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A 1901 study by Dr. Kate Holladay Claghorn, “The Foreign Immigrant in New York,” describes the beginning days of Little Italy: “The little handful of Italians that made up the immigration from Italy in the early decades were mainly a vagabond but harmless class of organ grinders, ragpickers, bear laders and the like.”
Reported Claghorn: “There was little pauperism among these people, if we may judge from the relative infrequency of Italian cases appearing in the reports of private charitable societies. They were a class of people who worked and paid their rent. They were strict in keeping their agreements. They are considered very desirable tenants.”
The “handful,” in short order, grew to “a great army of barbers, bootblacks, fruiterers and shoemakers,” along with “about 400 persons employed in macaroni factories” and “many Italian watchmakers, bakers, confectioners, keepers of cafes and ice cream saloons, wine dealers, grocers, dry-goods dealers, and many in other businesses.”
WHAT WORKED WAS hard work. Again, as Claghorn recounted: “The Italian fruit peddler bestows a considerable amount of his inherited racial art sense in ‘composing’ his wares to form an attractive picture; the Italian barber pays considerable attention to the attractiveness of his place; the Italian bootblack is not the little ragged urchin of yesterday with battered box and a shrill velocity of motion, but a well-kept looking individual anywhere from 15 to 30 years of age, with a regularly established place of business ranging from the throne-like arm chair and umbrella to the regular shop as well-kept as the barber’s.”
Across the board, reported Claghorn, rich or poor in Little Italy, “all classes are highly industrious, thrifty, and saving” — the exact formula for upward mobility and business expansion. “The tradespeople prosper rapidly,” she reported. “The Italian barber enlarges his shop, perhaps finally sells out and becomes a banker; the fruit peddler buys a little shop, then a bigger one and may finally become a wealthy importer; and in like manner with other shopkeepers. The more ambitious and successful move to the suburbs and become property owners in Long Island City, Flushing, Corona, Astoria, etc.”
That’s how Italians got rich. It’s how America got rich. Or as historian John Steele Gordon explained it: “If America is famous for its get-up-and-go, it’s because we have ancestors who got up and came.”
Little Italy, in short, was successful because of the spontaneity, because good spaghetti and meat balls attracted throngs of customers, not because someone got a handout from city council.
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The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
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