Italian East Harlem

Italian Harlem: America’s Largest and Most Italian Little Italy

By Gerald Meyer, Ph.D.

Italian Harlem—which was located on Manhattan’s east side between 96th Street and 125th Street from Lexington Avenue to the East River—at its height in 1930 was home to eighty-nine thousand first- and second-generation Italian Americans.  Its large population allowed for the construction of an unusually extensive and elaborate social infrastructure, including the country’s largest festa.  This community encouraged the development of an extraordinary set of political and communal leaders—Salvatore Cotillo, Leonard Covello, Edward Corsi, Fiorello LaGuardia, and Vito Marcantonio.  Italian Harlem may be the most important single site for an understanding and an appreciation of the Italian-American experience.

The first Italians arrived in East Harlem in 1878, from Polla in the province of Salerno, and settled in the vicinity of 115th Street.1 In response to the inhospitable treatment of their adopted land, Southern Italians gathered together to the extent that they actually became the most residentially segregated European nationality in the United States.2 Within the Little Italys, immigrants from various regions—even towns—settled together.  In Italian Harlem there was on East 112th Street, a settlement from Bari; on East 107th Street between First Avenue and the East River, people from Sarno near Naples; on East 100th Street between First and Second Avenues, Sicilians from Santiago; on East 100th Street, many northern Italians from Piscento; and on East 109th Street, a large settlement of Calabrians.3  The 1930 census showed the remarkable homogeneity of Italian Harlem, 81 percent of its population consisted of either first- or second-generation Italian Americans. (This was somewhat less than the concentration of Italian Americans in the Lower East Side’s Little Italy—88 percent; but Italian Harlem’s total population was three times that of Little Italy.)4 Some blocks reported: Italians 672, others 10; Italians 703, others 17; Italians 914, others 18.5

Italian Harlem occupied the eastern half of East Harlem which stretched west to Fifth Avenue.  By 1890, the original Irish- and German-American communities were rapidly being replaced by Italian Harlem and a Yiddish-speaking community of Eastern European Jews, which was located between Lexington Avenue and Fifth Avenue.6  They shared East Harlem with the much smaller communities of Finnish Americans, Greek Americans, and the remnants of the original German- and Irish-American communities.  In the twenties, Jewish Harlem began to be replaced by the expansion of Black Harlem in the north and the rise of El Barrio, that is, Spanish Harlem.  In general what was characteristic of East Harlem’s three historic communities—Jewish Harlem, El Barrio, and Italian Harlem—was that they were long-standing entities which constructed an organizational life that satisfied the cultural and social needs of their residents.  All played key roles in the history of these peoples and the history of immigrant experience within the United States in general.

Throughout East Harlem, and most especially Italian Harlem, there prevailed extremely poor housing and conditions of overcrowding.  Italian Harlem was a community of original settlement, whose housing was constructed specifically for immigrants.  It was a tenement district where speculators had constructed block after block of narrow five- and six-story dumb-bell shaped (because they had airshafts on either side) dwellings that contained railroad flats, that is, apartments where one room entered directly onto the next.  Overwhelmingly, these were Old-Law tenements, which had been constructed before the enactment of the Tenement Laws of 1901.7  Therefore, they occupied most of the lot, leaving a minimum of open space for light and air; most lacked toilets and bathtubs within the apartments.  As late as 1939, in the most Italian census tract, 84 percent of the dwellings were without central heating, 67 percent lacked a tub or shower, and 55 percent a private toilet.  Only 7.5 percent of the apartments contained five or more rooms.8 Further contributing to the overcrowding was the absence of public spaces.  The only park within this community, Thomas Jefferson, was founded around the turn of the century, when the city demolished six square blocks of tenements and other structures in order to create one open space.  In the mid-1920’s, the district had the distinction “of having the most populated block in the city… Five thousand human beings in one city street… ”9

The only notable exception to Italian Harlem’s tenement-district character was East 116th Street and a few adjacent streets which contained one- and two-family row houses.  East 116th Street, known as “Doctors’ Row,” served as the corso, or promenade, for this community.  It was very important for the “completeness” of this community that it contained an area where the prominenti of the community resided (Marcantonio and Covello, for example, lived there in adjacent row houses on East 116th Street).  Nonetheless, this middle class enclave was severely limited in size—in 1940 the census tract that embraced this relatively privileged area contained only sixteen one-family and twenty-four two-family dwellings.10

