Italian Life In New York 1892 Part I

Homes of Filth and Squalor

Fully a generation ago the children who watched from New York windows for the organ-grinder and his monkey, or those more adventurous ones who followed his devious way as far as they dared, looked with wondering eyes at the monkey's close companion, a child, and sometimes more than one, dark-eyed, low-browed and swarthy, with flashing white teeth that gleamed out at the least kindness, and a grace and suppleness of movement born under other than American skies. For the most part they were melancholy little creatures, and they had good reason. Their inability to speak English, and their terror at the conditions that surrounded them, sealed their lips; nor did the public awaken to the outrages committed upon them till roused by the indignation of the few who had investigated the matter to the bottom, and knew whereof they spoke.

It was the Children's Aid Society that first sounded an alarm and sought some means of relief for the abominations of the padrone system. This meant a formal traffic hardly less well organized than the old slave system, by means of which Italian children were hired from parents or friends at home or came here with them to follow organ-grinders and beg. Every child was compelled to bring home a fixed sum daily. If it was exceeded, good. If it fell below the standard, beating and starvation were the penalties. Children died of want, cold, and privation, nor was there any hope of betterment till the first school for Italians was opened and fought its way to recognition and final success.

The organ-grinder was once an emblem of our idea of Italian life and the recipient of all the scorn that busy, practical America has for this pursuit. It has gradually dawned upon us, however, that a man need not necessarily be a beggar who adopts organ-grinding as his occupation, and that lie may even lead a more wholesome and broader life than that of the shoemaker at his bench or the toiler in the factory or mine. Often, it is true, the Italian organ-grinder represented the worst order of his countrymen. lie was the forerunner of the tide of emigration from Italy that from that day to this has set steadily toward our shores, a constantly increasing army of Italians young and old, drawn from the poorer and often from the most vicious classes.

The New York Italian colony now numbers over seventy thousand souls and is still increasing. It is chiefly the laboring class who come, and they have proved efficient and patient workers at railroad construction and innumerable other forms of manual labor. Aside from this is a proportion — and a constantly increasing one—of professional men and merchants. Ninety-five per cent, of all who arrive become American citizens, and thirty per cent, remain in New York or its immediate vicinity.

It was the organ-grinder who first carried back the tale of what might be done in the new country, and stirred uneasy longings. Often there was no capital available for the listening peasant save that in Tessa's heavy gold beads, but she sold them willingly for passage-money, firm in the faith that better ones would soon take their place. If they owned a little patch of land it was sold or sometimes leased, and the two turned their faces westward. One may see the type to-day: Giovanni in leggings, broad hat, and blue jacket, and Tessa with her heavy braids and gay flowered shawl just landed at Castle Garden, and looking with serious eyes at the new surroundings. The Elevated Road is the first amazement, and a terror as well, till custom has dulled the first shock at seeing trains in the air; but for the first few days all is wonder.

From whatever part of Italy they come, they bring alike the melancholy faces that are part of the Italian inheritance. They are fatalists. Long oppression, unending hard work, and grinding poverty, have all left their lines. We think of all Italians as happy, easy-natural do-nothings, and for Naples and much of southern Italy this is in part true. But northern Italians have much in common with New Englanders. They are abstinent, frugal, hard-working, and patient, but a little prosperity soon alters the expression and brings out the underlying type.

Let us begin with the lowest order, the dealer in fruit and vegetables, or the rag-picker, who gravitates at once to the region given over to his people. Here one finds them swarming n the great tenement-houses, grouping on doorsteps and sidewalks, and forming, with their vivid coloring, their flashing eyes, and gay-colored raiment, one of the most picturesque scenes New York has to offer. Do they herd together ? Yes, but no more or perhaps less than at home, as any one who has been in Genoa for instance, and watched the stream of humanity pouring out from the tall old houses of the Carmagiano district, can testify. They were not paupers even there, though many affirm that whoever prefers macaroni and oil to baker's bread must be near that condition. But they live on what an American would find impossible, and thus lay up money even when earnings are scantiest.

