view of Salandra, Matera, Basilicata, Italy by Antonio DiPersia

Monday, August 5, 2013

“Life in the Slums” – Little Italy, Philadelphia 1893

What was everyday life like for the Ambruso ancestors in the Italian neighborhood of South Philadelphia in the 1890’s?  The following is from an 1893 Philadelphia newspaper article entitled “Life in the Slums”.  The writer had a somewhat prejudicial viewpoint regarding immigrants, which was probably typical for many people at that time:

“In these days, when the question of the restriction of immigration has come to be one of Federal legislation, a visit to the slums of Philadelphia should be sufficient to convince the Congressional investigators that some restrictive measures against the coming of the foreign hordes, who are now pouring into the land, should be enacted. The first quarter generally inspected on entering the slums is the unsavory district known as ‘Little Italy’.” 

“Within ‘Little Italy’ there reside no less than 25,000 persons.  The heart of ‘Little Italy’ is that part of the quarter comprising the purlieus of Carpenter and Spafford (today, South Marshall) Streets, Gatiny’s ‘avenue’ and the courts and alleys radiating from these localities.  There, Italian immigrant life is found at its best and worst.  There are some thoroughfares in this locality which are wholly given over to its occupancy.  The dwellings in these streets are small, a house of four or five rooms being regarded as good sized, yet a whole family will occupy one room and perhaps have several boarders.  A bed in one corner, a stove in another, a chest, a few chairs and a few bits of crockery compose the furniture.” 
“Table cloths and carpets are unknown.  The table upon which the family dines is bare and dark with use, possibly a bit of oil cloth is tacked over it to serve in lieu of linen.  Perhaps there are not enough chairs to go around and the junior members of the family take their meals standing.  Life in those apartments is bad enough in hot weather, when every door and window is left open, but it is even worse in the winter when all the stenches and disease-bearing germs are retained in the room for want of proper ventilation. “

“As soon as the immigrant lands in Philadelphia, he is found employment by his ‘padrone’, and at the first break of day in the new land he sets forth to earn his dollar.  Whether as a laborer, rag picker, organ grinder or vendor, he must work.  … Over 75 per cent of the men are laborers and the remaining 25 per cent are in business for themselves. … Small grocery stores, meat shops, street stands and other insignificant retail establishments kept by these people are to be found on every street in the colony.  They are crowded with customers whose heads almost touch the rows of moldy bologna links, strings of garlic and slabs of bacon which decorate the low ceiling, while all around the room are odd looking boxes with foreign freight and trade marks on them, piles of queer looking cheeses, blue papers full of macaroni, and jars of fruit from Tuscany and the valleys of Savoy. “  (Isn’t it ironic that this could be the description of an upscale gourmet Italian food store of today.)
“In low shops and vile cellars where it would seem no human being could survive men and boys are repairing shoes, tailors mending and making garments, women and children sorting rags from great heaps that litter the floor and mounted half way to the ceiling.”

This original newspaper article was very lengthy, much longer than what I have transcribed here, with much more detail of the filth and squalor.   But don’t think the writer was only picking on Italian immigrants.  He was equally hard, if not harder, on the Poles, Russians and “Hebrews”.  He uses words such as:  unwholesome…degradation, filth and immorality” to describe the Poles and Russians, and says that they are not as “light-hearted and sunny in their disposition as the Italians.”

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