“This (Italian) section of East Harlem was developed during the 1880s with the familiar New York brownstone residences and walk-up apartments,” states New York Then and Now.
Italian Harlem was the name that was given to East Harlem in the New York City borough of Manhattan, when it was largely inhabited by an Italian American population at the run of the 20th century.
“In Italian Harlem there was on East 112th Street, a settlement from Bari; on East 107th Street between First Avenue and the East River, people from Sarno near Naples,” writes historian Gerald Meyer.
“On East 100th Street between First and Second Avenues, Sicilians from Santiago; on East 100th Street, many Northern Italians from Piscento; and on East 109th Street, a large settlement of Calabrians.”
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries a huge wave of immigrants came from Southern Italy and moved to East Harlem. Most were concentrated in the area east of Lexington Avenue between 96th and 116th streets and east of Madison Avenue between 116th and 125th streets. Italian Harlem approached its peak in the 1930s, with over 100,000 Italian-Americans living in its crowded, run-down apartment buildings.
There was the Cathelic church with the Giglio Society of East Harlem and there was the crime syndicates in Italian Harlem from the early Black Hand to the bigger and more organized Italian gangs that formed the Italian-American Mafia (the 116th Street crew, etc.,). Italian American celebrities Al Pacino, Henry Enrique “Erik” Estrada, Lou Gehrig, Marc Anthony, Michael Coppola, Ray Barretto, Tito Puente and many others was born in Italian Harlem.
Among its most famous residents were Fiorello La Guardia, mayor of New York from 1934 to 1946 and Vito Marcantonio, a congressman. In the 1950s and 1960s, large sections of Italian Harlem were leveled for urban renewal projects. The neighborhood retained a large Italian presence through the 1970s.
Some Italian vestiges remain including a barber shop, a bakery, Patsy’s Pizzeria and Rao’s restaurant. Most of the Italian American population have long since left and moved to the Bronx and Brooklyn, or into the adjacent state of New Jersey and upper New York.
However, a few have remained. Most of these predominantly older residents are clustered around Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, mainly from 114th to 118th Street. There were only 1,130 Italian-Americans still living in this area, according to the 2000 Census.
In May 2011, one of the last remaining Italian retail businesses in the neighborhood, a barbershop owned by Claudio Caponigro on 116th Street, was threatened with closure by a rent increase.
Today most of the former Italian population is gone, and the neighborhood has become known as Spanish Harlem because of its large Hispanic population.