Take the Great Bend in Mulberry Street on a Saturday morning.— a spot as utterly un-American as anything in New York. The open-air market is going on, and trucks and barrows of every description line the sidewalk. A never-ending throng, through which one can barely make way, fills every available foot of walk. Tainted meat; poultry blue with age and skinny beyond belief; vegetables in every stage of wiltedness; fruit half rotten or moldy; butter so rancid that it poisons the air; eggs broken in transit, sold by the spoonful for omelets; fish that long ago left the water,— all contribute their share to the unbearable odor that even in the open air proves almost too much for endurance. Over and over again the Board of Health officers have swooped down on the Bend and dumped the contents of the entire market into the river, but they cannot always be at hand, and so buying and selling goes on.
 the rejected stock of the down-town baker, who allows it to accumulate till hard, dry, or moldy, according to the weather and the place of storage. It is sold at so much a sackful, and the inhabitants of the Bend walk away with their selections as content, apparently, as if it had come fresh from the oven. At one point sits an old woman, wrinkled and skinny us her stock in trade, and holds out a starved little turkey as customers pause for consideration.

Una bella pollina ; a beautiful hen turkey," she cries, with a thousand adjectives expressive of the fine qualities of this desirable investment, and presently a young woman, after a fierce course of bargaining accompanied with wild gestures that seem to point to nothing less than bloodshed, counts out the price, grasps her prize, and moves on smilingly. Buyer and seller vociferate and grimace, and he or she who can talk longest and loudest wins in the end. The piles of unwholesomeness and actual disease rapidly diminish, even sometimes disappear altogether, before the crowd of eager buyers, and the throng lessens. It is the Sunday's supply, and presently there will be a smell of cooking, and herbs and oil will destroy rankness and make of the unsavory ingredients a meal which the purchasers will count festivity.

The homes in these houses are of all orders; some squalid and filthy, others clean and bright, with rod and blur saints on the walls and gay patchwork quilts on the bed. They all love lilacs,— a reminder to them of the orange blossoms of their sunny native land ; and in the season one may see many a bunch placed on a little shelf or bracket before the patron saint. The organ-grinder may even bring home a bunch on his return from a round. He loves flowers also, and delights in bringing them back to the children.

Down on Baxter Street is a cluster of eight houses known as the Beehive, and here is a man who is organ-renter and clock-seller, the business managed in part by his wife. The organ-grinder seldom owns his organ and hardly ever his monkey. This same Beehive has another tenant who trains monkeys, and one who has long been organ-mender. The double house close at hand swarms with Neapolitans, who are chiefly organ-grinders and fruit-sellers, and here is a monkey-trainer who for a small consideration will show his pets. A well-trained organ monkey is worth from twelve to twenty dollars, and the trainer works patiently to give them the necessary accomplishments,— bowing, holding out the cap for money, and so forth. They are taught to obey the word of command
in both Italian and English, the whip being employed as argument ,but as little as possible. A dozen solemn-eyed monkeys were in the cage when I called upon them, and the youngest, a mere baby of a monkey, screamed for joy as the door was opened and he was allowed to come out for a little. He was but half trained. The others watched the master's eye, and chattered comments among themselves, while a child stood gravely by, watching their antics. This is the region of rag-pickers, and in cellars, basements, and alleys, as well as in many a room of the tenement-houses, the work of sorting goes on. Bones and garbage of many kinds are often added to the rags, and here again the Board of Health interferes as far as possible. A thousand people dwell in the Beehive, and most of them of the lowest order, yet there are few beggars, and the majority work hard each day. They give up the open-air eating that formed part of their European home life, nor do they take as many saints' days for holidays. The New York passion for money is upon them, and they work out of these noisome surroundings into something better in surprisingly short spaces of time. The members of the class just above them — the thrifty bourgeois — make money as grocers, hairdressers, or barbers, and go back to their native land to astonish old neighbors with their gains. Often such a one returns to New York and to the same quarters, for the sake of adding to his store, finding that the old life has lost its charm and that his days must end in America.


Website: The History
Article Name: Italian Life In New York 1892
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Darkness and Daylight or, Lights and Shadows of New York by Mrs. Helen Campbell A.D. Worthington & Co., Publishers 1892
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