Italian Harlem was a dormitory community that included no important concentration of businesses or industry.  Approximately 20 percent of the community’s working population found employment there, the others commuted.11  The lack of employment was compensated for by the area’s two significant assets: proximity to districts offering jobs and an excellent public transportation system.  Every avenue had at least one mode of transit, with a subway line under Lexington Avenue and elevated railroads above Second and Third Avenues.  The other north-south streets were served by cable cars or streetcars, which picked up and discharge passengers at almost 60 percent of the street intersections.12

Italian Harlem’s housing stock predetermined that it would be a poor working class community.  The vast majority of the Italian migrants to the United States were contadini whose skills ill-matched the needs of an industrializing urban economy.  Low levels of literacy in the Italian language and formal education in general also hindered the adaptation of Southern Italians to their new country.  The skills of the much smaller numbers of artigiani, who were generally literate, corresponded the pre-industrial character of Southern Italy’s economy.  No organization or group of earlier-arrived co-nationals acted to mitigate either their economic hardships or the pervasive and persistent hostility Italians faced from the host society.  As a result, the Italians predominated in the lowest-paying, least-skilled occupations.  In Italian Harlem, these occupational patterns, perhaps to even the most extreme measure, prevailed.  A 1929 survey of the occupations of fathers cited: milkmen, vegetable vendors, street cleaners, truck drivers, dock hands, factory hands, builders, plumbers, plasterers, stone masons, painters, and auto mechanics.  The number of professionals and even while collar workers was negligible.13 The concentration of Italian Americans in occupations that were seasonal and especially vulnerable to economic downturns exacerbated their plight.

The Great Depression struck Italian Harlem with a vengeance.  In 1930 and 1931 the East Harlem Nursing Service conducted employment surveys which showed that in a group of 363 families, 28 percent held work-relief jobs, 21 percent worked in the private sector or the traditional civil service, 6 percent had irregular work, and 45 percent were unemployed.14 Another study which surveyed the economic condition of the parishioners of East Harlem’s churches in this period grouped them into three tiers: “very poor,” defined as “unable to pay rent”; “poor” as having “enough to eat most of the time but little else”; and “fair” as “comfortable living is possible.”  Of the four Italian parishes in Italian Harlem, the parishioners of three (Our Lady of Mount Carmel, St. Ann’s, and St. Lucy’s) fell into the “very poor” category and Holy Rosary’s “poor.”15 These conditions persisted.  In 1940, one-third of East Harlem’s work force was still unemployed.  By 1950, the levels of employment had greatly increased, but 60 percent of its work force was employed as craftsmen, laborers, and operatives.16

Despite its overwhelmingly proletarian population, all times, a small stratum of middle class Italian Americans, who served vital communal needs, resided in Italian Harlem.  A “Community Survey,” sponsored by Covello in 1940, listed fifty-nine Italian-American doctors, eighteen lawyers, and a scattering of dentists, morticians, politicians, and labor leaders.  This community’s middle class contingent was augmented by a large number of small-scale proprietors residing in the community.  Community surveys produced by Covello showed that, with remarkably few exceptions, among the hundreds of small stores in Italian Harlem, ownership of particular types of stores and businesses was linked to ethnicity, for example, clothing, hardware, and jewelry stores were owned by Jews and bars by Irish Americans.  Italian Americans predominantly owned the baking, bedding, fish, flower, fruit and vegetable, grocery, music, and shoe stores, as well as garages and restaurants.  They also owned practically all the funeral homes,

coal-and-ice delivery businesses, tile and marble installing, and barber shops.  Jews and Italians, in more or less equal numbers, owned the candy stores, drug stores, radio repair shops, and printing establishments.17

