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Crusin’ The 50s in a Volatile East Harlem

The 1950s were the most important, productive, and vital years in American history. Many crucial social and technological changes revolutionized American society during the Gilded Age. World War II was over. The American economy exploded. Industrialization has reached its peak. There was an expansion of higher education, suburbanization, and government assistance to veterans in the years following World War II. These conditions have provided favorable factors for economic progress. Targeting the urban working class, who generally wanted a better lifestyle for themselves, the intense construction of thousands of residential homes began. These suburban homes reflected the new domesticity of post-war prosperity. It wasn’t just a boom year of bountiful bonuses, it was also a decade that gave birth to rock and roll, a decade where young actors like James Dean, Marlon Brando, Sal Mineo, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis became favorites and leading roles. role models among young people. American icons.

So, while significant changes and economic improvements were happening in the United States, what was happening in the East Harlem area of ​​New York? During the 1940s and 1950s, the East Harlem area was a mix of Irish, Italians, Puerto Ricans, and a small percentage of people from the Jewish community. There were also a few African American families and other ethnic groups, but the population was minimal. Nevertheless, this was enough to create an atmosphere of tension, especially after the years of the Great Depression and World War II. This tension has gradually increased within the mixed ethnic groups. East Harlem contained the largest established Italian community, a community that grew significantly during the 1920s into the 1930s and 1940s.

Following the take-off of commercial air travel in 1945, a one-way ticket from San Juan to New York suddenly cost less than $50, so the steady stream of Puerto Rican migration that had begun during World War I reached a vast population; About 70,000 to 250,000 people in the 1940s-1950s. As Puerto Ricans continued to move into East Harlem, they encroached on already established communities and began to form their own distinctive neighborhoods, establishing their own values, traditions, and cuisine. By the time of the 1950s, Italians and Puerto Ricans numerically dominated the East Harlem area. Puerto Ricans became such a large and visible presence in East Harlem in the 1950s that the area acquired the colloquial name “Spanish Harlem”. At the same time, Puerto Rican people began to saturate the East Harlem neighborhood. Italians and Puerto Ricans found themselves in a constant battle, vying for housing as well as educational and employment resources.

Young Puerto Ricans were reluctant to enter the workforce, not only after seeing their parents discriminated against, but also after witnessing their parents’ disappointment. Applicants were required to have some knowledge of the English language, even though it was an unskilled job. Unemployed parents, in turn, would pressure their teenage son to help them. These young men knew from experience that if they followed in their father’s footsteps, it would only further encourage the same consequences to occur in their own lives. They would end up in low-skilled, low-paying jobs with no opportunity for advancement.

“Damn no man, it’s not for me!” they might say.

It was easier to fit into a gang or organize one, which gave them a sense of worth, belonging and respect, which most of them couldn’t get at home. . Gang life was synonymous with solidarity and tenacity in a difficult and discriminatory neighbourhood.

Gang violence was a frightening reality in the 1940s and 50s. The atmosphere in East Harlem became explosive. Rumblings between Black Dragons, Italian Dukes, Puerto Rican Viceroys and Italian Red Wings erupted daily. Extended and endless battles were fought in order to establish and maintain domain and honor between Puerto Ricans and Italian teenagers. They towered over the already tense neighborhood of East Harlem. These rumbles were initiated by any group that demanded a fight, whether it was on the edge of their turf, laying claim to streets, parks, testing their manhood, or, as usual, little things like scold on their ladies.

The girls had the support of the gang, and if any of them were insulted, which in many cases the stories were fabricated just to cause a war, their honor would be upheld. Even though the gang knew she was a whore. The Greasers, ages fourteen to nineteen, strutted about with bulging chests, carrying slide guns, ready to fire just in case, baseball bats and switchblades ready to go. It made them feel really macho, smart and tough, bragging that they were ready for a good rumble, knowing that no matter how scared they were, they wouldn’t admit it. Racial slurs thrown back and forth triggering fights, often resulting in death or hospitalization, with crushed heads and heavy, crippling injuries. Young men cut by switchblades, beaten by snow chains or shot. Some gang members would pile up piles of milk bottles filled with gravel, bricks, cinder blocks, scrap metal and anything else they could use like missiles and hide them on rooftops before a fight. Everything was fair with no rules.

The familiar sound of loud Latin rhythmic music blasting through the open windows and doors of Spanish Harlem apartments penetrated the ears of residents and reluctant passers-by. Puerto Ricans have always loved their music. For many Puerto Ricans in “El Barrio”, dancing was a distraction from the frustrations of their daily lives. No matter how tired they felt or how miserable their lives were, as soon as their bodies reacted to the frenetic pace, they became rejuvenated, literally dancing until they fell.

Weekends were their time to hit the local nightclubs. As the musicians played their instruments to the greatest Latin tunes, the partners, their skin flushed with sweat, circled the dance floor, spinning around each other. Their hips and shoulders swayed as their feet beat to the music. Young, busty Latin women warmed up the atmosphere as they moved seductively, swaying their curvaceous hips to the beat of the drums. Sometimes a flirtatious remark made by an inebriated dancer would trigger a verbal confrontation between the two men. This would lead to an absolute street fight filled with switchblades and broken bottles, as others rushed to their defense.

Those who didn’t go to clubs stayed home and threw their own wild and noisy parties. These parties continued until the wee hours of the morning, much to the annoyance of the neighbors who wanted to sleep.

It was becoming increasingly difficult for Jewish and Italian vendors, as grocery stores, hair salons, religious shops, and Puerto Rican restaurants began to proliferate throughout East Harlem. Tensions escalated as frustrated Jewish and Italian merchants witnessed the displacement of their customers, who now solicited their competitors. After several verbal and physical clashes, including a riot, many Jewish merchants decided to keep their shops, but they adapted to the new inhabitants, willingly accepting Puerto Rican businessmen, even learning Spanish. As a result of the projects, East Harlem changed, with the increased presence of African American and Latino populations. To some extent, the elimination of 1,500 retail stores left 4,500 people unemployed. Thus, a steady migration of Italian Americans began moving away from East Harlem to settle in private properties in the suburbs of New York.

Despite their fierce antagonisms and the defense of ethnic identity during those volatile years from the 1920s to the 1950s, these two distinct groups, Italians and Puerto Ricans, remained mixed, but in different ways, in the texture of East Harlem.

By comparison, East Harlem is now a shadow of what it was in the 1950s. With the arrival of large numbers of diverse new immigrants who have made East Harlem their home, can we safely assume risk that this once turbulent territory has finally reached a plateau of normalcy and peaceful coexistence? Or will other prejudices replace the old ones? What is your opinion?

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