Brooklyn's Little Italy 1900  Part I

The Largest In America
Every one knows that there are Italian settlements in this borough and also their approximate situation, but probably few know that South Brooklyn contains not only the largest Italian quarter in North America, but the one most typical of Italy. This section comprises those parts of President, Union, Sackett and Carroll streets crossed by Van Brunt, Columbia and Henry. Here the stranger sees everything in life a la Italiano. When the inhabitant of this section is born, it is the Italian doctor who first opens his eyes to the light of day. He than passes moderately through an Italian existence, and when he dies it is S. Ferra, the Italian undertaker, who buries him. After being born the first business of an Italian child of the laboring class is to get dirty, and during the rest of his life he exercises p roper care that he does not become clean. If an Italian child sits down he takes particular pains to select the dirtiest spot he can find, preferably one that is wet, so that he can carry some of the filth away. After he matures he still loves dirt, as evidenced by the fact that he usually shovels it at $1.25 per diem.

A Devout Community

In this small quarter there are two thousand worshipers every Sunday morning and probably there is no section of equal populat8on in Brooklyn that can boast of so large a proportion regularly attending church. This number includes only those who attend the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and mary, which is the largest house of religion in the district, the others being missions of lesser importance. Every Sunday morning it is necessary to hold four masses, as the quarters are wholly inadequate to accommodate the large number of attendants. The church will hold but five hundred persons, and soon it will be necessary to hold even more masses to relieve the crowding caused by the constant increase in the number of the communicants, unless a new church, which is now contemplated, is built soon. The man on whom the entire burden of this work falls at present is Father Marino, and he assumes it with cheerfulness and with resignation. Nor is the great mass of labor that he does more wonderful than its diversity and the thoroughness with which it is performed. He must care for the temporal welfare of his flock as well as the spiritual. He must disentangle quarrels and erase the l lines of envy and jealousy. He must visit and care for the sick and relieve the distress of poverty. He must christen the babe and smooth the last moments of the dying, and above all, he bears the responsibility of more than two thousand souls.

Father Vogel, the Father Superior, is at present conducting a pilgrimage to Rome in connection with the P.S.M. Just before his departure a reception was given to him. Nothing could testify to the love and gratitude of these people better than their sorrow at his leave taking. Those whom he had befriended shed tears like children and their affection entirely overcame them. At his return there will be many smiling faces and glad hearts in Little Italy. Notwithstanding the enormous labor that Father Marino, during the absence of the Father superior, has been compelled to perform, he has yet found time to organize and to train a choir of twenty-five girls. They have attained a remarkable degree of excellence, considering the disadvantages under which they labor. With them singing is an avocation rather than a vocation, in view of which they do surprisingly well. At high mass there is a quartet of accomplished vocalists.

The Two Great Festivals

During the year there are two festivals of importance, the festival of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which occurs in June, and that of the Blessed Virgin of Laure, in September. The first is purely of a religious character and the only display is in church, in which special services are held for seven nights. But the second, w while it has a religious significance, is accompanied by a grand pageant. At this time all labor ceases, and the Italian gives himself up exclusively to celebration, into which both solemnity and hilarity enter. Arranged in columns of military precision they parade the streets to the accompaniment of Italian marches, and before them are borne images emblematic of sacred events. Portions of their course are decorated with American and Italian flags, and others are carried in the parade. All the Italian secret societies take part in this and as many of them are in costumes it makes a brilliant array, the men in their regallas and the officers hearing insignias. The Italian likes display, but no one who has seen him at worship can believe that his Christianity ends there, for he shows that he is deeply imbued with a sincere Christian spirit.

The Drinking Dens

Italians in common with other mortals become thirsty on rare occasions, and with this fact in mind divers enterprising persons have established places where this thirst may be quenched. In character and in offensiveness these places differ very little, so the visitor in seeing one has a very good idea of all. In many cases the floor is covered with sawdust or sand, the object being to have the covering absorb the dirt and in this way preserve it. The habitues do not take kindly tot he presence of a stranger in their drinking places. On entering a characteristic saloon the smoke is of such density that the occupants, being accustomed to it, will see you before you see them. When at last your vision becomes able to penetrate it you will see nothing but scowling faces. No sign of welcome awaits you, and even the offer to "set em up" does not entirely remove the unfavorable impression that you have made on their minds. The smoke is generated by means of long-stemmed pipes that smell and look strong enough to sit up and take something. Valuable assistance is rendered to these by stogies or Italian "rat-tails." These are long slender cigars, but their slimness is by no means to be taken as an indication n of weakness. Nothing affords evidence of the truth of the old saw, "a thin horse for a long road," better than "rat-tails," for they seem to last eternally. While they are smoked in these dens in great numbers they are intended to be smoked only at the top of a high building during a strong wind.

In one hotelified saloon an Italian, not more prepossessing than the others, and an erstwhile able bodied shoveller, dispenses noxious spirits to soothe the troubled spirits of his patrons. A story is told of a visitor who went into the hotel, walked up to the bar, and asked for a Tom and Jerry. The bartender went over to the register, carefully scanned its pages, and came back with the reply. "The man no stoppa here."

As a rule the bar stands at the front of the place with the tables in the rear. Around these sit swarthy men who, between drinks, discuss in an unintelligible jargon the probable success of some strike, hatch Mafia plots or discourse on the advisability of ordering another drink. These discussions are accompanied by gesticulations that impress the stranger as being pugilistic in character, but they are merely indulged in for the purpose of emphasis. Sometimes the use of the arms as exclamation points results in the accidental destruction of a glass. Then a torrent of words surrounded by a blue cloud is emitted from the mouth of the bartender, and it sounds very little as though he were offering up a prayer. If one can believe that the prohibitory signs are obeyed by the patrons it is difficult to see how they can breathe or wink without the consent of the proprietor. There are signs governing the amount a man shall drink, the amount he shall gamble, and the amount he shall swear. The proprietor seems to regard these practices as virtues when indulged in to a limited degree, but as evils when carried to excess.

But the Italian is not a drunkard. He drinks moderately and then goes home to his wife in such condition and at such an hour that there is no necessity for removing his shoes nor for creeping up stairs on his hands and knees. Indeed, it is no uncommon thing for him to take with him his better half when he goes out in the evening to his cups. A few of the better class drink Italian wine, but the masses drink beer, and their only insistence is that it shall be served in large measures.

Italian Paste and other Food Stuffs.

Macaroni and its kindred foodstuffs, which form so large a part of the Italian's diet, are made at two establishments in the quarter. Vermicelli, spaghetti and macaroni are familiar to all, but there is another form that is not so widely known called Italian paste. This is in composition the same as the others, but in form different. Instead of being round or tubular it is rolled into thin sheets and is cut into various shapes that occasionally have a significance. So the Italian in appeasing his appetite also is frequently displaying his patriotism, his religious sentiment or celebrating some Italian anniversary. Vermicelli, which in Italian literally means little worms, is formed by pressing the paste through very small holes in an iron plate. All these productions are made from wheat grown in Russia, Italy or California, as it requires the varieties that are particularly white and glutinous. The grinding of the wheat is done by a peculiar process, as it is necessary to have the flour very coarse but uniform. The paste is only partially baked, the stiffness being attained by a drying process.

Website: The History
Article Name: Brooklyn's Little Italy 1900 Part I
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The Brooklyn Daily Eagle May 20, 1900
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