By David Farley
(full disclosure: Farley is Second Vice President of the Bay Ridge Historical Society)
Paul Moses delivered an engaging, well-informed and well-attended lecture last night, on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, at the monthly meeting of the Bay Ridge Historical Society, based on his latest book, An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians. Moses, a journalism professor at Brooklyn College, began with an overview of the relationships between these ethnic groups, continued with a series of slides of some of the most inspiring and notorious figures who shaped these relationships, and ended the evening with a lively Q&A, during which the audience asked questions that showed how deeply their own lives were shaped by these and similar stories of interethnic and interfaith struggles and successes.
The Irish and the Italians had a rough time of it in New York City. The Irish settled first, coming over in waves, starting with the Great Famine in the 1840s and continuing through the new century. Germans emigrated in great numbers around this time as well, but, Moses said, they weren’t as successful as the Irish were in working their way into the civic structures of the city. The language barrier was partly to blame for this slower assimilation. By the time the Italians started to arrive in significant numbers, the Irish held all of the positions of power, including in the government, the church, and on the police force.
What the Italians brought was a willingness to work and the potential to be exploited for their labor. At first, the Irish kept the Italians out of the labor unions and thus unable to organize economically. But gradually, by sheer force of numbers, things began to change, and through organization, a good deal of violence, shared religion and even education, the playing field started to level. It wasn’t until as late as after WWII, Moses said, that these tensions became history. This was because of their now shared fate as Americans, the rise of sports and entertainment stars who crossed ethnic and cultural boundaries, and, perhaps, most importantly, interethnic marriage.
Moses also introduced the audience to a colorful cast of characters, from criminal bosses to archbishops, from political leaders to anarchists. There was politician and criminal Big Tim Sullivan, who from his headquarters in the Bowery controlled the Lower East Side. There was Monsignor John Kearney, who as pastor of St Patrick’s oversaw the transition of his parish from Irish to Italian. Or John McDonald, who was in charge of the construction of the first subway system in the city and had to contend with the newly organized Italian labor force. Then there were the more familiar figures, such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, whose friendship and professional rivalry symbolically represent the ultimate rapprochement of these two groups in America.
This is a familiar story, as Moses pointed out, of how immigrant communities, even today, get scalded on their way to acceptance in the “melting pot” that is America. The combination of interethnic tension and the palpable sense of the loss of a homeland makes full assimilation a painful, ambiguous, halting process—or, as Moses said, “We’re assimilated as Americans, but there is always a bit of us that clings to our ethnicity.” One lesson Moses draws is that when these groups begin to see themselves in each other and recognize their shared interests and their shared fates, then assimilation begins.
Professor Moses has written about such intercultural conflicts before. An earlier book, The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis Assisi’s Mission of Peace (2009), focused on a meeting in the early 13th century between St. Francis of Assisi and Islamic leader Sultan Malik Al-Kamil. It is a story about interfaith conflict, diplomacy and the search for peace that has particular resonance today. As Moses said about the story of the pain and progress of the relationship between the Irish and the Italians, “I really think what brings people together is person-to-person interaction.”
Moses spoke often of Bay Ridge, partly, I think, because he knew his audience, and partly because Bay Ridge is made up of communities between which there are often tensions, and because this is again a period when a fear of immigrants has reached a fever pitch. History may be a long arc, but we live in the oscillations. This story of interethnic tension is in many ways still being written.
The Bay Ridge Historical Society, under new president Tom McCarthy, has hosted this year Colonel Joseph Davidson, the US Army Garrison Commander at Fort Hamilton, and Professor Edward T. O’Donnell, who presented on economic inequality in the Gilded Age. Meetings of the Bay Ridge Historical Society take place on the third Wednesday of the month. On April 20, the Hon. Arthur Schack, New York State Supreme Court Justice and Bay Ridge resident, will speak about the history of free agency in Major League Baseball. There are also planned trips to the Fort Hamilton Army Base museum and to Teddy Roosevelt’s Long Island house. Dates TBA. Dues are $10.00.