The Catholic Church which had served the Irish and other European immigrant nationalities so well seemed unwilling to play that role for the Italians.  Almost immediately after the Italians arrived in Harlem, clashes broke out between them and the Irish.  The Catholic churches already established in the community reserved the “lower churches,” that is, the basements for Italian-language services.  One elderly Italian resident, who was interviewed in the thirties recalled that when the Italians attended services in predominantly Irish parishes they were subjected to a barrage of insults and even beatings.  Excluded from the organize church, in 1882 a group of Italian immigrants began celebrating the feast of the patron of its native village, Our Lady of Mount Carmel.  Originally this event took place in the front yard of a residence at East 110th Street and First Avenue, but the following year, the group obtained rooms on the first floor of a house on East 113th Street, where an Italian priest celebrated East Harlem’s first Italian-language Mass.18  The Italian craftsmen literally built Our Lady of Mount Carmel with their own hands after coming home from exhausting days of work; Italian junkmen and icemen lent their carts and horses to haul materials.  Nonetheless, in 1884 when the work was completed, the clergy ushered their Italian parishioners into the lower church—that is, the basement—to worship.  Despite the fact that over 90 percent of the baptisms in this period were of the offspring of the Italian immigrants, they remained in the church basement until 1919 when the first Italian priest, Gaspare Dalia, became the pastor.19 The acceptance of the Italian Catholics on an equal footing was not conclude until 1923, when the statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was moved to the church proper.20

By the 1930s, Italian Harlem’s festa to La Madonna de Monte Carmelo became the best attended festa in the entire United States.  Its popularity was ensured when in 1903 Pope Leo XIII awarded the statue a set of golden crowns (one for the Madonna and one for the Child Jesus) and declared the church a basilica, a status which in the entire United States is shared only with Our Lady of Perpetual Help in New Orleans.  During the thirties, pilgrimages from as far away as California, Florida, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Canada swelled the number of participants to 500,000.21 One observer in the thirties described some of the features of the festa’s procession:

A band heads the parade, which is then followed by members of the Society of

Monte Carmelo.  The image of the Madonna is carried by four men.  Immediately

following the Madonna come the Verginelle (little virgins), young girls all dressed in

white wearing fine white veils … Following them is a banner [on which] are pinned

all the dollars which the faithful contribute.  At the end of the parade marched all

those who claim that the Madonna had healed them of some malady or performed

some other miracle for their benefit, many of whom walk barefoot though the streets

of Harlem carrying wax images of the parts afflicted to be presented at the church and

to be melted down as candles… The band plays popular gay tunes…22


The procession wound its way though every block in Italian Harlem in a sense defining its borders and consecrating its ground.

The traditional relationship between the Southern Italians and the Church persisted in other ways.  In 1930, Our Lady of Mount Carmel reported that it had one thousand adult male members and three thousand female adult members.23  In the forties, Covello conducted a survey of East Harlem high-school boys that showed when compared with schoolboys from other predominantly Catholic ethnic groups the Italian American boys evidenced far less adherence to Roman Catholic religious practice.24  The distant relationship of  southern Italians and the organize Church was also reflected in the fact that the festa of Our Lady  of Mount Carmel as well as the other feste were organized by congregazioni that is, societies based on place of origin that the Church recognized as responsible for conducting the feste.  Social-service activities sponsored by the Catholic Church, which could have forged closer associations between the organized church and its adherents within the community remained limited.

Italian Harlem boasted a galaxy of voluntary organizations founded, organized, financed, and otherwise operated by its residents.  In 1935, no fewer than 110 mutual benefit societies existed in Italian Harlem, that is, one for approximately every 225 adult males.  Their members, who were composed of former residents from a locality in Italy, typically named these societies after the patron saint or the town of its members.  They provided recreational and religious activities, death benefits, sometimes sickness and accident benefits, and aid in seeking work.  Attendance of members at other members’ funerals was mandatory.  Generally, each society had its own doctor and lawyer, who were also members.25 These societies allowed their members to associate regularly with people who spoke their own dialect.  Also, for a group that was defamed and devalued within the wider society, they gave their members the opportunity to achieve recognition and status by gaining a title or simply building a reputation within a community.26 In the third generation the mutual aid societies based on Italian home towns were generally replaced by social and athletic clubs based on patterns of residence within the community itself or some other mutual affinity.  All of these societies exclusively enrolled men.  The major locations for informal socializing—coffee shops and barber shops—also excluded women.  The Catholic churches sponsored women’s societies, but their memberships were quite limited.

