The second largest immigrant group to New York City, the Italians, were very different than the Jewish immigrants that came before them. Unlike the Jews, the Italian immigrants were mostly illiterate Sicilian and Southern Italian peasants or laborers. The Italians resembled the Irish of the “old immigration” in their inadequacy to prosper in an urban setting. Unlike the Irish though, the Italians were not leaving a famine such as the Irish Potato Famine but were leaving a land of poverty. Upon coming to America, the Italians were met with even more poverty, low-paying unskilled labor jobs, deficient housing, and prejudice.
In 1850, the Italian population in New York was only at 853. Towards the beginning of Italian immigration, the Italians who came over were mostly young men who were looking to make enough money in America to return home and purchase land. If a man did intend to create an actual home in America, he would usually board in a lodge to save up enough money to bring their family over. Italian bachelors in America even returned to Italy to find a spouse and then move back to America. The strong family ties that many Italians felt gave them the motivation to work enough to bring their family over to New York City.
By 1920, there were 391,000 foreign-born Italians in New York City and when including their children, over 800,000 Italians. Many of these Italians settled in the Little Italy of lower Manhattan’s Fourteenth Ward while some established themselves in Greenwich Village. After 1900, some southern Italians even crossed the rivers to settle in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
Two of the main priorities for settling in an area for the Italians was that they live with people from their own region (Genoese, Calabrian, Neapolitan, etc…) and that their home is close to work. The padroni, also known as labor contractors, took a share of the new Italian’s wages in order to help them find jobs and housing. Eventually, their services weren’t needed by the immigrants and were banned in New York City.
Since many Italian immigrants came to America with little money and were unskilled, they couldn’t earn enough wages to buy decent housing. The unwanted tenements that were abandoned by the Irish were their only options. These places were almost always cramped and poor quality.
Beyond their poor housing, the neighborhoods these buildings were in were plagued with crime. Soon, a stereotype began that Italians were criminals and belonged to the Mafia. In response to this, New York City enacted an Italian police division to investigate crime, pursue extortion threats, and expose possible ties to criminals in Sicily.
Besides some Italians working in this police division, other immigrants worked for the sanitation department or became musicians, barbers, shoemakers, masons, waiters, teamsters, and bartenders. As industries grew, so did union organization. Whenever a strike was led in any business, the Italians were called upon to break the strikes and replace the workers. Since the women were only expected to marry, raise children, and care for the home, the annual incomes for the Italians became the lowest in the city. After the boom of the garment industry in 1905, almost 85 percent of Italian women were working in garment related jobs.
As time moved on, the Italians moved upwards in the workforce. Many children of immigrants who could speak English and had some schooling were likely to find white collar work. The second generation would probably have found even more skilled jobs if the Italian parents weren’t so distrustful of the city’s public schools. Most Italian parents saw their children as wage-earners rather than as students.
Towards the beginning of World War I, an Italian middle-class had emerged. Italians were now bankers, real estate promoters, newspaper editors and publishers, white collar workers, shop owners, importers, owners of large barber shops, musicians, lawyers, and doctors. By making some money, they bought property and moved to better housing.
After integrating into American society a bit more, the Italians started to get involved politically. To go against the Irish who were predominantly Democrat, many of the Italians became Republican. Other Italians joined the Socialist party and created socialist clubs such as Brooklyn’s Club Avanti.
Another problem with the Irish that the Italians had was that the Irish-run Catholic church in New York did not accommodate to the customs of the Italian Catholics. To prevent the Italian Catholics from converting to other religions, the Catholic church created fifty new churches served by Italian priests.
Overall, the upward mobility of some Italian immigrants, their growing affiliation with the Catholic church, the emergence of a second generation and political activity allowed for more assimilation into American culture.