By SARAH M. KAZADI – PIX11.com
December 5, 2011
HARLEM, NY (PIX11) – Almost eight decades later, they still come back.
The “old timers,” first and second generation Italian-Americans, flock back to East Harlem and the forest green storefront at 2287 First Avenue for a taste of the old neighborhood. They bring their children. They bring their children’s children. They say a slice from Patsy’s Pizzeria, built in 1933 when the area was home to over 100,000 Italians, is one of the last few tangible reminders of Italian Harlem.
“We’re like a museum in a sense,” said John Brecevich, an Italian-American who bought Patsy’s in 1990, “We’ve kept everything as similar as possible to the way it was so people could enjoy the ambiance and food of that generation.”
The mahogany-trimmed bar and white tile floor are identical to the days Frank Sinatra would regularly visit. The tomatoes used for the sauce lathered on each of the pies have been picked from the same farm for the past half a century. Tradition is important, Brecevich says, it has to be the same.
But while Patsy’s has worked to be a carbon copy of the past, the neighborhood surrounding it has drastically changed. Italian Harlem is now Spanish Harlem. Instead of Italian immigrants flooding the eastern stretch between 96th and 125th streets, census data shows that Mexicans are the fastest growing ethnic group in the area today. The handful of visible Italian staples, like Patsy’s, Claudio’s Barbershop and Rao’s Restaurant, are overshadowed by the Spanish eateries and culture that have come to define the neighborhood.
As the small number of Italian-Americans old enough to remember Italian Harlem continues to dwindle, there is hope that the culture will stay alive, hinged on optimism that the younger generation will carry the torch. Rivaling that hope, though, is concern that the old neighborhood will pass on with first and second generation Italian-Americans bearing deep East Harlem roots.
“This is the last remnant of an ethnic enclave for a few remaining holdouts who are probably octogenarians or maybe older, “ said Dr. Joseph Scelsa, founder and president of the Italian American Museum in New York City, of what is left of Italian Harlem. “When they’re gone, unfortunately, there will be no more of it,” he said.
The number of Italian-Americans living in East Harlem today is microscopic compared to when the area was known as the largest Italian community in the United States. Many first and second generation Italian Americans began to move out of the neighborhood after World War II, when the tenement buildings in which they lived were torn down and replaced with public housing projects.
“The demolition of block after block began tearing apart the interwoven fabric of Italian Harlem,” said Miriam Medina, an East Harlem historian and author, adding that many Italian-owned businesses were also shut down. Facing this change, Italian-Americans left East Harlem for New York City suburbs and neighboring states.
There are only a couple hundred Italian-Americans living in East Harlem today, Medina said, clustered in the area surrounding Our Lady Of Mount Carmel Church on 115th Street, the city’s first Italian parish. Many of them are in a higher age range.
“I don’t have many contacts anymore, everyone I knew is all dead. They’re gone,” she said.
In an effort to keep the memory of the old neighborhood alive, Medina and some other Italian Harlem natives have devoted time to an online archive of the neighborhood’s history and planning community gatherings.
In addition to writing articles about the old neighborhood’s early history, Medina personally translates Italian news releases to English and posts them online.
Angela Puco, an Italian-American who left East Harlem at the age of five, juggles four websites dedicated to the culture of Italian Harlem, which include thorough personal accounts from former residents.
“I’m not worried, I don’t think it’s ever going to die out,” Puco said of Italian culture in East Harlem, “One day, my grandchildren will google my name and they’re going to see all of my websites on what Italian Harlem was all about.”
The Giglio Society of East Harlem is responsible for maybe the most visible symbol of Italian culture in the area today, the annual Dance of the Giglio feast. Hundreds of men from all over the country converge near Mount Carmel Church and parade the Giglio, a large statue built in honor of Sant'Antonio, around East Harlem. The Giglio Society has also allowed men from other ethnic backgrounds to participate, a way of embracing East Harlem's evolving make up. There’s also a children’s Giglio feast.
“My grandsons have a love for the Giglio like you wouldn’t believe,” said Mitch Farbman, who has been lifting the Giglio for over 50 years, “It’s important to get them inspired to love the tradition and to carry it on when we’re not here.”
These reminders of the neighborhood’s history are few and far between. However, for some of the younger generation of Italian-Americans, these remnants of the past are enough to keep the culture alive.
“I still see old Italian guys who sit on their stoop and hang out,” said Cristofaro Donaldi, a half Italian, half Laotian musician who has spent half of his 23 years of life in East Harlem. “I don’t know if it will ever completely die,” he continued, “As long as places like Patsy’s and Rao’s are there, it might be hard for the Italian culture to completely die.”
Copyright © 2011, WPIX-TV
Italian American Museum
155 Mulberry Street / New York, NY 10013
Italian American Museum on Facebook: