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The Italian Community in Greenwich Village in the 1920s

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2000 16 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Kultur und Landeskunde



1. Introduction
1.1. The 1920s in the United States
1.2. Greenwich Village in the 1920s
1.3. People in Greenwich Village

2. The Italian Community
2.1. Immigration and Settlement
2.2. Religion
2.3. Education
2.4. Recreation
2.5. Family

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

1.1. The 1920s in the United States

The 1920s - also called the Roaring Twenties - proved to be a decade of triumphant capitalism in the United States. The American economy which was characterized by recession after World War I began to recover. By 1922 it was growing rapidly and prospering. New industries like the car industry stimulated other industries like rubber, oil and steel production and the construction of new highways. Besides, the mass production of cars brought hundreds of thousands of new jobs. Technological innovations like the assembly line increased the productivity by more than 40 per cent. The proportion of women working outside home went up, too. There was a need for secretaries, typists and filing clerks, which were new women's jobs. Real wages increased dramatically.

This rapid process of modernization took place without governmental intervention. American politics went back to a tradition of the late 19th century, namely the faith in a strong economy with a weak state. Warren G. Harding's presidency which was marked by bribery scandals was followed by President Calvin Coolidge whose motto was "The business of America is business."

The 1920s were a bad time for organized labor. Union membership went down because the managements of the factories discouraged its growth by intimidation and brutal violence.

In summary one can say it was a time of severe hardship and repression for working-class men and women but a time of prosperity for the middle and upper classes.

A series of laws passed had imposed increasingly severe restrictions on immigration. The first so-called Quota Law had been passed in 1921. It limited immigration in any one year to 3 per cent of the number of each nationality according to the census of 1910, with a maximum of 356,000. Its purpose was to limit the number of Southern and Eastern European immigrants. Three years later the quota was cut in half and immigrants further restricted to 2 per cent of the "nationals" in the census of 1890. Although the new quota did not go into effect until 1929, it demonstrated the growing hostility to immigration as such and to such nationals as Italians, Poles, Serbs and other Slavs.

In terms of culture, the 1920s are characterized by the Lost Generation, the Jazz Age, the Speakeasy Era and the Age of Flaming Youth. It was a decade of terrible disillusionment on the part of most idealistic young Americans and at the same time a period of American history when youth seized the center of the stage and insisted on its right to speak and act for the society. It was the age in which a literary and intellectual culture defined itself in highly dramatic fashion in opposition to the great mass of ordinary Americans. There were two Americas: One was literate, knowledgeable and, above all, emancipated. The other was puritanical, repressed, uninformed about Freud, Marx and other modern thinkers and obsessed by numerous prejudices.

When talking about the 1920s one must not forget Prohibition. It lasted from 1920 till 1933 and was a unique matter. But it did not lead to the desired learning process of the population, it rather led to the criminalizing of drinking and to a flourishing of criminality. The bootleggers met the need of illegal liquor by organized crime.

The economic prosperity came to an end on October 25, 1929, the Black Friday at the New York Stock Exchange. It was followed by the Great Depression which has been the most severe economic crisis since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

1.2. Greenwich Village in the 1920s

At the turn of the 20th century Greenwich Village was quaintly picturesque and ethnically diverse. By the start of World War I it was widely known as a bohemian enclave with secluded side streets, low rents and a tolerance for radicalism and nonconformity. Attention became increasingly focused on artists and writers noted for their boldly innovative work: books and little magazines were published by small presses, art galleries exhibited the work of the avant-garde and experimental theater companies ignored the financial considerations of Broadway.

Entrepreneurs provided amusements ranging from evenings in artists' studios to bacchanalian costume balls. During Prohibition local speakeasies attracted uptown patrons.

Decrepit rowhouses were remodeled into "artistic flats" for the well-to-do and in 1926 luxury apartment towers appeared at the Northern edge of Washington Square. The stock market crash of 1929 halted the momentum of new construction.

1.3. People in Greenwich Village

In the post-War years, Greenwich Village became a symbol of the repudiation of traditional values. Here congregated those for whom the traditional pattern in which they grew up had become so empty or distorted that they could no longer continue a part of it and submit to the social controls which it imposed. Many who were drawn to the Village came to seek escape from their community, their families or themselves. Others who did not altogether repudiate the background from which they had come sought to reconcile new conditions with whatever remained of their traditional ways.

Life in Greenwich Village in the 1920s cannot primarily be related to America's bohemia because Italian immigrants, Irish longshoremen, truck-drivers, politicians, Jewish shopkeepers, Spanish seamen and a remnant of old American and German citizens made up the majority of the population. Caroline Ware in her book Greenwich Village, 1920-1930 distinguishes between local people and Villagers who belonged to the bohemia. Among the local people, the most fundamental social division was the ethnic one. More than economic barriers or geographic divisions, ethnic lines cut across the local population. For practically every aspect of life the several ethnic groups had separate institutions and were more or less firmly separated from each other by social barriers. Though these lines were not hard and though they varied in their intensity for different ages, degrees of education and economic levels, they were inescapable.

The Italians, comprising over half of the population of the district, had come nearest to imposing upon the whole area their own social characteristics. The Irish were less ethnically distinguishable from the other English-speaking people at a similar economic level but they were also conscious of themselves as a group and possessed distinctive habits. Though few in number, the Jews stood out clearly.

The Spanish colony had so lost in membership as to have been almost eliminated but it still supported its own institutions and had little to do with anybody else in the community. The scattered remnant of Germans had been cruelly reminded of their national origin during the War. The original old American families had retained enough sense of themselves as a group to be able to supply the names of the families who really 'belonged' to the community. In 1920, three blocks of Black people had been all that remained of what was once the principal Black settlement in New York. By 1930 two houses with Black people were all that was left. The Lithuanian settlement which had been sufficiently strong and cohesive to organize a church in 1909, had nearly disappeared by 1930 but the church continued to function. The French settlement which had been large enough around 1900 to furnish talent for French plays at Greenwich House, was reduced to a few houses containing some of the French waiters in the lower Fifth Avenue hotels. The scattering of Polish, Austrian and Scandinavian families represented the remains of groups that had never had the coherence of the other ethnic elements in the community.

Ethnic divisions among the local population arose as a matter of historical development. Because each group represented an inroad to the area at a different time and under different conditions, the ethnic label carried more than a strictly ethnic implication. To the Irish the Italians were not only 'foreigners' but newcomers. They were the ones who 'took their neighborhood away from them.'



ISBN (eBook)
435 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin – American Studies
1,7 (A-)
Landeskunde Immigration Immigrants New York Greenwich Village Roaring Twenties



Titel: The Italian Community in Greenwich Village in the 1920s