The Old World In New York Part I

By Helen Bullitt Lowry

Seven years ago New York's east side, to the orthodox New Yorker, was divided into the classic three parts__its "Jewish east side," its vaguely described "Little Italy" and its "Chinatown," reserved for mid-western tourists and therefore little visited by self-respecting new Yorkers. In those primitive old pre-war days, the man in Broadway didn't know that there was such a thing as Ukrainian or Czechoslovakian much less that we had the reprint of both here at home. An immigrant by the water's brim a simple immigrant was to him.

On the geography map Russia was all over green. Turkey was the same color in Europe and Asia. Bohemia was pleasantly situated in Greenwich Village, Austria and Hungary were pronounced as one word while the only other addresses in Southern Europe were the Bulgarian embroidery that came in on 1912 dresses and the "Graustark" of the circulating fiction library.

Now those good simple days are over. Now we have grown race wise, what with a new country a week getting into the headlines.

And, as a consequence, New York's east side takes on a new and thrilling significance. No longer is it divided into three parts. it is divided into Armenian settlements and into Ukrainian settlements, into Lithuanians and Czechs and Syrians. Page any race you've a mind to. From high up in the Bronx to the back door of Wall Street, the region east of Third Avenue is plotted out into an intricate pattern of foreign colonies each homogeneous, apart, a village in itself. Each nation has swarmed into an identical block of shabby houses, and has painted its bricks and its brownstones with its own personality, its own language, its own history, its own taboos and the tradition of its ancestors. Each has its own Main Street.

Sharply you turn the corner. The Isles of Greece have been left behind. it is a synagogue rich with the lore of Israel. Reverend patriarchs, with long gray beards, take the place of black-mustached young Greeks. The inhabitants wander not back and forth from village to village. A sharp turn of the street cuts off Greece from Judea and Italy from Israel.

Occasionally some practical Italian boy may make profit of the booth next to his in the international carnival. Some such young hustler will cross over the boundary on Friday night to the home of an orthodox old Jew, and make a penny by lighting his gas in these opening hours of the Sabbath. But the real life of the colonies runs on, separate and apart.

By certain sure signs may the sightseer know them. By the festa of the Italian and by the rug display of the Armenian, by the foods displayed in the show windows and by the invariable national restaurant, by the sound of an unknown tongue, and by the racial cast of features that declare beyond argument that "This is Athens," and "This is Damascus."

Down around Madison Street lies Little Greece, just a block east of Chatham Square. Along its Main Street you walk, and every other store is a coffee house, where by day and by night the Greek men gather for their quiet, orderly game of cards or chess which is only a stall for the real work of the day, making a trade and discussing Greek politics.

Wiseacres say that Venizelos was defeated in those very Madison Street coffee houses. Because of their American experiences, the American Greeks kept writing back to their cousins in the old land, "Why do you stand such and such?" Which wasn't exactly fair with Venizelos doing only a few of the high-handed things that are perfectly good form in the Near East, like dispensing with "unnecessary" trials. But Venizelos was just out of luck.

Any afternoon or evening you may see them, sipping their coffee and smoking as often as not using the narghileh with its bottle on the floor and its stem like the pipe of a vacuum cleaner. The signs painted on the windows are Greek classic letters familiar to college-bred America through the medium of the college fraternity. And behind those Greek letters business and political life are proceeding exactly as they would in the lands where once burning Sappho loved and sung.

The Greek lawyer in Athens does not rent himself an office. He sits in the coffee house and transacts his business. he carries his office in his head. Therefore it is over the heavy sweet coffee of Madison Avenue that these quiet, straight-nosed men, with their neat black bars of mustaches, are plotting yet further chocolate drops and caramels for fat American women. In the Near East and in New York the Greeks have conquered the candy business. Theirs is the responsibility for the plump sultanas that sit on their cushions and chew all day. Beware of the Greeks bearing gifts.

Around the corner lies Little italy or rather one of fruitful Italy's New York off-springs. Each of some four hundred Italian colonies is made up of a circle revolving as independently as the world does of Mars. Each of these colonies is just a grafted product from this or that village in Sicily or from the neighborhood of Naples. A New York Italian neighborhood is made up individuals from the same town in the old country, and it celebrates the annual festa of the same saint. Often in midsummer season of New York's east side there will be literally a festa a day hidden away far from the Greenwich Village sightseer. The International Institute of the Y.W.C.A., by the way, is a good information bureau for discovering the date and the address of any festa.

And what a day is a festa day! Fifth Avenue, at her peak of expensive decoration, with jeweled arches and the rest, never approached the spontaneous gayety of these events. One little neighborhood will spend $500 on fireworks alone. And, instead of the conventional stars of the rocket, there will burst into the air a saint of fire or a fish turning somersaults. These fireworks used to be imported from Italy, along with the olive oil and spaghetti. Now there is a factory in New Jersey which turns them out for the special benefit of east side festas.

Nobody works for three days. The street is strung with electric lights, to take the place of the wrought iron lamps of the Old World. All traffic ceases and the street is lined with booths draped in the Virgin's favorite color of blue, with pink candies and pink tissue favors for sale. Pushcarts will hold loads of wax arms and legs, hearts, ears, breasts of each part of the body that disease may attack. They are purchased that they may be blessed by the saint and the healing miracle accomplished.

