The Associated Life of the Italians in New York City 1904
By Antonio Mangano

 
 

It is generally supposed by those unfamiliar with actual conditions, that the Italian colony of the Borough of Manhattan is a well-organized and compact body of people, having a common life and being subject to the absolute control and leadership of some one person or group of persons. To the reader of popular articles describing Italian life and customs, in these days so frequently appearing in newspapers and magazines; to the enthusiastic and romantic slum visitor, who walks through Mulberry street, and possibly peeps into the dark and dismal hallway of some dilapidated tenement and feels that he knows just how Italians live and act; to the theoretical sociologist, to whom all Italians look alike and in whose estimation all Italians are alike, think alike, and act alike to such persons the mere mention of the Italian colony inevitably suggests unity of thought and action as well as of mode of life on the part of all who belong to that colony. And yet nothing is farther from the real truth.

Although many of the people of the Italian colony could not tell what the word republic means, and while none of them prior to coming to America have ever breathed the atmosphere created by republican institutions, it must be said that the lore of freedom and the spirit of independence are elements inherent in the Italian character. Countless battlefields, made sacred during many centuries by the blood of those who rather than be subject to tyranny or foreign dominion offered their lives, as well as their substance, as a sacrifice, are unmistakable witnesses to the love of Italians for freedom and for liberty. When the Italian lands upon our shores and catches the spirit of the independence which prevails here, his own nature finds itself in a congenial atmosphere and begins to expand along those lines. Under the social and economic conditions in his own country, he could not assert himself; he was timid; he did not dare say his soul was his own for fear of being deprived of the means of subsistence. Here a very different state of affairs prevails. He somehow catches the idea that if he works faithfully and behaves himself, he need fear no man. This means an appeal to his manhood.

No one will deny that development along this line is good and wholesome. But, unfortunately, the .good is accompanied by a shadow of evil. The spirit of independence seems to go to seed. The members of the Italian colony have a certain element in their general make-up which has rendered it virtually impossible for them to act unitedly and harmoniously. Each man feels that he is a law unto himself; each small group of men are a law unto themselves. They appreciate most keenly that it is their right and privilege to do as they see fit—providing they do not interfere with other people's rights—but they lose sight of this other great fact equally important, that personal right? and privileges should be modified by consideration for the welfare of the community—the only condition under which men can live together in any proper and mutually helpful relation.

But, now, if we are asked whether any plausible reason can be advanced as to why the Italians seem to lack natural capacity for a large co-operation, we would answer that they have for centuries lived in the midst of an environment which has tended to develop in them, a spirit of division and sectional feeling. Prior to the formation of the present Italian kingdom, the country was divided into numerous dukedoms and principalities among which there was constant rivalry and bitter feeling, if not open warfare. As a natural consequence, the people not only have lacked sympathy for those outside of their particular principality or dukedom, but even have nursed a strong feeling of hostility toward them. Added to this, there is the spirit which prevails to-day in many parts off Italy—a clearly marked rivalry between two towns or two cities within the same province. Doubtless such contention has its good effect in inducing rival towns to put forth every effort for their improvement ; but on the other hand, division and dissension are unconsciously fostered under the guise of a false patriotism.

The New York colony is composed of persons coming from nearly every nook and 'corner of the old peninsula. It is by no means strange, then, that they should bring with them local prejudices and narrow sympathies; it is not to be wondered "that they feel .that highest duty consists in being loyal to the handful who come from their immediate section and in manifesting opposition toward those who come from other localities. Thus it comes to pass that while a man may foe known as an Italian, he is far better known as a Napoletano, Calabrese, Veneziano, Abbruzese, or Siciliano. This means that the Italian colony is divided into almost as many groups as there are sections of Italy represented.

There are, however, many signs which unmistakably point to a decided change for the better in the near future. There are certain forces at work which have for their ultimate object the development of a larger spirit of co-operation, which will enable the Italians as a whole to unite for the attainment of specific objects. The main purpose of this article, therefore, is to point out the chief Italian institutions which indicate the lines along which Italian organized effort is directed, and to describe briefly their operations.

Among the agencies which chamber have for their ideal united Italian action, there are none more potent than the Italian Chamber of Commerce. This organization, founded in 1887 with but a few members, to-day embraces in its membership of 201 a majority of the Italian business men in Greater New York. The objects for which it was established may best be stated by translating a few articles from its constitution and by-laws:

(1) a. To promote, develop and protect commercial relations between Italy and the United States.

b. To facilitate and protect orderly Interests, both commercial and Industrial, which the Italians residing in the United States of America may have with other countries, and especially with Italy.

