“Little Italies”

The streets of Little Italy, as the Italian district of a city was called in the United States, were narrow, overcrowded, dirty and surrounded by run-down tenements. The tenement was a big building which often had shared bathrooms (on the landings or in the courtyard), while the entrance was in small alleys which were often dark and extremely narrow.

Newly arrived immigrants found lodgings in “Little Italy” and, since they were often homesick and lonely, they found solace in a community which basically reproduced the values and behavioural codes of their home country.

In Buenos Aires, emigrants, Italians and other prospective settlers were accommodated in the port area, in buildings which had once been elegant and had now been turned into so-called conventillos for immigrants.

The typical layout of the conventillo was rectangular, with two floors and an inner courtyard in which shared bathrooms were to be found.

The overcrowded conventillos in Buenos Aires and of Mulberry Street in New York help us understand how these communities contributed to the perpetuation and spread of the immigrants’ home culture.

This was the origin of the Italian districts in the big American cities, known by a variety of names. The streets had the function of the village square, of places in which a common cultural heritage was palpably reproduced, almost in limbo between home roots and the new “frontiers”.

USA. A farmer originally from Italy pictured in front of his farm
USA. A farmer originally from Italy pictured in front of his farm
Argentina, Buenos Aires, about 1900. A conventillo, a formerly affluent household turned into lodgings for new immigrants
Argentina, Buenos Aires, about 1900. A conventillo, a formerly affluent household turned into lodgings for new immigrants
USA, New York, early 1900s. Hester Street
USA, New York, early 1900s. Hester Street
USA, New York. Paola Franchi, in the centre of the picture, with two friends in her courtyard
USA, New York. Paola Franchi, in the centre of the picture, with two friends in her courtyard