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Crusin’ The 50s in a Volatile East Harlem
The 1950s were the most important, productive, and consequential years in American history. Many key social and technological changes revolutionized American society during the Golden Age. World War II is over. The U.S. economy exploded. Industrialization reached its peak. In the years after World War II, higher education, suburbanization, and government assistance to veterans expanded. These conditions provide favorable factors for economic development. The intensive construction of thousands of residential towers began, targeting the urban working class, often looking to provide themselves with a better lifestyle. These suburban homes reflected the new family life that flourished after the war. Not only was it a prosperous year for harvests, it was also the decade that rock and roll was born, with young actors such as James Dean, Marlon Brando, Sal Mineo, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis becoming Big-name darlings and role models of the decade’s youth. American idol.
So what’s going on in East Harlem, New York, at a time when major changes and economic improvements are taking place across America? In the 1940s and 50s, East Harlem was a mix of Irish, Italian, Puerto Rican, and a small number of people from the Jewish community. There are also some African-American families and some other ethnic groups, but the population is small. However, it was enough to create an atmosphere of tension, especially after the Great Depression and World War II. This pressure is intensified among mixed ethnic groups. East Harlem contains the largest established Italian community, which grew substantially during the 1920s and 30s and 40s.
The steady stream of Puerto Rican immigration that began during World War I reached colossal proportions thanks to the rise of commercial air travel in 1945, when a one-way ticket from San Juan to New York suddenly cost less than $50. Population; between 1940 and 1950, approximately 70,000 to 250,000 people. As Puerto Ricans continued to migrate into East Harlem, they encroached upon established neighborhoods and began to form their own distinct communities, establishing their own values, traditions, and cuisines. By the 1950s or so, Italians and Puerto Ricans numerically controlled East Harlem. Puerto Ricans became so important and visible in East Harlem in the 1950s that the area acquired the familiar name “Spanish Harlem.” Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans began pouring into East Harlem. Both Italians and Puerto Ricans find themselves in an ongoing battle for housing as well as education and employment resources.
Young Puerto Ricans are reluctant to enter the workforce not only because they see their parents discriminated against but also because they see their parents disappointed. Applicants are required to have a certain knowledge of English, even for non-technical jobs. In turn, unemployed parents put pressure on their teenage sons to help out. These young people know from experience that if they follow in their father’s footsteps, it will only encourage more of the same consequences to happen in their own lives. They end up in unskilled, low-paying jobs with no chance of advancement.
“Hell, man, that’s not for me!” they’d say.
It’s easier to associate with or form a gang, which gives them a sense of worth, belonging, and respect that most of them don’t have at home. Gang life means unity and resilience in a tough, discriminatory community.
In the ’40s and ’50s, gang violence was a dire reality. The atmosphere in East Harlem became simmering. Quarrels broke out daily between the Black Dragon, the Italian Duke, the Governor of Puerto Rico, and the Italian Red Wing. There was an extensive, never-ending battle to establish and maintain territory and honor between Puerto Rican and Italian teenagers. They took control of an already tense East Harlem borough. These rants are initiated by any group demanding a fight, whether it’s crossing the boundaries of their turf, making demands on the streets, parks, testing their manhood, or as usual, rumbling on their ladies for something as small as .
The girls had gang support, and if any of them were insulted, in many cases the stories were fabricated just to start a war, her reputation was defended. Even though the gang knew she was a whore. Ranging in age from 14 to 19, Greasers strut around with their chests puffed out, zip guns ready to fire just in case, and baseball bats and switchblades at the ready. It makes them feel really macho, smart, and tough, bragging that they’re ready to rumble, knowing that no matter how scared they are, they’re not going to admit it. Racial slurs were used back and forth to provoke fights that resulted in multiple deaths or hospitalizations, crushed heads, and severe and maiming injuries. Young people cut by switchblades, beaten by snow chains or hit by bullets. Some members of the gang would build up piles of gravel-filled milk bottles, bricks, cinder blocks, iron filings, and anything else they could use like missiles and stash them on rooftops before a fight. Everything is fair, there are no rules.
Loud Latin rhythm music blares from the open windows and doorways of apartment houses in Spanish Harlem. The familiar sound will pierce the ears of reluctant residents and passers-by. Puerto Ricans have always loved their music. For many of the Puerto Ricans featured in “El Barrio,” dancing serves as a distraction from the frustrations of their daily lives. No matter how tired they are or how miserable their lives are, as soon as their bodies respond to the frenetic rhythm, they will rejuvenate and literally dance.
Weekends are when they go to the local nightclub. The buddies spun around the dance floor and twirled each other, sweating, as the musicians played some of the most beautiful melodies in Latin music. Their hips and shoulders will sway, while their feet will move to the beat of the music. Young buxom Latina women rocking their curvaceous buttocks to the beat of the drums, moving alluringly and heating up the atmosphere. Occasionally, a flirtatious remark from a drunk male dancer sparks a verbal exchange between the two. This would lead to an absolute street fight full of switchblades and broken bottles as the others would charge to their defenses.
Those who don’t go clubbing stay home and throw their own wild and rowdy parties. The parties would go on into the early hours, much to the displeasure of sleepy neighbors.
As Puerto Rican grocery stores, barbershops, religious stores and restaurants began to spring up in East Harlem, life was getting tougher for Jewish and Italian vendors. Tensions rose as frustrated Jewish and Italian businessmen watched their clients shift away and they were now courting their competitors. After several verbal and physical confrontations, including a riot, many Jewish merchants decided to keep their shops, but they adapted to the new residents, willingly taking in Puerto Rican merchants and even learning Spanish. As a result of these projects, East Harlem changed, with an increase in the African-American and Latino population. In part, the elimination of 1,500 retail stores has left 4,500 people without jobs. As a result, a steady stream of Italian-American immigrants began to leave East Harlem and move to private property in the New York City suburbs.
Despite the bitter rivalry during those tumultuous years from the 1920s to the 1950s, and in defense of racial identity, these two distinct groups, Italians and Puerto Ricans, remained in different ways within the fabric of East Harlem mix.
By comparison, East Harlem is now a shadow of the 1950s. With the arrival of a large number of diverse newcomers who call East Harlem home, is it safe to assume that this once-turbulent region has finally reached a plateau of normality and peaceful coexistence? Or will more prejudices replace old ones? What is your opinion?
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