On the first day of the festa the procession occurs, with the good saint brought out from the nearest church and carried upon a platform. Before her troop girls in their first communion veils and behind her come all of the neighborhood, skipping and dancing to the joyous music of local musicians.

Of late it has become a fad among society women to organize "carnivals" on the east side and to coax the foreigners into their folk costumes, as the society women imagine these things should be. Then the parade goes up to Washington Square, where all Greenwich Village may see and approve.

But these real festas, which are got up from within by the Italian mutual benefit societies, are nothing so artificial. In the real festa the transplanted peasants wear their Sunday Best, even as if this were Italy. Only now their Sunday Best happens to be a black ostrich plumed hat or a black "dress suit" for the men. Thus do they parade.

Then, after the procession, the saint is placed in a shrine on the street, and the neighborhood and the visitors from nearby neighborhoods come and pin money upon her robe, until she is verily clothed in a patchwork of green bills. This money usually goes one-half to the mutual benefit society of the neighborhood and one-half to the church. Often $3,000 is cleared over and above expenses. Yet people have a way of wondering what Italians do with their money!

Another thing that they do with their money is to buy their daughters suitable weddings. It's a niggardly man who will not spend $500 on his daughter's wedding, not counting the trousseau that the girl herself has been making for half a dozen years. Any one who lives near Washington Square has seen one of their wedding parties dash in and out of the church on Bleecker Street in the middle of the afternoon__the bride in white satin gown and veil and groom in full evening dress, rented or otherwise. But the general public doesn't follow them to the inevitable photographer's just after the wedding nor yet see the feast that follows, usually in a rented hall.

The ceiling is a spider web of ribbons, as symbol that the bride was caught like a fly. To the ribbons and tied almonds (as a good wish for fruitfulness a good wish rarely unfulfilled. And there are dancing and cakes and red wine and fiddling and merriment, while the bride makes the acquaintance of her husband.

Till the bridal day she has never been much more than introduced to the happy man. For in the conservative Italian colony, unpenetrated by restaurants that cater to Americans, the European marriage by arrangement still prevails. By the time a girl is 12 her liberty ceases as utterly as it would in a Turkish harem. Her father or mother escorts her to and from school and to and from work. If she goes to a party in the evening, her escort is her father. In short, so immutable is the code and so gossiping are the tongues in a neighborhood whose grandmothers and great-grandmothers gossiped together in the old country that for a girl once to be unaccounted for in the evening is enough to make her an "unmarriageable" property left on the father's hands.

The Italian mother knows that "all Italian men are devils" and she knows how to cope with her hereditary problem. If any harm comes to an Italian girl, it is through some foreigner that has wandered over the boundary whose methods the Italian mother knows not. In some such neighborhoods as East Sixty-ninth Street and East 149th Street the mother has literally never been outside of her neighborhood since her arrival, maybe twenty years ago. She knows not the language and she knows not the ways of the world west, south and north.

The mutual benefit society takes care of the funeral which likewise runs up into the hundreds of dollars, with a band playing the mournfulness dirges and a hearse with a white cherub at each of its corners. And lives there an Italian child with soul so dead who would not die to ride in a hearse of white cherubim? There does not, so the adult Italians assert.

These mutual benefit societies, by the way, are an integral part of New York's immigrant life. Italian, Jewish, Slavonic, Japanese, Ukrainian, Scandinavian, all have their mutual benefits with most of them organized to supply sick and death insurance. The immigrant "wants to die decently, ceremoniously, and socially." The societies are spontaneous, created by the foreign men themselves, and have nothing to do with uplift. Each transplanted Italian village possesses one, until there are 500 Italian mutual benefit associations in New York alone.

Even a superficial study of these independent societies, with their insurance, their classes in English, and their well-filled treasuries is rather upsetting to preconceived theories of the east side "slums" of Salvation Nell and the movies. There are slums on the east side. They are composed of down-and-out Americans, down-and-out Italians, the same of the Irish and Chinese and Jews. But the foreign colony, revolving around its church, its mutual benefit society, and the taboos of its ancestors, is not a slum.

It is certainly a community that operates without bathrooms and it is probably a country-bred community which is ignorant of city hygiene. But it is made up of up-and-coming adventurers who have come to find fortune in the new land. The social service workers have for the most part found that their usefulness is to the second generation and to the mothers through district nurses. But the men of the colonies will brook no suggestions from "foreigners." They pay when the patron saint's feast comes around and not when they get invited to a "neighborhood" block party at some Settlement House. That part of the second generation, by the way, that has strayed from its national religion, been released from its national taboos and not yet supplied with our American equivalents is the real immigrant problem. But that is another story.

As the Italian immigrant joyously dances and sings and laughs under the festoons of electric lights, the history of his "unreformed" Renaissance Church is written as if in the fireworks above his head. No Puritan Blue Sunday laws ever came into Italy to sober the religious festival. All that we have in common with the Italian peasant's idea of a religious celebration is our small town tradition of possessing a "Sunday best."

Website: The History
Article Name: The Old World In New York Part I
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The New York Times April 3, 1921
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