Four Protestant Churches (Jefferson Park Methodist Episcopal, St. Ambrose Episcopal, Ascension Presbyterian, and a Seventh Day Adventist Church) ministered to the spiritual needs of the scattering of East Harlem’s Italian Americans.  The oldest of these churches, the Methodist Episcopal, which was founded in 1890, dedicated in 1906 a newly built four-story edifice, located on East 114th Street facing Thomas Jefferson Park, that contained a church, rooms for classes, and a rectory.  After World War I, at another site, the church opened La Casa del Popolo, a community center staffed by Italian Americans, which provided services for the community.  In 1921, it boasted that its “Civic School” enabled 342 Italian immigrants to become citizens.27 The income levels of Italian Harlem’s Protestants on average was higher.  The survey of various churches parishioners’ economic status mentioned earlier found that those of the Methodist church, of which Covello was a very active member, was “fair,” that is, in the highest of the three categories.28

Mitigating the effects of the harsh economic and social conditions in Italian Harlem was a wide array of social agencies.  In 1930, East Harlem could count fourteen social agencies whose activities were coordinated by the East Harlem Council, which was founded in 1921 as the first neighborhood council in New York City.  This agency intentionally designed its program to overcome the Southern Italians’ opposition to away-from-home health care by locating its operations in a brownstone on East 116th Street, where the staff attempted to foster a friendly homey atmosphere.  By 1929, the agency claimed that it had contributed to a dramatic improvement in the health indices of the community, including decreasing, to a much greater degree than the City as a whole, its death rate, deaths from pneumonia, and cases of tuberculosis.29

Indicative of the limited successes of some of these agencies, however, was the results of the Boys’ Club program, which was inaugurated in 1927 in a newly built six-story building (on East 110th Street between First and Second Avenues).  Its stated goal was to help “boys of foreign origin to become real Americans . . . [and to] help the boys cultivate character from within [because] the most serious lack in their makeup is a sense of responsibility to themselves, their friends and their government.” Under the auspices of the New York University School of Education, a team of sociologists closely monitored the Italian Harlem’s Boys’ Club’s activities.  The general conclusion of the resultant study revealed, “the Club was not an important factor in the prevention of juvenile delinquency.”  Paradoxically, the number of criminal offenses committed by the Club’s members actually increased from 1928 until 1931.30

The social agency that has had the greatest positive impact on Italian Harlem was founded in 1898 by a Canadian Protestant missionary, Anna Ruddy, as the Home Garden.  In 1919, when it moved to its present location on East 116th Street between First and Second Avenues, it was renamed Haarlem House, and in 1956 it adopted its current name, La Guardia Memorial House.31  Harlem House touched the lives of almost all the great Italian Americans from Italian Harlem.  After earning a law degree in 1922, Edward Corsi, who arrived in Italian Harlem from Italy at the age of ten, in 1926 became the Director of Haarlem House.  He authored books and articles that explained the immigrant reality to the general public; in 1931 President Herbert Hoover appointed him Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island, and in 1933 President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization.32

It was under Ruddy’s tutelage that Leonard Covello, who had arrived in Italian Harlem at the age of nine from Southern Italy, academically achieved to the extent that he ultimately attended Columbia College on a Pulitzer scholarship.  He also adopted the principles of Ruddy’s version of the social gospel, ultimately dedicating his entire life to developing and implementing educational strategies to meet the needs first of the Italian American school children and then all cultural-minority students.  In 1932, the East Harlem Council mobilized the community to demand the establishment of a high school in the community.  With LaGuardia sitting in City Hall, in 1934, Benjamin Franklin High School was opened with Covello, who had already achieved recognition as an innovative, progressive educator, as its founding principal.33  As New York City’s first Italian-American high-school principal, his writings and work in Benjamin Franklin gained him a national reputation.

