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East Harlem, New York: Microcosm of the Melting Pot
Harlem is a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Manhattan, known as a primary residential, cultural and business center for many minorities, but it is much more than that. It is a symbol of many different cultures that have come together, that have grown together, alluding to the legendary flame eternally held by the Statue of Liberty. It symbolizes the melting pot known as America, a melting pot that has been cooking up a tried and true formula for freedom for over 200 years. East Harlem symbolizes the hope, determination, acceptance and strength that made America great.
Harlem was once a quiet farm area, much like the original 13 Colonies filled with agricultural immigrants who came together to make a living. In Haarlem there existed communities filled with a few Hollanders, French Huguenots, Danes, Swedes and Germans. For three decades, Germans were the dominant cultural element in the borough, with the Irish second in numbers and influence. Immigration waves of the 1880s and 1890s brought various cultural elements from Israel and Italy. Like the young nation, Harlem attracted people from the four corners of the Old World looking for a fresh start and a fair chance. Then African-Americans began coming to Harlem from the suburbs, the South, and the West Indies. By the 1930s, half a million people crowded into New York’s largest area. There were too many people and too little space, too few resources, and Harlem became the nation’s largest slum. However, its people persevered.
As the young nation grew, so did Harlem and defined its boundaries. The United States increased its size and population with the Louisiana Purchase, generally defining itself geographically, opening more territory to those seeking independence. It brought more immigrants and diverse cultures from around the world, most coming through New York City, many staying there and settling in Harlem.
As of today, the boundaries of Harlem include the following: East Harlem/El Barrio area, known as Spanish Harlem, a community extending from First Avenue to Fifth Avenue, East 96th Street to East 125th Street. Then there’s Central Harlem, which stretches 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, stretches from 123rd to 155th streets from St. Nicholas Avenue to the Hudson River.
East Harlem has been referred to as “German Harlem, Irish Harlem, Jewish Harlem, Italian Harlem and Spanish Harlem”, also commonly known as “El Barrio”. come on A microcosm of a nation that has grown so much and overcome so many problems due to cultural diversity, that a minority is its president. Today a substantial Central and South American immigrant population has moved into the area, which has begun to mix with the large numbers of Puerto Ricans who have dominated the area for years. The ebb and flow of East Harlem’s diverse ethnic population has tremendous historical significance, and is a microcosm of a nation made up of many diverse cultures. Fascinating piece of early history of both New York City and the nation.
Immigration to the United States has been the focus of much attention from the 19th to early 20th centuries, and for good reason. A vast mass of immigrants, drawn from countless different sources, came in pursuit of the “American Dream”, which for them symbolized democracy, equality, freedom, justice and, above all, material well-being. No matter who we are, we are promised these opportunities in the Declaration of Independence, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” There is no better testament to this promise than East Harlem.
Industrialization and the establishment of factory systems throughout the Americas promised employment to the impoverished people of Europe. Most American industrialists relied on cheap labor from Europe to run factories, with little regard for what would happen to immigrant workers after their arrival. Crowds flooded the market. Along with industrialization, great changes began to occur in the United States. This will eventually lead to both positive and serious negative consequences.
Those who worked together, regardless of culture like Harlem, their efforts to endure and build a better life for themselves and their families made America the financial center of the world today. Whether they worked on farms, in factories, building railroads, bridges, towns or cities, their rewards were greater than those of any nation, given their freedom and all the responsibilities that came with it. These responsibilities include learning to accept and understand and experience with different cultures and ethnic groups.
By the 1800s, Harlem was building all kinds of transportation projects in an effort to expand northward. By 1831, the New York and Harlem Railroad Company was incorporated to build a railroad from the central part of the city to Harlem. This encouraged residents of lower Manhattan to move north to Harlem. With the construction of the “Els”, urbanization developed very rapidly, with the trend of apartment buildings and brownstone construction. Across America, at the same time, famous railroads were built. The canal is built. Like Harlem, America was expanding, growing, and integrating itself from one community to another. This availability of reasonably priced housing and quick transportation enables working groups to live in East Harlem and commute to their places of employment downtown.
