Immigrants Don’t Just Succeed, They Make Other Americans Successful As Well

Mary Brown
Center for Migration Studies

Credit: Center for Migration Studies

Immigrants Don’t Just Succeed, They Make Other Americans Successful As Well

The Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS) maintains unique archive collections that document US immigration history and policy from the mid-19th century to the present. CMS’s From the CMS Archive series attempts to apply archive records, documents, photographs, and other materials to current US and global immigration policy issues. For more information on this post or to request access to the CMS Archives, please contact [email protected].

Throughout his campaign and now presidency, Donald Trump has disparaged immigrants. In announcing his candidacy in June 2015, Trump referred to Mexican as “rapists” and drug smugglers. The New York Times reported that in a June 2017 meeting, the president complained that there were too many people entering the United States from Afghanistan (which he characterized as a “terrorist haven”), Haiti (“they all have AIDS”) and Nigeria (who would never “go back to their huts”). In January 2018, the president insisted in vulgar terms that too many immigrants were coming from undesirable countries.

Trump’s remarks ignore the many valuable contributions immigrants have and continue to make to the United States. Throughout history, immigrants have achieved innumerable successes, benefiting themselves, their families and their communities. The collections in the Center for Migration Studies’ (CMS’) archive document these stories. The history of “Bohemian” Greenwich Village in the early 1910s is one of them. The success of this creative community rested on the Italian immigrants that rented space to its members, fed them, inspired them, and sometimes imitated them and worked toward common goals with them. American drama is different because of Eugene O’Neill. American art is different because of the artists who took their surroundings as their subject, and introduced new art techniques and even a new museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art.

During the 1870s, lofts for industry and tenements for immigrants were built among the 18th– and 19th-century buildings between New York City’s Canal Street and Washington Square. The area proved a magnet for Italian immigrants. Late 19th-century Italy suffered from uneven development, high unemployment, and a government more interested in being a Great Power than in assisting its own poor. As a result, Italians migrated to the United States, reaching ten thousand for the first time in 1880 and a hundred thousand for the first time in 1900.

The American press complained that the Italians hailed from a country known for its criminal gangs, and that they were uneducated and unskilled. It turned out, however, that all these immigrants needed were the South Village’s great location and diverse building stock. Italian men could work in construction in downtown or midtown Manhattan, or they could find employment in the Hudson River docks, that were replacing the older, smaller East River wharves. And, despite what the newspapers said, there was visual proof that Italians were not all unskilled. As part of a workforce of migrants from many nations they contributed to the construction of the New York City subways, particularly the mosaics identifying the various stations.

Italian men’s work paid poorly, but Greenwich Village residence made it possible to supplement their income. When a family first arrived, adolescents and mothers who needed to stay near home could commute steps from their tenements to the new loft buildings’ garment factories. For women who could not leave their homes but could find time to work in them, the Italian community itself provided an option. Italian men who were a little better off than average and literate in at least in their own language imported silk from Italy and then either rented factory space or distributed the fabric to local women, who sometimes roped their children into assisting them in making the artificial flowers fashionable on ladies’ hats.

Along with families and small businesses, the Italians had strong social institutions. In 1892, John Baptist Scalabrini, founded of an order of priests who worked with migrants, sent one of his priests to New York to open a center for Italian immigrants who transited through the city. The center, housed in Greenwich Village, included a chapel. Italians who settled in the Village found the chapel so useful that they supported the Scalabrini Fathers in turning it into Our Lady of Pompeii parish.

Experience in Italy taught the immigrants what it meant to own land, and they soon learned how to identify inexpensive buildings among the Village’s older homes and shops, to save up toward small down payments, and to pay the mortgages by attracting tenants. Italian investors’ need for renters meshed with artists’ need for living and working. Journalist Ross Wetzsteon noted that it was an Italian-American woman, Jennie Ferreri Belardi, who owned the old stable in which the Provincetown Players first produced Eugene O’Neill’s dramas.