(2) a. To act as interpreter to the Italian government, to public or private officials, foreign or domestic, in regard to all matters concerning the development of Italian commercial interests in the United States.

b. To study the existing commercial and industrial reports between Italy and the United States; Indicate the causes which hinder the development and suggest remedies.

c. To transmit to the Italian government all such information which may be of value in matters commercial and industrial between the mother country and the United States.

d. To compile a general annual directory of all Italian merchants In New York city and in the principal centers of the American union.

e. In general, to lend its good offices in the settlement of any difficulties which might arise between Italians, or between Italians and other nationalities.

In addition, the chamber occupies itself with a number of other things which are not specifically stated in the constitution. It aims at increasing Italian exports to this country and American exports to Italy; it acts as a medium in suggesting to dealers, both Americans and Italians, where they can secure the particular goods desired.

But to my mind, while I would not for a moment detract from the commercial functions of the chamber, its greatest good is achieved along another line one which is destined eventually to lead the Italians to drop sectional feeling and rejoice in the glory of a common nationality. That the Neapolitan, the Sicilian, the Roman, can all join this organization and have as the one object the advancement of Italian interests, is a step in the right direction and toward another end which is eminently wholesome and greatly to be desired.

The Columbus Hospital is situated on Twentieth street between Second and Third avenues. Organized in 1892 and incorporated in 1895, it has been from its beginning under the direct supervision of the missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Were it possible for the hospital to secure increased accommodations and better facilities, it would be of far greater service to those in whose interests it is dedicated. The following paragraph is taken from the last annual report: "During the year, 1,098 patients were admitted, and of this number only sixty-three paid full board. When we consider that the hospital is devoid of endowment, annuity, or permanent fund for its maintenance, depending entirely upon the energies of the sisters and the voluntary contributions of those who have its well-being at heart, it becomes a problem which those unacquainted with the management would find difficulty in solving."

Columbus Hospital is generally known as an Italian institution, yet of the twenty-one physicians on its medical and surgical staff not one is an Italian, but the sisters who carry it on are all native Italians, and ninety-five per cent of the patients treated are of that race.

The Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants was founded three years ago, and since then has, without a shadow of a doubt, rendered more practical assistance to the thousands flocking to our shores than any other institution working in the interest of Italians.

Speaking of the conditions in which Italians find themselves on arrival, Eliot Norton, president of the society, says in his annual report: "These immigrants are landed at Ellis Island, where they are examined by United States officials. From there some go into the interior of the country and some remain in New York. Almost all of them are very ignorant, very childlike, and wholly unfamiliar with the ways, customs and language of this country. Hence it is obvious that they need friendly assistance from the moment of debarcation at Ellis Island. Those who go into the interior of the country need to be helped in getting on the right train, without losing their way or money; while those coming to New York city need guidance to their destination and, while going there, protection from sharps, crooks and dishonest runners, and thereafter to have advice and employment."

The society is constantly enlarging its activities. It has had the hearty co-operation of Commissioner Williams and of the police department. Its officials are stationed at Ellis Island and act as interpreters for the newcomers. With such immigrants as have friends either on Ellis Island or on the New York side, awaiting them, the society does not concern itself. Its attention is fully occupied in attending to those who have no friends and who have not the remotest idea as to the place for which they are bound. These are taken directly to its office, at 17 Pearl street, and later turned over to its guards or runners. For this service the immigrant is charged a nominal fee. During the first two years and a half, 7,293 friendless immigrants were conducted to their destinations, in or about New York city, at an average cost of thirty-two cents apiece, as against an average expenditure of from $3.00 to $4.00, which immigrants formerly were forced to pay by sharpers.

Closely associated with the work of the Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants is the Italian Benevolent Institute. Within the past two years it has taken on new life. The work was encouraged by gifts from many quarters, the most noteworthy one being from His Majesty the King of Italy, which amounted to 20,000 lire. One of its encouraging features is the fact that it is maintained almost exclusively by Italians.

The institute has its headquarters in a double house, 165-7 West Houston street, which is intended as a place of refuge for the destitute. It often happens that newcomers, bound for interior points, land in New York without a cent in their pockets, expecting to find at the post-office or some bank the sum necessary to carry them to their destination; it also often happens that the money expected does not arrive in time. To such persons as these the Benevolent Institute opens its doors. Then, too, there are immigrants who come with the intention of settling in New York. Such persons may have $8 or $10, but unless they find work at once they too are compelled to seek aid from some source. Further, New York has become, in a sense, a central market for Italian labor, and of those who go to distant points in search of work some fail to find it, and return to the city.

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Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: The Associated Life of the Italians in New York City 1904
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina

Source:

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Charities; Vol. XII January-September 1904, The Charity Organization Society-New York,
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