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A City of Villages

The Italian immigrants who passed the test of Ellis Island went about transforming the city that they found before them. Many previous immigrant groups, such as those from Germany and Scandinavia, had passed through New York City in decades past, but most had regarded the city merely as a way station, and had continued on to settle elsewhere in the country. This generation of Italian immigrants, however, stopped and made their homes there; one third never got past New York City.

They scattered all over the New York region, settling in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and nearby towns in New Jersey. Perhaps the greatest concentration of all, though, was in Manhattan. The streets of Lower Manhattan, particularly parts of Mulberry Street, quickly became heavily Italian in character, with street vendors, store owners, residents and vagrants alike all speaking the same language--or at least a dialect of it.

In part because of the social and political divisions of the Italian peninsula, southern Italian villages tended to be isolated and insular, and new immigrants tended to preserve this isolation in their new country, clustering together in close enclaves. In some cases, the population of a single Italian village ended up living on the same block in New York, or even the same tenement building, and preserved many of the social institutions, habits of worship, grudges, and hierarchies from the old country. In Italy, this spirit of village cohesion was known as campanilismo—loyalty to those who live within the sound of the village church bells. In 1899, one visitor observed:

….in the numbered streets of Little Italy uptown, almost every block has its own village of mountain or lowland, and with the village its patron saint, in whose worship or celebration—call it what you will—the particular camp makes reply to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

Many distinctive events and practices maintained the unity of the village: weddings, feasts, christenings, and funerals. One that often caught the attention of outsiders was the festa—a parade celebrating the feast day of a particular village’s patron saint. Hundreds or thousands of residents would follow the image of the saint in a procession through the streets of the neighborhood. The description of one such festa, which was witnessed by New York police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, appeared in an article in Century magazine in 1899.

Around the corner came a band of musicians with green cock-feathers in hats set rakishly over fierce, sunburnt faces. A raft of boys walked in front, abreast of two bored policemen, stepping in time to the music. Four men carried a silk-fringed banner with evident pride. Behind them a strange procession toiled along: women with babies at the breast and dragging little children; fat and prosperous padrones carrying their canes like staves of office and authority; young men out for a holiday; old men with lives of hardship and toil written in their halting gait and worn and crooked frames….

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