Chapter 4.3: Irish and Italian Catholics



List of Tables, Maps, Illustrations, and Figures


1. Symbolism, Self and Urban Environment
    Residential Succession: How "Losers" Win
    Negro Pioneers and White Flight
    Relative Selectability among Minority Invaders
    Symbolic History and Self
    Symbolic History: Modern and Ancient Foundations

2. Self Selection and Urban Decay
    The Social Character of the Manor

3. Woodland to City Neighborhood: 300 Years of Change
    Indians, Geology and Transportation
    Protecting the Community: Covenant and Zoning
    Increasing Community Parameters

4. Invasion and Succession

    Irish and Italian Catholics
    Veterans: Undesirable Heroes
    Blacks and the Special Problems of Nonwhite Invaders
    Back to City Brownstones: A Confused Invasion
    The Invasion Mentality

5. Micrological Aspects of Urban Problems
    Involuntary Change: Aging and Death
    Attidues of Heirs
    Apartment Houses: The Big Change
    The Life of a Tenant and a Building
    Understanding Intricate Urban Problems

6. Stigma and Self-Image in the Inner City
    Achievement and Residentia Movement
    The Moral Careers of Inner-City Residents
    The Community Paradigm
    Implications and Applications


Between 1890 and 1950, local Irish and Italian Catholics were to Manorites what Jacob Reis' "Other Half" and O'Henry's "Four Million" were to the city's elite society summarily, the unwashed, lower caste of Brooklyn. In Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens, Irish Catholics were originally sequestered on the eastern side of Rogers Avenue, the western boundary of the Lefferts Manor, which is symbolically the "other side of the tracks." All American large cities and small towns have equivalent physical boundaries to signify social distances between classes and ethnic groups.3

There are other geographical expressions of social distance and power in the community which have remained relatively stable in the community over the years. These expressions are shown in Map 12. For example, the religious hierarchy in the area, circa 1920, was demonstrated by the sites of local dominant Protestant churches. If we think of these churches as being at relative distances from the center of the Lefferts Manor, we discover that the Dutch Reformed, Evangelical and Methodist churches are all located near the restricted boundaries of the Manor. The Reformed and Methodist churches have continued to alternate as meeting places for the Manor Association's annual gatherings.

On the "other side of the tracks" (Rogers Avenue) we find the Roman Catholic church, St. Francis, which was originally dominated by Irish parishioners, as it is today by Black West Indians. Another Roman Catholic Church, St. Blaise, had been built earlier and further eastward to serve Wingate, a working-class Italian section. Italians would travel several blocks for services at a church with Italian clergy, even though some of them may have lived closer to St. Francis. Italians who lived in Wingate in the early days of its history recall that it was referred to as "Pig Town." The name, they say, was given to the area because of the small farms operating there, some of which had pigs and other animals. Until 1970, there remained a poultry processing plant in Wingate. The section is still zoned for light industrial activity and contains a few scrap yards, as well as a mixture of plumbing, auto supply and service shops, and other manual trade establishments. It is therefore a "mixed use" community, typical of many working-class or blue-collar ethnic neighborhoods in the city. Wingate at present is a low-density area with an interesting mix of a small number of Italian and many black homeowners and renters.

The historical antipathy between Irish and Italian Catholics in the neighborhood is recounted by people in terms of the hostility expressed towards Italians at St. Francis church. Italian adults were not welcome at services and Italian children experienced many difficulties if they were fortunate enough to be admitted to the parochial grade school. Competition between lower caste ethnic groups has always been common to city life. Today, new low caste ethnics -- Blacks, Hispanics and Asians -- frequently battle over control of local institutions, influence in government social service programs, as well as the traditional power over local "turf."

The situation at St. Francis changed later as the Irish middle class was one of the first groups to begin moving out of the area about 1950. This exodus created financial problems for the parish and resulted in a warmer reception to local Italians. But Italians who attended St. Francis's grammar school in the 1950s remember still being mistreated by students and "religious" teachers alike. The acceptance of Italians was only a grudging acceptance. The reason why parents sent their children to private and parochial schools in those years is the same as the reason given today: to keep their children safe from the lower-class children who attend public schools.

The persistence of the "Pig Town" label for the Italian community was demonstrated in 1978 as I spoke to a college student who once lived in Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens. Speaking of research on his ex-community, I asked if he knew one of the persons interviewed who was Italian. The student who was Irish responded, "Oh no. He must have lived in Pig Town."

The Irish Catholic section of the area was more residentially and commercially developed than that of the Italians. In the Irish sector there were more apartment houses, stores and more substantial one- and two-family homes. It was also a "better" place because it had no vacant lots, scrap yards or shacks such as those that could be found in Wingate. Still the Irish part of the community was merely a lower-class enclave. It was literally nearer to the Lefferts Manor, but figuratively many miles away. Even today there are few Manorites who are familiar with the streets or people who passed their eastern borders.

Long-term Italian and Irish Catholic residents of Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens today, but not in the Lefferts Manor, still speak of the Manor as the bastion of the rich and the powerful. They remember the wealthy and prominent Manorites -- politicians, bankers, judges, lawyers and doctors. Unfortunately, many of these old-time residents feel that the area has been "ruined" by blacks, but they still have a great deal of nostalgia for the Manor. They can tell you of the times they walked through the Manor as youngsters and were awed by the large houses, gardens, fancy cars, uniformed servants and other symbols of affluence. Most of these residual, working-class area residents never had had an opportunity to see the inside of a Lefferts Manor house until the Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens Neighborhood Association began holding "house tours" in an attempt to interest people in buying houses in the community. The tours themselves were an Association tactic to counter the image that the neighborhood was severely deteriorated. The Lefferts Manor Association, being more staid, was generally against the tours within their boundaries. They felt that activities open to the general public would bring "riff raff" into the community.

The Lefferts Manor, to lower caste old-timers, was a distant goal. When a few finally "made it" and moved into their dream community, they wanted to preserve the distance between themselves and their less fortunate co-ethnics. They believed that an important part of what they had attained through social mobility was the "right" to that social distance. They did not Italianize or Gaelicize the Manor. They changed their ethnic lifestyles and dissociated themselves from less upwardly mobile friends and relatives who lived in nearby areas. They accepted the social values and mannerisms of the indigenous Manorites. These invaders were, in all probability, converted to the Manor way of life prior to their ascendancy through a process of anticipatory socialization. Such pre-socialization is an integral part of mobility aspirations in American society. In many cases, like the "Black Bourgeoisie" so effectively described by E. Franklin Frazier, the lower-caste Manorites became "more royal than the king."4 There were to be no Italian feasts and no Irish wakes in the Lefferts Manor. Until 1971, the Lefferts Manor Association officially frowned upon "block parties" and other street activities as were typical historically of New York's working-class communities. Association officers have generally argued that these kinds of public activities were contrary to the character of the community that they were trying to maintain.

<< To Ch. 4.2 | To Ch. 4.4 >>

Notes to Chapter 4.3

3. Most writings on cities and towns have noted some physical boundary that separates the more affluent from the less affluent neighborhoods. Where such physical boundaries, e.g., railroad tracks, highways, etc., do not exist one can rely on such methods as those developed by Shevky and Bell (1955).

4. Frazier (1962).

<< To Ch. 4.2 | To Ch. 4.4 >>