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Crusin’ The 50s in a Volatile East Harlem
The 1950s were the most significant, productive, vital years in American history. Many pivotal social and technological changes revolutionized the American society during the Golden Age. World War II was over. The American economy exploded. Industrialization peaked. There was expansion of higher education, suburbanization and government assistance to veterans in the post-World War II years. These conditions provided favorable factors for economic advancements. Targeted to the urban working-class, who generally desired a better lifestyle for themselves, the intense construction of thousands of residential houses began. These suburban homes reflected the new domesticity of post-war prosperity. Not only was it a boom year of plentiful bounty, it was also a decade that birthed rock and roll, a decade where young actors like James Dean, Marlon Brando, Sal Mineo, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis became big-time favorites and role models among the youth. American icons.
So while significant changes and economic improvements were going on throughout the United States, what was happening in the area of East Harlem, New York? During the 1940’s and 1950’s, the area of East Harlem was a mixture of Irish, Italians, Puerto Ricans and a small percentage of people from the Jewish community. There were also a few African American families and some other ethnic groups too, but it was minimal in population. Nevertheless, it was enough to create an atmosphere of tension, especially following the years of the Great Depression and World War II. This strain was progressively heightened within the mixed ethnic groups. East Harlem contained the largest established Italian community, a community that grew substantially during the 1920’s into the 30’s and 40’s.
As a result of commercial air travel taking off in 1945, a one-way ticket from San Juan to New York all of a sudden cost less than $50, so the steady stream of Puerto Rican migration which had begun during World War I reached a vast population; Circa 70,000 to 250,000 people within the years of 1940-1950. As the Puerto Ricans continued to move to East Harlem they encroached communities that were already established, and began forming their own distinctive neighborhoods, establishing their own values, traditions and cuisine. By the time the 50’s rolled around, the Italians and Puerto Ricans numerically dominated the area of East Harlem. The Puerto Ricans became such a significant and visible presence in East Harlem during the 50’s, that the area gained the familiar name of “Spanish Harlem”. At the same time, the Puerto Rican people began saturating the East Harlem district. Both Italians and Puerto Ricans found themselves in a constant battle, competing for housing as well as educational and employment resources.
The Young Puerto Ricans were reluctant to enter the labor force, not only after seeing their parents discriminated against, but also after witnessing their parents disappointment. It was required that the applicants should have some knowledge of the English language, even though it was for an unskilled job. The unemployed parents, in turn, would put pressure on their teen-aged son to help out. These young men knew from experience that if they followed in their father’s footsteps, it would only encourage more of the same consequences to occur in their own lives. They would end up working unskilled low-paying jobs with no possibility of advancement.
“Hell no man, that’s not for me!” they would say.
It was easier to hook up with a gang or to organize one, which gave them a sense of worth, belonging, and one of respect, something that most of them were not able to get at home. Gang life meant solidarity and toughness in a tough, discriminating neighborhood.
Gang violence was a scary reality during the 40’s and 50’s. The East Harlem atmosphere became explosive. Rumbles between the black Dragons, Italian Dukes, Puerto Rican Viceroys and the Italian Redwings erupted daily. The wide-spread, never ending battles were fought in order to establish and maintain domain and honor between the Puerto Ricans and Italian teen-agers. They dominated the already tensed area of East Harlem. These rumbles were initiated by whichever group that was asking for a fight, whether it was over the boundaries of their turf, establishing claims over streets, parks, testing their manliness or, as usual, petty things like rumbling over their ladies.
The girls had the support of the gang, and if any of them were insulted, which in many cases the stories were fabricated just to provoke a war, her honor would be defended. Even if the gang knew she was a whore. The Greasers, anywhere from fourteen to nineteen years old, would strut with their chests pushed out, carrying zip guns, ready to shoot just in case, baseball bats and switchblades at the ready. It made them feel real macho, smart and tough, boasting of their readiness for a good rumble, knowing that no matter how scared they were, they would not admit it. Racial slurs flung back and forth starting fights, many times resulting in death or hospitalization, with crushed heads and heavy, crippling injuries. Young men cut by switchblades, beaten by tire chains or shot by bullets. Some members of the gang would accumulate piles of gravel-filled milk bottles, bricks, cinder blocks, iron scrap and whatever else they could get to use like missiles and hide them on the roof tops before a fight. Anything was fair with no rules.
The familiar sound of loud Latin Rhythmic music blasting through the open windows and doorways of apartment dwellings in Spanish Harlem would penetrate the ears of reluctant inhabitants and passersby. Puerto Ricans have always loved their music. For many of the Puerto Ricans in “El Barrio”, dancing was a distraction from the frustrations of their daily lives. It did not matter how tired they felt or how miserable their lives were, as soon as their bodies reacted to the frenzied rhythm, they would become rejuvenated, literally dancing until they dropped.
The weekends were their time to go to the local nightclubs. As musicians played their instruments to the greatest tunes in Latino music, the partners, skins flushed with perspiration, would revolve around the dance floor, whirling around each other. Their hips and shoulders would sway while their feet marked the beat to the music. The young busty Latin women would heat up the atmosphere as they moved seductively, swaying their curvaceous hips to the beat of the drums. Occasionally, a flirtatious remark made by an intoxicated male dancer would set off a verbal confrontation between both men. This would lead to an absolute street fight filled with switchblades and broken bottles, as others would rush to their defense.
Those that did not go the nightclubs would stay home and have their own wild and loud parties. These parties would continue to the wee hours of the morning, much to the displeasure of the neighbors who wanted to sleep.
It was becoming increasingly difficult for the Jewish and Italian vendors, as Puerto Rican grocery stores, barber shops, religious shops and restaurants began mushrooming all over East Harlem. Tensions accelerated as frustrated Jewish and Italian merchants witnessed the shifting of their clients, who were now soliciting their competitors. After several verbal and physical confrontations, including a riot, many of the Jewish merchants decided to keep their shops, but they adapted to the new inhabitants, willingly accepting the Puerto Rican businessmen, even learning Spanish. As a result of the projects, East Harlem changed, with the increased presence of African American and Latino populations. To a certain extent, the elimination of 1500 retail stores left 4,500 people unemployed. Thus, a steady migration of Italian Americans began moving away from East Harlem, moving onto private property in the suburban areas of New York City.
Despite their fierce antagonisms, and in defense of ethnic identity during those volatile years of the 1920’s through the 1950’s, these two distinct groups, Italians and Puerto Ricans, remained mixed, but in different ways, in the texture of East Harlem.
In comparison, East Harlem now is a mere shadow of what it was during the 50’s. With the arrival of a vast amount of new, diverse immigrants who have made East Harlem their home, can we safely assume that this once turbulent territory has finally reached a plateau of normalcy and peaceful coexistence? Or will further prejudices substitute for the old ones? What is your opinion?
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