Italian American Economic Rise

              The first wave of mass Italian immigration to New York came in the late nineteenth century. Those who arrived were mostly illiterate landless laborers, craftsmen, and construction workers from southern Italy. There were very few educated and trained professionals among them. Of approximately 2,300,000 Italian immigrants who came to the United State between 1899 and 1910, about 1,900,000 were from southern Italy (Glazer and Moynihan 184). These immigrants faced challenges in achieving success and mobility on New York's socioeconomic ladder. There was rampant racism among Americans, who viewed the southern Italians as inferior, because they lived rural lives in small villages far from the northern, major Italian cities. They settled into their own, insular Italian tenement neighborhoods with family and friends, living short distances from one another.

Men from southern Italy arrive at Ellis Island (1911)
















These Italians immigrants found work in blue-collar professions as laborers and construction workers and helped build many of New York City’s early skyscrapers. They worked in groups under supervisors, or 'padronis', who they all knew from their former Italian villages. The 'padronis' would distribute payment to the laborers but would often exploit and underpay them. Padronis would lie to the immigrants about their job descriptions and wages. This was a major problem that persisted throughout the early 1900s as new non-English speaking Italians arrived in New York City and did not know the appropriate agencies to contact to address this issue. However, over time, Italian workers unionized and began demanding fair payment for their labor. Women, who took jobs in the garment industry also unionized and represented an important part of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Strikes were held throughout New York City to bring public attention to horrendous working conditions, hours, and low wages.


Southern Italian women at Ellis Island (1911)

















As the Italian American community in New York City achieved economic wealth and the children and grandchildren of the first immigrants progressed through the public school system, they began entering other better-paying sectors of the workforce. They established small businesses including clothing manufacturing and retail stores, restaurants, produce-handling firms, contracting businesses, and trucking and moving businesses. Second and third generation Italian Americans also found jobs within the government bureaucracies of New York. However, there was widespread discrimination against Italian Americas throughout the 1930s and 40s, which prevented them from reaching the top of executive and corporate hierarchies.


Construction workers in NYC (1910)

















Although the Italian American experience in terms of gaining wealth, social status, and ultimately political influence has been a slow one (largely due to the discrimination that was directed to them from the early to mid twentieth century), they have achieved a secure status as middle class citizens as can be seen today in Howard Beach. In Howard Beach the major occupations include, nursing, law enforcement, legal services, small businesses, and finance with the average income being $82,000 according to the 2000 United States census.

               The Guido youth culture also evolved with the increasing levels of income within the Italian American community. Guidos have the ability to “stylize masculine aggression via hedonistic consumption” in contrast to the earlier greasers who were “inhibited by economic restraints and by coherent immigrant traditions” (Tricatico 50) from expressing themselves within the context of a distinct youth culture. Furthermore, second-generation Italian Americans who grew up in poverty are often criticized for spoiling their children. With the economic success they have attained as the children of immigrants, they want to compensate for the material possessions that they themselves lacked as children, living in a scarcity culture. Therefore they overindulge their children, who have come to define Guido culture with their privileged positions as consumers (Tricatico 66).


Works Cited:

Glazer, Nathan, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “Beyond the Melting Pot:   â€¨The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City.”  Cambridge: MIT Press, 1970.

Tricarico, Donald. "Youth Culture, Ethnic Choice, and the Identity Politics of Guido." Voices In Italian Americana 2007: 34-86.


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