“Not a word of English is heard — only a rough, gutteral Italian”
When we ran our story about Chinatown last week we knew it was inevitable we would cover the section on Little Italy as well. It has the same anti-immigrant undertones as the section on Chinatown.
It is probably best not to read the unpalatable descriptions and have modern judgments on 19th century attitudes. What would seem outright racist or prejudicial today was merely the predominant “native” view of anyone who was not a WASP or other accepted creed.
Once again, the guidebook we quote from is Rand, McNally Handy Guide to New York City, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and other suburbs included in the Greater New York edited by Ernest Ingersoll (1898). This section is from the same one as Chinatown and is called “A Ramble At Night”, where the visitor to New York is directed to tour the areas of New York that are off the beaten path after 9 p.m. The purpose of the night ramble is to “give some hints as how the dark, crowded, hard-working, and sometimes criminal portions of the city look at night.” Reproduced below is the section on the Little Italy.
It is too far to go to see the Italian rag-pickers in Crosby St. , but we can find a great colony of the same people in Little Italy, just above here; so let us go to
The Mulberry Bend
Mulberry St., here at its southern end, is narrow, dark, and dirty. Six-story tenements, whose unwashed windows scarcely disclose any evidence of the lamp-light within, rise in a solid wall on either hand. Their first floors are occupied by shops of various kinds—all dark now, but blurs of red and yellow light at each corner, and once or twice in the middle, of every block, show that the saloons are still open. Along the curbstone, every two or three doors, are groups of trucks, whose drivers and horses are stabled somewhere in the midst of these tenements. It is not much after ten o’clock, and plenty of people are in the street; if it be one of the hot summer evenings, everybody is out, half of them asleep on the trucks, or in door-steps, or on the cellar doors, where the mothers have brought pillows, or maybe a mattress, for their children to lie upon; and there they will sleep all night rather than stifle inside those awful hives of neglected humanity.
The Park recently opened here, has cleared away some of the worst of these squalid tenements, and opened the “Points” and the “Bend” to fresh air and green grass. it has a rest-house, fountains, and innumerable seats. A great new schoolhouse is close by. On all sides are pictures worth an artist’s study, on a summer evening. Here is a little street coming from the right, and the smoky torches of a fruit-seller gleam upon the brass buttons of two policemen who are watching what seems to be material for a very pretty row, in a group of small, lithe, dark men excitedly quarreling and gesticulating. Not a word of English is heard — only a rough, gutteral Italian. Perhaps they will take it out in words – perhaps a knife may flash out, a cry be heard, and the cat-like murderer get away, even though policemen are so close at hand, for his countrymen will help him to escape, in order that they may institute the vendetta and become their own avengers. We move on. The way is more crowded, and as we jostle through it is hard to believe this is not Naples. The street curves slightly to the left. More dark-skinned men and bonnetless women – who ever saw one of these signorinas wear a hat? – throng the sidewalks and squat in the doorways of the little shops, whose thresholds are below the sidewalk, or lounge upon the trucks, or pass in and out of a concert hall where dancing is going on.
Let us step into this groggery kept by a man whose name is honored in Rome, if his sign may be believed, and get a glass of beer. It is a dark, smoky little barroom, filled with Italians. No doubt they look ferocious, if your fancy insists upon it, but to me there seems only a sort of brutish curiosity in their glances. The beer comes in glasses holding nearly a quart, and only three cents is asked; but if it was not altogether obtained by emptying the dregs of the beer-kegs in other saloons, the stock was certainly eked out in that way. We take just a sip for politeness sake and go out again. This is the Mulberry Bend — in some respects the most unmanageable crime-nursery in the city. It is quiet enough, as a rule, however, and we turn back and saunter through the stinking shadows of Bayard St. (the very worst part of a very bad street named after the pattern of gentility) without any sensations of alarm, since no Vendetta has been declared against us in “Little Italy.”
While Little Italy may have seemed full of foreign intrigue and dangerous characters to Ernest Ingersoll the guidebook’s writer, it was in reality the heart of a great community of mostly honest, hardworking Italian immigrants.
When enlarged, great details abound in the top photograph leading off our story showing a crowded Mulberry Street looking north towards Canal Street in 1900.
One of the best details is the proud Italian gentleman in the left hand corner who stands defiantly staring at the photographer, arms angled on his side, who looks as if he’s ready to take on the world. He stands out like a sore thumb. This man’s posture and pose exemplifies the attitude that I would say most immigrants had about their surroundings – life is full of hard work and challenges, but America means freedom and possibilities.
(All photos from Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Co.)