Haarlem House interpreted its mission as empowering the community as opposed to transforming the newcomers and their children into “real Americans.”  While providing instruction in English and preparing their clients for the naturalization process, its activities never neglected the cultures of origin of its clientele.  Haarlem House held annual folk music festivals and conducted classes in Italian for the immigrants’ children.  Leaflets and annual reports were published in both English and Italian.  After World War I, the staff enrolled some 1,250 families into the Harlem Tenants League, which succeeded in forcing landlords to moderate rent increases and to make necessary repairs and improvements on their properties.34

Vito Marcantonio, who served as East Harlem’s Congressman for fourteen years from 1934 to 1950, had a close relationship with Harlem House.  He worked as a tenant organizer and taught in the naturalization classes offered by Haarlem House.  In 1924, he married Miriam Sanders, the head social worker of Haarlem House, with whom for some years he actually lived in a small apartment on the top floor of Haarlem House.  In 1922, Fiorello La Guardia decided to resume his political career by running for Congress from East Harlem.  Working directly from Haarlem House, he organized a large contingent of insurgent Italian Americans who succeeded in enabling him to serve as the sole Italian American in Congress.  La Guardia, who was not a native of the district, adopted Marcantonio as his aide de camp, who tended to the needs of his constituents and build his political organization.  This enabled La Guardia to concentrate on his work in the House of Representatives, where he provided a unique voice for the urban poor and all the disenfranchised of the country.35  When La Guardia left the House as its most famous member to run for mayor, Marcantonio, who had gained a powerful reputation for responding effectively and promptly to the needs of the district’s residents, assumed his seat and continue his mentor’s tradition.

La Guardia, who actually lived in East Harlem until 1943 until Gracie Mansion was opened as the official residency of New York City’s mayor, did not maintain close social or cultural ties to the area.  He had been raised in the American West, and has been aptly described as “cultivated and Protestant,” whose “tastes were cosmopolitan and middle class.”  One of his biographers noted that: “[His East Harlem constituents] addressed him as Major, unless they used an even more exalted titles, like Senator or Your Honor, and tipped their hats in his presence.”36

Marcantonio’s relationship to Italian Harlem was organic.  When he was born in 1902 his family resided on East 112th Street and when he died in 1954 he lived on East 116th Street.  One of his biographers, Alan Schaffer, stated: “Few men in public life have been so intimately linked with a particular urban neighborhood… In many ways, the man was the product and the personification of the neighborhood.”37  Like La Guardia, he achieve real prominence in Congress by championing not only for the needs of his constituents, but of all those who had been left out of the American dream.  He became the leader for civil rights, champion for the foreign born, defender of the Italian Americans, advocate for the Puerto Ricans, tribune for labor, and the national spokesperson for the American Left.  Unlike his mentor, however, his social life largely consisted of hanging out with neighborhood friends in a local coffee shop.  Although he did not attend Mass, he marched in the processions and maintained excellent relations with the local priests.  His organization responded to the widespread poverty of the area by providing prodigious amounts of service.  He did not hesitate to use his own funds to help the indigent.  His willingness to intercede with the official world or, when necessary, substitute for it was congruent with the personalism, embedded in the traditional Southern Italian social structure.38

Similarly, his electioneering style resonated with other aspects of the community’s culture.  His major means of reaching his constituents was street corner meetings where he could exercise his exceptional oratorical skills.  One of his associates recalled that: “His voice was a hurricane of electricity going through the people.” These meetings, where he spoke in both English and Italian, incorporated a type of street theater where puppets and men in costumes were used to represent his opponents.  Following in the already established tradition of LaGuardia, Marcantonio always concluded his campaign on Election Eve at the so-called “Lucky Corner,” on the north-east corner of Lexington Avenue and East 116th Street.  There as many as twenty thousand supporters would listen to Marcantonio orate and sometimes Paul Robeson sing in what resembled a political festa replete with a band and huge electric-light signs urging people to vote Row C, that is, the American Labor Party.  The ritualistic quality of regularly returning to a site and the implication of the talismanic nature of the site, of course, resonated with the customs and popular beliefs of the Southern-Italian masses that very much persisted in America.  This great assembly at the Lucky Corner, which straddled the border between Italian Harlem and Jewish Harlem and later El Barrio, in ways similar to the political rallies held in Madison Square Garden and even the May Day parades of the period, concretized the unity of otherwise insular communities.  Aside from its large size, the Lucky Corner rallies communicated to the residents of East Harlem the importance of their Congressmen, because they attracted people from outside East Harlem, were broadcast live on as many as three New York City radio stations, and were reported on in the press.39

