico, continued to migrate to the United States, after both World Wars.

Not aware that they would be facing a highly racialized labor market which would deny them the opportunities to move into the American mainstream, a large number of Puerto Rican families made New York City's East Harlem, their first mainland destination. Assimilation to the American culture was not their priority. As long as they lived here, they were going to preserve their heritage through the Spanish language, music, and cultural activities and never completely cut their ties with their homeland. Puerto Ricans by the thousands found employment in the factories as unskilled operators and even as seamstresses in the garment industry. They competed with other ethnic groups for the positions of unskilled labor such as , maids,  maintenance, dishwashers,  janitors, doormen and laundry workers. As the Puerto Rican population began saturating the East Harlem area, both Italians and Puerto Ricans found themselves in constant conflict competing for housing, educational and employment resources. As a result of air travel commencing in 1945 and a one-way ticket from San Juan to New York costing less than $50,  the steady flow of Puerto Rican migration which had begun during World War I, had reached  an immense proportion, of circa 70,000 to 250,000.between 1940-1950 that it overwhelmed the communities that were already established  since the 40s, and began forming their own distinctive neighborhoods.

The Young Puerto Ricans who were reluctant to enter the labor force, after seeing their parents discriminated against, and disappointed, because the unskilled jobs that were available were limited by the language barrier. The jobs were only given to those who could speak an English that was understood. The unemployed parents in turn would put pressure on their teen-age son, to help out. Not having any money for their living expenses created daily conflicts, between the husband and wife, which would at times accelerate into domestic violence. These young Puerto Ricans resented being pressured into joining the mainstream's workforce. They knew that if they followed their parents footsteps, the alternative for their future would be more of the same, unskilled low-paying jobs with no possibility of advancement." Hell no man, that's not for me!" they would say. It was easier to hook up with a gang or to organize one, which gave them a sense of worth, belonging, and one of acceptance, something that most of them were not able to find at home. Gang life meant solidarity and toughness in a discriminating neighborhood. Yet, there were other young Puerto Rican youths who loved and respected their parents, that grasped their responsibilities with capability and understanding, working together as a family to excel themselves in the face of a highly prejudiced society.

Gang violence was a frightening reality during the 40s and 50s. The East Harlem atmosphere became explosive, with rumbles between the black Dragons, Italian Dukes, Puerto Rican Viceroys and the Italian Redwings. Puerto Ricans and the Italian teen-agers clashed with one another to establish and maintain their turf and honor. These rumbles were easily set off by the side that was looking for a fight, whether it was over the boundaries of their turf, establishing claims over streets and parks, testing their machismo and as usual petty things over their ladies. The girls had the protection of the gang and if any of them would be insulted, which in many cases were fabricated stories just to provoke a war, they would defend her honor, even if they all knew she was a whore. The Greasers anywhere from fourteen to nineteen years old would strut with their chest pushed out, carrying with them zip guns ready to fire just in case, baseball bats and switchblades which were common weapons back then. Yeah man, it made them feel real macho, cool and tough, they were prepared, anytime, for a good rumble, knowing that no matter how afraid they were, they would not admit it. Racial slurs tossed back and forth provoked frequent confrontations which would many times result in death or being hospitalized with crushed heads and serious crippling injuries from switchblade knifings, beaten by tire chains or shot by bullets. Some members of the gang in preparation for a rumble would store on the roof tops piles of gravel-filled milk bottles, bricks, cinder blocks, iron scrap and whatever else they could find to use as ammunition.

Loud Latin Rhythmic music would blast through the open windows and doorways of apartment dwellings penetrating the ears of reluctant hearers. Puerto Ricans have always loved their music and plenty of it back then and even now, whether they are cooking, doing the laundry, cleaning the house or driving a car. There is something in the rhythmic beat of Latin music that reaches into their very soul. Their  style of musical compositions incredibly rich in Latin variations of tone, blend the base ingredients of rhythm, melody, and harmony  sounded by one or more instruments  which may include trumpets, trombones, saxophones, piano, drums, maracas, cowbells and guitars.  For many of the Puerto Ricans  in "El Barrio," dancing was an escape from the frustrations of their daily lives." It didn't matter how tired they felt or how miserable their lives were, as soon as their bodies were swept up by the passionate rhythm they would become rejuvenated , literally dancing until  they dropped.

