‘‘Twas a balmy summer day on the East River…Look, there’s Washburn!Posted: November 8, 2021 Filed under: Angela's picture galleries, Architecture, But Not Forgotten!, East Harlem, Gone, Italian Americans, Italian East Harlem, New York City, NEW YORK ITALIANS, Pleasant Avenue, Vintage Photography | Tags: East Harlem, East River, factory, forgotten new york city, Gone, History, Italian American, Italian East Harlemites, Italian Harlem, Italian Immigrants, Journey to Italian Harlem, Little Italy, Manhattan, New York City, Nostalgia, nyc, old building, Pleasant Avenue, Urban History, urban landscape, vacant, vintage photographs, Washburn Wire 8 Comments
On a warm summer day, well over 30 years ago, I was out boating with my cousin, Guy. As we were passing East Harlem, heading North up the East River, I saw the vacant Washburn Wire Factory. It was located between East 117th and 118th Street, at the end of the 500 block, off Pleasant Avenue, by the East River Drive.
My family lived right up the block from that once active factory- back in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. At the time of this actual photo, I had a feeling that Washburn had outlived its welcome, and that it would be just a “matter of time” before it would be (ultimately) demolished & replaced. So…with that thought in mind, as we were drawing closer to the vacant factory, I quickly reached for my film camera and took this photo!
Behold a moment in time- captured on a hazy & humid summer day- on the often tumultuous East River! Thankfully, the river was very calm when this photo was taken!
Two Neighbors and one uncle worked at Washburn for many years, even after we all moved to the Bronx because our building were torn down to build the projects..
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I forgot about the projects? My Uncle and cousins moved into the projects on 115th st and first ave If I remember? Definitely 115 st.
My friends lived in the larger projects that go to 125th st. Wow. I always forget about the buildings torn down to make way for the projects. Great information.
my grandfather worked in washburn,along with several of my mom’s cousins.
My father worked there for a short time before he was drafted for wwII.
I love my Italian American heritage and as my people once resided in East Harlem in what was the Italian ghetto, an italian word stolen in the 1960s and 70s by the African American communities and used to describe their plight as a poor minority in America. Ghetto was first used to describe unwelcomed Jewish communities in Italy and became the general description for Jewish dwellings all over Europe. At any rate East Harlem was the most well known Italian American ghetto tenement region in the City. It will always be a symbol of the struggle of Italian immigrants in America who aspired to achieve the proverbial American dream which many did. Usually the move upward was from East Harlem to the Bronx, upstate NY, Long Island, Staten Island and New Jersey. My cousins owed a Restaurant on third Avenue named Capolas. Eventually they relocated to Staten island and bought Nunzios pizzeria in the South Beach section along Highland boulevard. And of course who can forget about the famous Patsy’s Pizza. Whenever Frank Sinatra came to NY Patsy’s was one of his first stops. In fact while he was in California he used to order pizza and have it sent to him by plane. The pizza was so bad in California that this was the only way to get good apizza. When you have $$$$ you can do this sort of thing.
Unfortunately under the present push to make all so called white people feel ashamed and complicit in a sense of collective guilt Italian Americans have been stripped of their unique heritage and have been cast into an indiscriminate “whiteness”. As if European peoples are all of the same genetic stock. We are not! The Italian people are of many bloods. Etruscan, Roman, Greek, Arabic, Berber and Germanic just too name a few. This ethnic diversity explains why Italian people are so willing to intermingle with many cultures and people groups. The spirit of a healthy liberalism has always distinguished us as a kind, generous and welcoming race. And why not we do reflect a number of nationalities as named above. Yet we are a unique culture and far more fascinating and relevant than being people who are mostly known for family, food and the Mafia. Our contribution to science, engineering, art, music, business, economics, trade, agriculture, medicine, academics, and craftsmanship are indisputable realities which have shaped the modern world!
Our presence in America is a testament to our spirit of hard work, diligence, loyalty and innovation. We must never be ashamed of our race and heritage. Quite the contrary. We ought to be proud and unapologetically true to who we are and what we will continue to be as Italian Americans! We have every right to extol all that is good in us by the grace of God. Let us therefore enjoy the entitlement to be our own people who freely invite and share their rich heritage with others. Respect us as a people even as we respect others and fully recognize their right to do the same.
East Harlem is a reminder of good times and bad times for a ghetto dwelling people. But there is a truth in the phrase, “good ole days”, and it is the memory of the people and the life they experienced that provokes us to look back with such fondness and wonder. The ghosts of those who once inhabited East Harlem still lingers in the air whenever I visit the neighborhood. I can picture my Uncle’s and aunt’s looking out a window or standing in a doorway of the very tenement they lived on 118th street off Pleasant Avenue. The echoes of those who once frequented the infamous Pleasant Avenue tavern can still be heard by those who traverse the streets of its former location. Using a furtile imagination you can travel back in time and recreate East Harlem as if you were actually there in the 40s 50s and 60s. The first time I visited East Harlem it was predominately Puerto Rican back in 1968. Soon it would no longer be considered Italian Harlem but Spanish Harlem as a new wave of Puerto Rican immigrants would inhabit their the vanishing Italian ghetto. And now it is Mexican Harlem for the most part even though the area is undergoing a gentrication program for an upoer middle class. Who would have thought? East Harlem is a lot cleaner and renovated today. Many of the old tenements have been completely refurbished and over hauled and I suppose this is a good thing. Sadly though the new look of sterility has removed the rough hewn character of the place and people who originally settled there.
But thanks to photography we can keep alive the aura and memories of the place which for those of us who have family roots and ties is important. The social history of this place I believe must be kept alive for all Italian Americans who trace their ancestry from Italy to New York city. In the Godfather film we have the scene of an Immigrant boat arriving at Ellis Island as little Vito Andolini is about to begin a new life in America. As the people are gathered on the deck beholding the great land of hope and opportunity they are holding American flags in their hands as a show and symbol of their desire to join this great society and know a life they could never attain in the home country. And even though they might experiences deprivations worse than what they left behind yet it was the hope of Americas promises that enticed them to leave all behind and begin the adventure of a new life here in a new home land where they can lay roots for a better world for themselves and their children.
And even though they may face the distrust and bigotry of others as all immigrants inevitably do they were undeterred and made a go of it despite whatever obstacles stood in their way. For many East Harlem represents that spirit and is the beginning of our long successful journey as Italian Americans. Americans to be sure but with an Italian accent and distinctiveness nevertheless.
Let’s keep Italian East Harlem alive!
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As I look through the site I forget just how big East Harlem actually was. I am so accustomed to limiting myself to the area from 110 st to 118th street between pleasant and first ave where my family lived that I never consider thinking or looking beyond.
I worked for Irene Hayes with Joe Staino and Loue Leonette from 117st near Plesant AVE.WEEKENDS I would hang out with them also Pete Di Muro A women owned the candy store across the st. from them.Is there anyone that remembers.
Louie Leonetti Joe Staiano Pete Di Muro Lived There the Candy store women owned it.The Romanos