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
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
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
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
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