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On This Day in History, February 20: The ‘Irishtown’ Italians

BROOKLYN — On Brooklyn’s lower Adams Street in 1916 was “a poor Italian section some blocks below the Heights” as described in a poem in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle of February 20, 1916.

The poet was William Adams Davenport, who was a disciple of Walt Whitman, a member of Plymouth Church and a resident of Brooklyn Heights since his childhood. He was a defender of the poor Italians who lived on the edge of “Irishtown.” To Davenport they were not a “problem,” but a “poem.” And this was his poem:

“This scene — a poor Italian section some blocks below the Heights.
“Groups of three story brick and basement dwellings with Calabrian peasants filled.
“A littered, ill-paved street, gong-sounding trolley cars, girls on front stoops, some holding tiny babies.
“Above the extended frame and iron lattice of the Brooklyn Bridge.
“Behind, a lot, board-fenced; boys in one corner breaking old tin.
“Warehouses hiding views of river and dock to the west.
“Above, a gray and mottled sky; to the north, factories, a glimpse to the south of downtown Manhattan.
“Memories of old Brooklyn — Whitman’s life hereabouts — Beecher on the Heights.
“The ferry: Washington’s crossing: Lafayette coming hither — later Kossuth Lincoln and some others.
“And now this invasion of peasants (the old merchants and first families since moved away).
“All this — these elements — from these I’ll weave a modern poem.”

Not all Italian immigrants were poor. As mentioned in the Eagle: “He is found anywhere from the hovel of ‘Irishtown’ and ‘Pigtown’ and the South Brooklyn and East New York tenement to the mansion on Ocean Parkway.”

In 1880 there were fewer than 20,000 Italians in New York City, but with an increase in immigration between 1899 and 1910, about 1.9 million persons from southern Italy moved to the U.S. By 1900 there were 220,000 Italians in New York City and by 1910, 545,000. Many had settled in Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

As a headline stated in the Eagle: “Italians Large Political and Civic Factors in This Borough and for the Most Part Make Excellent Citizens.”

By 1930, the 1,070,353 persons of Italian descent in New York City accounted for 17 percent of the city’s population, the highest concentration of Italians in the U.S.

February 20, 2012 - 12:08pm


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