In the West, railroad construction projects attracted many workers from Asia during this time. In Harlem, these construction projects also attracted many immigrant wage laborers of various ethnic cultures, during the 1880s and 1890s. A steady flow of cheap labor from abroad fueled the industrial drive of America and Harlem and provided a great opportunity for ruthless entrepreneurs to reap profits from the sweat of the various minorities who came in search of fair opportunity. However, in Harlem, as in America, they endured and conquered, and that is what the American spirit is all about. Patient, hard working, earning and moving forward instead of going backwards.
In San Francisco, Chinese worked on the Pacific Railroad, lived in shantytowns, and worked for money. In Harlem, the first group to go to work paving the way for America’s industrious future were German and Irish workers who laid trolley tracks and dug subway tunnels. Because of East Harlem’s cheap tenement rents and its convenient public transportation system, many Central and Eastern European factory workers were able to commute from the sweatshops of lower Manhattan. As a result of this construction, East Harlem became highly populated with a hard-working Irish and Italian community.
East Harlem was also one of the main Jewish settlements during this period. It was the true melting pot of diversity that the United States prides itself on. In 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 section overall. As the population grew, as African Americans and eventually Hispanics began to move into East Harlem, the borough’s Jewish population began to decline.
Along with their small thriving businesses, remaining Jewish merchants maintained strong ties to East Harlem residents, reinforcing East Harlem’s diverse character.
Between 1915 and 1920, tens of thousands of African Americans began migrating to Harlem from the “economically depressed” rural South, still recovering from the North’s prosperous industrial cities from the Civil War 50 years earlier. Like all Americans, they sought to benefit from urban, economic opportunities in steel mills, auto factories, and packing houses. They wanted to succeed and improve their lives. They wanted the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” that had been promised to them. Thousands of African-Americans would fan out across New York City’s black ghettos, wherever they could find work. As Harlem could not accommodate all of the numerous new arrivals, an influx of African Americans moved into East Harlem, at the same time as Puerto Ricans began establishing themselves in the borough. The Roaring 20’s were a roaring period for the United States, and East Harlem was literally bursting at the seams.
A large number of southern Italians who came to NYC in the last quarter of the 19th century from the regions of Basilicata, Calabria, and Sicily also established their communities in East Harlem. By the 1930s, it was the largest Italian settlement in the city. The Italian community lived mostly in the area around 106th Street, east of Third Avenue to the East River, often in one-story shacks built along the water’s edge because there was not enough housing to accommodate everyone. . They also endured.
Then it happened, everything started falling apart. The Great Depression began, and America and its residents were actually broke. The years of the Great Depression took a heavy toll on Italian Americans, especially those who worked in the construction industry, as new construction ground to a halt nationwide. Regular employment was hard to come by, and large families were nearly impossible to maintain and feed. Often, wives then had to take on minor household chores just to support their families. Even children are forced to work. However, Harlem had such a diverse culture that had already suffered so much, the Great Depression was just another day to make ends meet. It was that grit, determination and sacrifice that helped save the new nation.
Harlem still had a large number of unemployed Italians in the 1940s, but the economy began to improve in the 1950s due to World War II. The nation began to recover, and improved housing and sanitary living conditions improved for many in East Harlem as well.
Since the early 1990s, the face of East Harlem has continued to change, as it always has, expanding its ethnic scope. With new arrivals from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Central and South America, Harlem is once again developing a new, diverse personality. As America has grown up, and Hollywood has come of age, the nation sometimes needs a facelift to retain its allure and beauty. In East Harlem, with its constant influx of new culture, it always seems to be. Today you’ll find many immigrants from West Africa, the Caribbean, China and even Turkey, all working and living together, seeking that elusive American dream. As long as America is seen as the land of opportunity, the constant ebb and flow of East Harlem’s endless racial legacy will never cease to paint the pages of New York City’s rich and turbulent history with stories of sacrifice, striving, and hope. Likewise, these are the things that make dreams come true.
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