It was Covello who first recognized that: “As concerns Italians in a community like East Harlem… All adjustments, all accommodations, are made in terms of an Italian environment.  [This] makes the community a ‘Little Italy,’ [where] all tendencies toward accommodation denoted attempts to establish a replica of a southern Italian milieu which would assure a measure of security against demoralization.”40 Covello’s research established that in Italian Harlem typical Southern-Italian mores persisted with remarkable force into the third generation.  Questionnaires that he administered to Benjamin Franklin High School students showed that the values and attitudes of the Italian American students significantly differed from those of students from other ethnic European, for example, the Italian-American students were much more likely to list “cousins” when responding to the query, “Who would you prefer to spend your leisure time with?” In a few specific instances (willingness to do housework, and desire to live one’s entire life close to family) slightly more third-generation than second-generation Italian-American students responded in congruence with the dictates of Southern Italian mores.41 Covello was convinced that this milieu becoming discouraged prolonged education; the Italian parents feared their children would become estranged from the family system by the Americanization process.  His response to this, however, was not to collaborate in discouraging the persistence of the Italian culture, but to adjust the school to the community.  Working together with the Italian Teachers Association, in 1922 Covello had convinced the Board of Education to place Italian on a par with French, German, and Spanish as acceptable for the fulfillment of the Regents diploma language requirement.  When Covello had attended elementary school in Italian Harlem, his teacher, without consultation with his parents, changed his first name from Leonardo to Leonard and the following year, another teacher, again without parental concent, changed his surname from Coviello to Covello!  He recalled that the entire time he spent in public school, aside for Columbus, there was never a mention of anything Italian.42 After he became principal of Benjamin Franklin, the study of Italian was encouraged (in 1936, 776 students were enrolled), and an intercultural curriculum was implemented.43

Still home to fifty thousand Italian Americans, Italian Harlem was largely intact in 1950.  However, its aging population and deteriorating housing stock conspired to undermine its stability.  Ironically, the public housing that the community had fought so hard to obtain played the biggest role in reducing Italian Harlem.  Italian Harlem’s first public housing project, East River Houses, which was initially occupied in 1941, resulted from a massive housing campaign coordinated by Covello and Marcantonio.  It was built on a desirable site, between First Avenue and the East River between 102nd and 105th Streets, which had contained mostly antiquated industrial properties.  However, starting in 1947, the razing of housing on multi-block areas to clear land for the construction of a number of housing projects led to the destruction of this historic community.  Generally as many as ten years lapsed between the demolition of the old stock of housing and the completion of the projects.44  This process entailed the destruction of fifteen hundred stores, and many small churches, social clubs, union halls.  The urban ecology of a community, which a planning report of the Mayor’s Committee on City Planning in 1937 had proposed as “The principle center of Italian culture in this hemisphere,” was wantonly destroyed by well intentioned but mindless public policy.45  The Times in 1968 reported one old time resident as saying: “In came the bulldozers, and out went the Italians.”46 Then, the VA mortgages and the lure of “a better life,” now defined by the general society and culture, accelerated the exodus.  By 1960, fewer than sixteen thousand Italian Americans resided in East Harlem.47

