Sunday, May 31, 2009

New arrivals: Italians and Jews

In the 1880's the neighborhood underwent a sweeping transformation. Italians filled the tenements of Five Points while Eastern European Jews swept over the wards east of the Bowery. The slums expanded all the way up to 14th Street and new slums emerged in Harlem. Violence took on a new shape and a new role reflective of the new immigrant cultures.

Unlike previous immigrant groups, the Italians maintained a close connection with the home country. It was common for Italian men to spend only a few years in the New World before returning to the Old with a bit of good American cash. Where the Germans, here for the long haul, built union halls and social halls to protect and promote their community, the Italians established no-interest "banks" where immigrants could store their money temporarily for the purchase of a return ticket home, one of the staple services these "banks" offered.

This close tie to southern Italy and Sicily extended to the extortionist societies of both regions. The Neapolitan Camorro, Sicilian La Cosa Nostra and the Black Hand were not neighborhood gangs so much as hermetic gangster rings that preyed on their own people. Economic abuse of Italians by Italians pervaded the character of their slum existence. The padrone lorded over the Italian children with Dickensian brutality, dictating their labor and collecting their earnings. The Black Hand had no compunction about attempting to extort from even the most famous national heros: Enrico Caruso, the greatest living opera singer of his day, a symbol of Italian pride, received the paper notes stamped with a black-ink hand demanding $15,000, a fortune at the turn of the century. Whether this model of internal violence reflected a fear of outside authority, alienation from their new home or merely the convenience of the nearest and most familiar target, the gangsters of the prohibition era seem to have preserved it in their motto, "we kill only each other" which prevented the mob from rubbing out its non-Italian political enemies. The worst violence of the Mafia has always been reserved for Italians, often for its own members.

Jewish immigration was even more transformative. Following the anarchist assassination of Csar Alexander, blamed on Jews, pogroms spread through Russia and the Ukraine, spurring a mass exodus of unprecedented numbers. Poverty in close quarters breeds gangs and the Jews were no exception. At the turn of the century half the prisoners in Sing Sing were Jews. The German Jews, who had migrated long before during the German immigration of the 1820's and who had long since assimilated into American life, were so alarmed at this new face of Jewishness -- it cost them their welcome at the city's elite clubs and socials -- that they embarked on a crusade to educate these new arrivals, eradicate their slum language, Yiddish, and assimilate them into mainstream middle-class society. Their program succeeded in identifying Jewishness with education and the professions, and in nearly exterminating the only uniquely Jewish literary language.

The Jewish and Italian gangs clashed on the Bowery not over politics but over illegal rackets. The earlier battle between American-born and immigrant labor gave way to turf battles between two equally recent arrivals. They fought over every enterprise available to them, perhaps the biggest and most available, the unions, with their sisters and brothers and fathers and mothers all members. Gangsters infiltrated the unions turning the already violent labor movement into a criminal racket replete with gang warfare. By the time Prohibition rolled in, the scene was set for rampant murder.

Our image of the gangster today benefits from decades of prohibition-era costume dramas and latter-day mafia soap operas both fictional and real. It's the image of a blunt and arrogant suit, surrounded by minions, for whom no problem is so complex that it cannot be simply and effectively -- and permanently – solved: for whom conflict resolution is a bullet through the head. The Prohibition gang member was a gangster – a criminal who kills to maintain personal control in a kill-or-be-killed underworld. The bootleggers were engaged in crimes for personal profit, not political battles for the benefit of a party and a class interest. The gangster was an extortionist who thrived by subjugation. His proximity to murder lends him a mystique at once deplored and envied, admired but feared. One observer, watching Lucky Luciano stand motionless in the midst of a gunfight, called it "the coolest thing I ever saw." He meant cool-nerved, but one can hear, in his admiration of the outlaw, the modern sense of "cool" emerging. But that admiration had its limit. Outmaneuvering, outwitting and generally out-suckering the law, the gangster might be cheered as a working class hero, but he was never a working class leader. Gangs and politics had parted ways.

Despite the pervasive presence of criminality in the slums, the ghetto was far from a depressed neighborhood. The most densely populated two square miles on the face of the earth, it was overflowing with culture and politics. At a time when New York was still a colonial backwater, its elites deeply conservative, the slums were a hotbed of the avant-garde, the recent immigrant arrivals from Europe bringing new European ideas and new European culture. It was a world center of anarchism, with the great Johan Most and Justus Schwab and their protégé, Emma Goldberg speaking and demonstrating in the streets and in the union halls, writing and plotting in their apartments and prison cells.

Culture was irrepressible. Yiddish Theater, Lincoln Steffens pronounced, surpassed Broadway. All the radical new plays of Europe were eagerly mounted in Yiddish. Oscar Wilde's Salomé too risqué for conservative Protestant Broadway, became Bessie Tomaschevsky's signature role. The first American school of painting, the Ashcan School, found a home in the free anarchist "Modern School," with George Bellows and Edward Hopper's teacher Robert Henri on the faculty, Man Ray and John Sloan attending as students.

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