There was a growing popularity of Latin dance music during the forties and fifties. Latino dancers from all over Spanish Harlem would flock to the "Park Palace Ballroom" located at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue, El Caborojeņo and Broad-way Casino, two popular dancehalls on the west side of Manhattan, the Palladium ballroom down in mid-Manhattan, the Grand Plaza and Tropicana in the south Bronx or go to the Roseland Ballroom located on 51st street taking advantage of their Latin Tuesdays which were always packed, for an evening of Latin rhythmic excitement. As the musicians played their instruments to the greatest names in Latino music, "the partners , skins flushed with perspiration would spin around the dance floor, whirling around each other. Their hips and shoulders swaying in time, and feet marking the beat of the music" to rhumbas. boleros, guarachas and the mambo, floors shaking under their body movements. The young busty Latin women would heat up the atmosphere as they moved seductively, swaying their curvacious hips to the beat of the drums. Occasionally a flirtatious remark made by another male dancer who had a little too much to drink, would set off a verbal confrontation between both men that would lead to an outright street brawl of switchblades and broken bottles as others would rush to their defense. Unfortunately, for the people from "El Barrio" there never was a dull moment even when they wanted to have a good time.

Those from "El Barrio," who didn't go to the nightclubs, would stay at home and have their own loud parties on the weekends. On unbearable hot nights many families would sit on their stoops and spend hours in loud endlesss chatter and laughter until the wee hours of the morning irritating the neighbors who wanted to sleep.

In New York, especially within East Harlem, the Puerto Ricans also suffered the same hardships and racial discrimination that earlier immigrants such as the Irish, the Italians and the Jewish Community had to endure . Good paying jobs were not available to them due to the lack of the English language and special working skills. They were labeled as minorities suffering widespread discrimination by the hiring practices of businesses.

To the already established Jewish and Italian community who then dominated East Harlem and its economy prior to World War II, the Puerto Ricans with their culture and businesses were becoming a threat because they were catering to their own community and expanding far too rapidly throughout the neighborhood. The Puerto Ricans were apparently different. They had and still have great pride in their national heritage. They spoke the Spanish language that nobody understood, maintaining strong links to their homeland. They just didn't fit the image of what was expected by the current residents. They began replacing the Jewish Delis and Italian grocery stores and markets with their religious shops, bodegas (grocery stores) and restaurants, as well as filling the air with their Latin cuisine  and loud Latin' music. The Jewish and the Italian community felt they were taking over and a terrible resentment started to build up and exploded into the "East Harlem Riot of 1926."

After this incident, many of the Jewish merchants kept their shops and adjusted to the new inhabitants, willingly accepting the Puerto Rican businessmen and learning Spanish.

The first Puerto Rican Day Parade was held on Sunday, April 13, 1958, in Manhattan and takes place annually along Fifth Avenue  and has grown to become the largest parade in New York City, attracting many politicians and celebrities.

One of the features of the area was the Cosmo Movie Theater that was on 115th Street between 3rd Avenue & Lexington. It was founded in 1922, a one story building with 1405 seats. What a swarm of people to get in.  It was closed down in the 1980s.

The famous "La Marqueta" on Park Avenue, during the 50s was the shopping center for everybody in the neighborhood.  It was then and still is a marketplace located under the Metro North elevated railway tracks between 111th street and 116th Street on Park Avenue. It was a unique  place known for its hustle and bustle of shoppers chattering and hands gestulating wildly at the Jewish vendors, and, where trains seem to rumble eternally overhead. The Jewish vendors there knew enough Italian and Spanish in order to make a sale.

East Harlem now home to many recent diverse immigrants, is referred to as  Spanish Harlem or better yet  "El Barrio."  When asked "where do you live in Manhattan? They would also proudly identify themselves with their block and neighborhood and say , " Yo soy del Barrio. Vivo en la calle 110. (I'm from El Barrio and I live on 110th street.)  In the summer there is always the familiar sight of the piragua man on each corner as well as the sidewalk domino players. The delicious alluring aromas of roast pork, fried steaks with garlic and rice with chicken, from the little cafes and restaurants located throughout Spanish Harlem are carried by the summer breeze, enticing tourists as well as local residents to enter through their doors.

So there you have now  some background of what the 50s were like in East Harlem, or better said Italian Harlem and Spanish Harlem. So without any  further ado, I would like to continue taking you  down memory lane, or shall we say "Come On Baby let's keep "Cruisin' through the 50s, and  view some more interesting points of that era.


  To continue: Cruisin' in the 50s #3

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