Today, Italian Harlem still exists.  The 1990 Census shows only 918 Italian-Americans living in Italian Harlem.  Most of these predominantly older residents are clustered around Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, where scattered along a ten-block area (stretching from East 114th Street to East 118th Street and from Second Avenue to Pleasant Avenue) the remaining typical social clubs and business still operate.  The last pasticceria closed a few years ago, however, you can buy excellent biscotti at Marrone’s Bakery, which still bakes some of best Italian bread in New York City.  There is a barbershop whose proprietor reports that “Marcantonio was a good friend of mine.”  Patsy’s Pizzeria is so legendary that the use of its name has been the cause for a lawsuit.  Across the street, Rex’s sells great lemon ice, a few blocks south, Mario’s salumeria makes delicious sandwiches.  And while reservations at Rao’s will earn the caller a “Forget about it!”, Andy’s Colonial serves excellent traditional Italian food.  Farenga’s, which is housed in a failed Italian bank, still buries the old timers as they pass away.  LaGuardia Memorial House, which has a modest display of photographs and memorabilia in its lobby, is governed by a largely Italian-American board whose chair is Edward Corsi’s son, Phillip.  The physical artifacts of the community are intact.  Although Jefferson Park Methodist Church is now the Holy Tabernacle Church, biblical admonishments engraved in gilt letters in Italian are respectfully preserved.  Marcantonio’s last residence (231 East 116th Street) and Covello’s residence (229 East 116th Street) remain as does the Fiorello La Guardia Political Association (later the Vito Marcantonio Association) at 247 East 116th Street.  Facing the East River on Pleasant Avenue between East 114th and East 116th Streets, Benjamin Franklin High School (renamed the Manhattan Center of Mathematics and Science) remains a majestic and extremely well preserved public monument.  Most importantly, on East 115th Street near Pleasant Avenue, the cathedral of Italian Harlem, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, still shines in all its splendor, a monument to the entire Italian-American experience.  The church still holds a Mass each Sunday in Italian, and on every July 16th the continuity of this community is expressed when many of the former residents return to join the procession, which led by a float carrying a statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel wends its way through the streets.  Intermingled with the religions observance, a few sausage stands and games of chance remind the attendees of the other aspects of a festa.



In stark contrast to Central Harlem, however, where every site of historic note has been recorded and noted and where almost every thoroughfare has been renamed to honor a great resident, there is no visible memorialization of this historic community and its great leaders.  The residences of Covello, Marcantonio, and LaGuardia remain unplaqued, the political headquarters where LaGuardia and Marcantonio made national history is a tire-repair shop, and no street has been renamed to commemorate the great Italian Americans who were engendered and gave voice to this great center of the Italian American experience.



1 May Case Marsh, “The Life and Work of the Churches in an Interstitial Area” (Ph.D.

dissertation, New York University, 1932), p. 438.

2 Virginia Yans-McLaughlin, Family and Community: Italian Immigrants in Buffalo,  

1880-1930 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971), p. 116.

3 Irving Sollins, “A Socio-Statistical Analysis of Boys’ Club Membership” (Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1936), p. 43.

4 William Shedd, Italian Population in New York (New York: Casa Italiana Educational Bureau, 1934), p. 3.

5 Statistics compiled by Covello from United States Census. Covello Collection, which were originally deposited in the Balch Institute in Philadelphia, and are currently deposited in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. The Census counted third-generation Italian Americans as “native born of native stock.”

6 See: Jeffrey Gurock, When Harlem Was Jewish, 1870-1930 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979).

7 Frederick Thrasher, “Final Report on the Jefferson Park Branch of the Boys’ Club of New York” (Typewritten, ca. 1935), pp. 130, 122-134. Deposited in New York University Library.

8 Margaret Campbell Tilley, “The Boy Scout Movement in East Harlem” (Ph.D., dissertation, New York University, 1935), p. 31.

9 Edward Corsi, “My Neighborhood,” The Outlook (Sept. 16, 1925), p. 92.

10 Abraham Kavadlo, “Housing in Lower East Harlem” (Typewritten report, dated May 15, 1939), pp, 19-20. Marcantonio Papers, New York Public Library.

11 Edwin Friedman, “East Harlem Community Study: 1940-1950” (Masters thesis: New York University, 1954), p. 19.

12 Thrasher, “Final Report,” p. 100.

13 Marsh, “The Life and Work of the Churches,” p. 57. On the general distribution of occupations among Italians see: John D’Alessandre,Occupational Trends of Italians in New York City (New York: Casa Italiana Educational Bureau, ca. 1936).

14 “A Decade of District Health Pioneering: Ten Year Report of the East Harlem Health Center,” prepared under the direction of Kenneth Widdemer (New York, 1932), p. 137.

15 Marsh, “The Life and Work of the Churches,” pp. 495-497.

16 “Memorandum on Child Care Survey of East Harlem Health Center District, Manhattan,” Neva Deardorrf (New York: ca. 1940), pp. 5, 9.

