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East Harlem, New York: Microcosm of the Melting Pot
Harlem is a locality in the Manhattan borough of New York, long known as a primary residential, cultural and business center for many minorities, but it is much more than that. It is symbolic of many divergent cultures that have come together, that have grown together, summoned by the allure of the legendary flame eternally held aloft by the Statue of Liberty. It is symbolic of the melting pot known as America, a melting pot that has been cooking up a tried and true formula of Freedom for over 200 years now. East Harlem is a symbol of the hope, determination, acceptance and strength that has made America great.
Harlem was once a quiet farm area, much like the original 13 colonies filled with agricultural immigrants who flocked together to make ends meet. In Harlem there were communities filled with some Dutch, French Huguenots, Danes, Swedes and Germans. For three decades, the Germans were the dominant cultural element in the borough, with the Irish coming in second in number and influence. Waves of immigration in the 1880s and 1890s brought various cultural elements from Israel and Italy. Like the new nation itself, Harlem had drawn people seeking a fresh start and a fair chance from all over the Old World. Then African Americans began to come to Harlem from the inner city, the South, and the West Indies. In the 1930s, half a million people crowded into the greater New York area. There were too many people and too few places, too little in the way of resources, and Harlem became the nation’s poorest neighborhood. However, her people persevered.
As the new nation grew, so did Harlem, growing and defining its borders. The United States increased its size and population with the Louisiana Purchase, usually defining itself geographically, opening up more territory for freedom seekers. This brought more immigrants and different cultures from around the world, most came through New York City, many stayed there and settled in Harlem.
To this day, the boundaries of Harlem include the following: East Harlem/El Barrio Area, known as Spanish Harlem, a community that stretches from First Avenue to Fifth Avenue, from East 96th Street to East 125th Street. Then there is Central Harlem, which extends from Central Park North to the Harlem River, as well as from Fifth Avenue to St. Nicholas Avenue. West Harlem, consisting of Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill, extends from 123rd to 155th Streets also from Avenue St. Nicholas to the Hudson River.
East Harlem has been referred to as “German Harlem, Irish Harlem, Jewish Harlem, Italian Harlem, and Spanish Harlem,” also known as “El Barrio.” It is a testament to the many, different ethnicities that have made their home in the municipality. A microcosm of a nation that has grown so much and overcome so many issues caused by cultural diversity that a minority is its president. Today there are significant Central and South American immigrant populations moving into the area, which have begun to match the large numbers of Puerto Ricans who have dominated the area for years. The ebb and flow of East Harlem’s ethnically diverse population it has had tremendous historical significance and has been a microcosm of a nation forged from many different cultures, forming an interesting part of the early history of New York City and the Nation.
Immigration in the United States, from the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, has been the focus of much attention, and for good reason. A large mass of immigrants from a multitude of different origins came in pursuit of the “American Dream,” which symbolized for them democracy, equality, freedom, justice, and above all, material well-being. These opportunities are promised to us right in the Declaration of Independence, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” no matter who we are. There is no better testament to this promise than East Harlem.
Industrialization and the establishment of the factory system across the Americas offered the promise of employment for the poor masses in Europe. Most industrialists in America depended on cheap labor coming from Europe to run the factories, not caring at all what happened to the immigrant workers after they arrived. The masses flooded the market. With industrialization, great changes began to occur in the United States. This would eventually lead to both positive and severe negative consequences.
The efforts of those who worked together, regardless of culture, as in Harlem, to endure and make better lives for themselves and their families, have made America what it is today, the financial epicenter of the World. Whether they worked on farms, in factories, built railroads, bridges, towns or cities, their rewards were greater than any nation could ever offer, they were given freedom and all the responsibilities that come with it. These responsibilities include learning to accept and understand, and experience with different cultures and ethnic groups.
During the 1800s, Harlem was developing all kinds of transportation projects in an effort to spur northward expansion. By 1831, the New York and Harlem Railroad Company was incorporated for the purpose of building a railroad from downtown to Harlem. This encouraged lower Manhattan residents to move north to Harlem. With the rise of the “eles”, metropolitanized development occurred extremely quickly, accelerating the construction of residential buildings and brownstones. All over America, at the same time, famous railroads were built. Channels were formed. Like Harlem, America was expanding, growing, and integrating from one community to another. This availability of reasonably priced housing and faster transportation allowed the workforce to be able to live in East Harlem and commute to their jobs downtown.