The same was true of food. “Mama” Bertolotti first prepared fifteen-cent lunches of minestrone, bread with butter, and red wine for workingmen compatriots. Bohemian artists found Café Bertolotti a deal too. When Anna Alice Chapin wrote a tour guide for those following in the Bohemians’ footsteps, Café Bertollotti picked up yet another clientele.

Italian immigrants also had a cultural relationship with the Bohemians. Artist John Sloan found them to be an inspiration. In one of his paintings, a Pallottine Sister of Charity, perhaps from Our Lady of Pompeii’s daycare center, walks across the canvas. In another, a man trains his racing pigeons on his tenement roof in a 1919 landscape. Another painting features a religious procession marching under arches of electric lights. And the triangular roof of the church that Our Lady of Pompeii occupied at the time is at the center of Sloan’s urban landscape The City from Greenwich Village.

The Bohemians also inspired the Italians. There is no evidence Father Antonio Demo ever saw Eugene O’Neill at the Provincetown Playhouse, but he was aware of the lure of the new culture all around his parish, and a little afraid that his young parishioners would find it all so alluring they would Americanize and modernize right out of the Church. One of the parish girls did run away from home to join the theatre, and Father Demo carefully composed a letter detailing all the reasons she should return home. Demo’s solution was to make available through Pompeii as much of the Village’s culture as he could, especially its theatre. From 1925 to 1933 Our Lady of Pompeii sponsored an annual Passion Play that represented the Italian immigrants’ foray into the community theatre movement.

The most important event in which the Bohemians and the Italians found common ground was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. One hundred forty-six lives were lost in a fire that was put out in half an hour in a building that still stands, because the building owners and the factory owners who rented space in the building neglected safety in favor of the bottom line. Bohemian artists expressed their outrage through their art, and John Sloan contributed a memorable political cartoon of how worker need and business greed formed two sides of a triangle, the base of which was the fallen body of one of the fire victims. The Italian immigrants also honored the dead according to their own culture. Father Demo organized a solemn memorial Mass for the deceased. But he also shared in the Bohemian reformers’ attitude that God helps those who help themselves; he collaborated with the Women’s Trade Union League to spread information about lobbying the government for better regulation of workplace safety.

The Bohemians in the 1910s touched off a generations-long relationship between Italian-Americans, both those who came to the Village to pursue their art and those who came to appreciate the arts. Biographer David Hajdu descried how, in 1960, Italian-born restauranteur Mike Porco divided his 4th Street restaurant into sections, one for his old Italian customers and the other for Gerde’s Folk City, which became one of the best-known venues for performers in this new genre. One of Suze Rotolo’s memories of her life with Bob Dylan in the early 1960s Village was of accompanying him to shows that lasted into the early morning, and then, while on the way home, picking up fresh bread from an Italian bakery that was just getting started for the day.

The intertwined ecologies of immigrants and artists remained hidden to most people. In the 1920s, anti-immigrant forces reduced the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States. The Italian flow, in particular, dropped to some five thousand a year. Few new immigrants followed their predecessors up the path of Village settlement, city jobs, and small scale real estate investment. When it came time for the Italian Americans to cash out their real estate investments, there were few buyers. When buyers did come, both working families and artists were priced out of the neighborhood.

In 1961, Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In the book, Jacobs criticized the large-scale developments of her day in which high-rise housing freed ground space for ever-increasing auto traffic. She described an alternative based on personal experience. She and her husband bought a 19th-century townhouse on Hudson Street. From there, they had easy commutes to midtown jobs, and they could bring their children to play in Washington Square Park. Because immigration had been suppressed for so long, Jacobs did not recognize that the Italian immigrants had maintained that kind of Village from the late 19th century until the mid-20th. They made a successful community for themselves in the neighborhood and laid the foundation for a neighborhood where others could also succeed.

March 21, 2018