17 Covello Collection.

18 Father Enrico Mizzatesta, interview conducted by S. Busacca, no place or date. Transcript deposited in Covello Collection.

19 Robert Anthony Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), p. 54.

20 Domenico Pistella, The Crowning of a Queen (New York: Eugene Printing Service, 1954), p. 118.

21 Pistella,  The Crowning of the Queen, pp. 68, 128, 105.

22 Marie Consistre, “A Study of a Decade in the Life and Education of the Adult Immigrant Community in East Harlem” (Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1943), pp. 223-24, in The Italians: Social Background of an American Group, edited by Francesco Cordasco and Eugene Bucchioni (Clifton, NJ: Augustus Kelly Publishers, 1974).

23 Unsigned carbon copy of memorandum deposited in Covello Collection.

24 Leonard Covello, The Social Background of the Italo-American School Child: A Study of the Southern Italian Family Mores and Their Effect on the School Situation in Italy and America (Leiden, the Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1969), p. 379.

25 Lists of Italian Harlem’s mutual aid societies are deposited in Covello Collection.

26 Humbert Nelli, Italians in Chicago, 1800-1930: A Study in Ethnic Mobility (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 157, 173-181.

27 Consistre, “A Study of a Decade in the Life and Education,” pp. 249-54.

28 Marsh, “The Life and Work of the Churches,” pp. 495-97.

29 “A Decade in Health Pioneering,” pp. 42, 45, 108.

30 Thrasher, “Final Report,” pp. 49, 66-80.

31 Robert Peebles, “Leonard Covello: A Study of an Immigrant’s Contribution to New York City” (Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1967), pp. 87-89. Italian-born Salvatore Cotillo is a neglected Italian American leader who was also a product of Italian Harlem. Elected from Italian in 1912 to the State Assembly, he later served in the State Senate and in 1923 became the first Italian justice on the New York Supreme Court. He joined La Guardia and Luigi Antonini, of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, in founding an anti-Fascist New York State chapter of the Order of the Sons of Italy.  Although he was associated with Tammany Hall, like Robert Wagner and Alfred E. Smith, he was a strong proponent of social and prolabor legislation. Ronald Bayor, Fiorello La Guardia: Ethnicity and Reform (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1993), pp. 23, 135, 191.

32 “Corsi, Edward,” in Dictionary of American Immigration History, p. 141, edited by Francesco Cordasco (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1990).

33 Leonard Covello, The Heart Is the Teacher (New York: McGraw Hill, 1958.

34 Gerald Meyer, “Vito Marcantonio: A Successful New York City Radical Politician” (Ph.D. dissertation, City University, 1984), pp. 197-198.

35 Howard Zinn, La Guardia in Congress (New York: W. W. Norton, 1958).

36 Robert Freeman, “Exploring the Path of Change in East Harlem, 1870-1979: A Multifactor Approach” (Ph.D. dissertation, Fordham, 1994), p. 144; Arthur Mann, La Guardia: A Fighter against His Times, 1882-1933 (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1959).

37 Alan Schaffer, Vito Marcantonio: Radical in Congress (Syracuse: Syracuse

University Press, 1966.

38 Gerald Meyer, Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1954 (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989).

39 Meyer, Vito Marcantonio, passim.

40 Covello, Social Background, p. 349.

41 Covello, Social Background, pp. 360-381.

42 Covello, The Heart, pp. 29, 43.

43 “Italian Teachers Association Seventh Annual Report: School Year 1936-1937,” p. 321, in The Italian Community and Its Language in the United States: The Annual Reports of the Italian Teachers Association, edited by Francesco Cordasco (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1975).

44 Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities  (Middlesex, England: Pelican Books, 1964), pp. 15, 56-57, 69, 71, 75, 113, 129, 306-307.

45 “Rebuilding Urged for East Harlem,” New York Times (June 29, 1937), p. 23.

46 “The Harlem Italians: Little Italy Is Kept Alive by Former Residents Who Keep Coming Back,” New York Times (Oct. 15, 1968), p. 49.

47 Freeman, “Exploring the Path of Change,” p. 255.

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