By James Maher
Occupation: Retired, Teacher
Location: Village View, First Avenue
Time: 11 a.m. on Saturday, May 21
I grew up in Little Italy. I was born on Mott Street and went to school in St. Patricks', the old cathedral, which is down the block from where I lived. The neighborhood there was mostly broken up in parts, like on Mulberry Street there were mostly Neapolitan people. Half of Mott Street was half Neapolitan and half Sicilian. On Elizabeth Street were all Sicilian people; there were all different dialects of Sicilian people.
There was a lot of street activity. You’d play baseball in the street. Kids used to take a pair of ball-bearing skates, take them apart and get a piece of 2x4 wood ... they used to nail a milk box or a soda box on the top, and that was a scooter to ride around on. It was crazy, but this is how we did it in those days.
We never had crime in that neighborhood. As far as racism or anything, we didn’t even know what racism was about. I didn’t know anything about segregation until I went to school. When I was in the neighborhood, you either conformed or you didn’t, and if you didn’t they made you conform or you moved out.
Most of that area was controlled by the Mob. So if you had any problems the Mob knew and they’d settle it up before you’d have any problems. The neighborhood was very safe. You could have went out to a dinner or a dance when you were a teenager, come home at 2 in the morning and you didn’t have to worry, because those guys were out 24 hours. They were out all hours of the night. As soon as they saw the wrong person coming, they used to go after them. They were protective because they didn’t want the police in the area. You never had crime there.
You got spoiled because a lot of the things in Little Italy were fresh made: fresh pasta, fresh meat, fresh sausage, fresh everything. You got spoiled. There were a lot of good places to eat. Every block had a restaurant or an outlet where you ate. A lot of them were like cafes. People used to go in there and hang out. A lot of those stores used to have pastries, but it was almost like a come-on. It wasn’t like that was their main product to sell. They had a pool room and these guys used to hang out in there. They used to gamble and what not. A lot of the fellas used that as a place to meet. Then the ownership turned over and the pastry became the main part.
In those days, a lot of people went to public school and then when they got married they moved out of the neighborhood. Eventually there was no more Little Italy. Most of the owners now either own the building or their family was there for many years and they still have the business. But other than that, they’re all gone. They [began] moving out in the 1960s. That’s when everything started to change. Most of the people moved to Jersey, Staten Island, Long Island and Brooklyn.
Mostly years ago all these sections were split up [by ethnicity]. Like Orchard Street was all Jewish. If you were there and you weren’t Jewish and you wanted to rent a store, they wouldn’t rent it to you. They were clannish because they had to be. When you passed the Bowery and went west, there were all Italians there. They never had wars; they never had fights, because they got along.
Second Avenue was like Broadway to the Jewish people. On Saturday night, if you didn’t have a fur coat, you couldn’t go there. People used to come down to see the plays. There was the National Theatre, the Yiddish Theatre. There were all Jewish movie theatres down here.
The best places here were the famous dairy restaurants on Second Avenue. My family owned a building on Second Avenue, and we had a dairy restaurant in there called Steinberg’s Dairy Restaurant. Then you had the Moskowitz and Lupowitz, which was a Romanian restaurant. They sold very good food. Then there was Ratner’s. So when people came out of the theatres on Saturday, all those restaurants were booming. They made a ton of money and the food was out of this world.
You passed there as a kid and you looked in the window and you’d see these big cheesecakes. Your mouth used to water but you couldn’t afford it in those days. This was the 1950s and 1960s. It was a different way of living
Next week, Joe talks about moving into Village View in 1964 and working for NYU.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.