How two ethnic groups made peace.
Former Newsday city editor Moses (Journalism/Brooklyn Coll.; The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace, 2009) sees himself as “a social science statistic”: a third-generation Italian-American New Yorker, educated in Catholic schools, who married an Irish-American woman. Their 1976 marriage, he realizes, was not unusual, but a century earlier, it would have been almost scandalous. In this lively history of the clashes, compromises, and eventual bonding between two feisty immigrant groups, Moses looks at Irish and Italian expressions of religion, social customs, and family life; access to political power; competition for jobs; and cultural forces that shaped their images. Irish immigrants had gained a foothold in American life before waves of Italians arrived in the late 19th century. Although both groups were predominantly Roman Catholic, their religious practices were starkly different. “The Irish shunned…loud shows of faith,” a result of persecution by the British; southern Italians, on the other hand, celebrated noisily, with feasts and fireworks that the Irish deemed crude. The two groups did not bond in their churches, nor in the workplace, where they often competed for jobs, causing dissension, especially in hard economic times. Italians’ feeling of powerlessness was underscored by a criminal justice system dominated by the Irish. “Like later minority groups in New York,” Moses writes astutely, “Italian immigrants believed that police, judges, and juries were biased against them.” Taking justice into their own hands, Italians waged gang warfare in the form of the Mafia and Black Hand. The author offers deft capsule biographies of such figures as activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and her Italian lover, Carlo Tresca; spunky New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia and his rival, the suave Jimmy Walker; Al Capone and his quietly elegant Irish-American wife, Mae Coughlin; and Frank Sinatra, who got his big break from tough Irish band leader Tommy Dorsey.
A brisk, well-researched look at a significant part of New York’s boisterous past.