In the West, railroad construction projects at this time attracted many workers from Asia. In Harlem, these construction projects also attracted many immigrant wage laborers, from many different ethnic cultures, primarily during the 1880s and 1890s. The steady flow of free labor coming from abroad fueled America’s and Harlem’s industrial drive and also gave ruthless entrepreneurs a great opportunity to reap profits from the sweat of the backs of various minorities who came seeking a fair chance. Yet in Harlem, as in America, they persevered and emerged, and that is what the American Spirit is all about. To endure, to strive, to win and to move forward instead of backward.
In San Francisco, the Chinese worked on the Pacific Railroad, living in shanty towns and working for little money. In Harlem, the first group to go to work to build America’s path to an industrious future were the German and Irish workers who laid down the trolley tracks and dug the subway tunnels. Because of East Harlem’s cheap housing rent and convenient public transportation system, many Central and Eastern European factory workers were able to commute from lower Manhattan shops. As a result of this construction, East Harlem became heavily populated with a hard-working Irish and Italian community.
East Harlem was also one of the main locations for Jewish residences at this time. It was the veritable hotbed of diversity that the United States prides itself on. During the 1920s, East Harlem had a Jewish population of about 177,000, to keep up with its German, Irish, and Italian populations, all living together, working to make Harlem, New York, and America a better place. . At the time, Harlem was predominantly Jewish, and East Harlem had the largest Jewish population overall. As the population expanded, as African Americans and eventually Hispanics began to move into East Harlem, the borough’s Jewish population began to decline.
With their thriving small businesses, the remaining Jewish merchants maintained strong ties to East Harlem residents, further strengthening East Harlem’s diverse character.
Between 1915 and 1920, hundreds of thousands of African Americans began migrating to Harlem from the “economically depressed” rural South, still recovering from the Civil War 50 years earlier, to the booming industrial cities of the North. Like all Americans, they wanted to take advantage of urban, economic opportunities in steel mills, car factories, and packing houses. They wanted to succeed and improve their lives. They wanted that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that had been promised to them. Thousands of African Americans would roam the black ghettos of New York City, looking for work wherever and however they could find it. Since Harlem could not accommodate all of the many new arrivals, the overflow migration of African Americans moved into East Harlem at the same time that Puerto Ricans began settling in the borough. The Roaring 20’s were a boom time for the USA and East Harlem was literally exploding.
A large number of southern Italians who arrived in NYC during the last quarter of the 19th century from the regions of Basilicata, Calabria, and Sicily also established their own communities in East Harlem. By the 1930s, it was the largest Italian settlement in the city. The Italian community lived mostly around 106th Street, in the area east of Third Avenue to the East River, often housed in overhanging one-story shacks that had been built along the water because there simply wasn’t enough housing to accommodate them. all. . They also endured.
Then it happened, everything started to fall apart. The Great Depression began and America and its people were effectively torn apart. The years of the Great Depression dealt a heavy blow to Italian Americans, especially men working in the construction industry, as new construction ground to a halt across the country. Regular employment was hard to come by and it was almost impossible to maintain and feed large families. Often, women then had to take menial housekeeping jobs just to keep their families afloat. Even children were forced to work. However, in Harlem, there was such a diverse culture that already had to endure so much hardship, the Great Depression was just another day of the scramble to make ends meet. It was that grit, determination and sacrifice that helped save the young Nation.
By the 1940s there were still large numbers of unemployed Italians in Harlem, but the economy began to improve by the 1950s, thanks in part to World War II. The nation began to recover, and better housing and sanitary living conditions improved for many in East Harlem.
Since the early 1990s, the face of East Harlem continues to change, as it always has, expanding its ethnic reach. With new arrivals from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Central and South America, Harlem is once again creating a new, diverse personality. As America has grown up and Hollywood has come of age, the Nation has needed a facelift from time to time to maintain its allure and beauty. In East Harlem, with its constant influx of new cultures, this always seems to be the case. Today you will find many immigrants from West Africa, the Caribbean, China and even Turkey, all working and living together, looking to find that elusive American dream. As long as America is seen as the land of opportunity, the continuing ebb and flow of East Harlem’s endless ethnic descendants will never cease to paint the pages of New York City’s rich and troubled history with stories of sacrifice, struggle, and hope. Likewise, this is the stuff that real dreams are made of.
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