Diary of an East Harlem Tenement [HISTORY]

Posted on: May 22nd, 2014 at 10:00 am by

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Another view of the Tenement from 114th Street.

Let’s take a quick trip up to East Harlem (aka El Barrio) to explore some of its rich history.

My family’s roots go deep in this area, which in many ways, prompted my interest in exploring other parts of the city. A few months ago, after six years of attempting to enter 401 East 114th Street, my brother and I were finally able to gain access and take some great pictures of an important piece of our family’s (and New York’s) history.

The trip was timely, especially in light of news that a well-known East Harlem investor, James J. Pisacano (Pisacano Enterprises), purchased the building and is planning a conversion to luxury rentals – 6 two-bedroom apartments and the ground floor as a Commercial Space.

Near the turn of the last century, this neighborhood was largely Italian, with tenement housing lining the northern and southern sides of the block from 1st to Pleasant Avenue, peppered with a few private family homes.

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Pasquale and Nicoletta – Wedding Photo June 1891

One particular Italian couple, my great great grandparents Nicoletta Trimarco and Pasquale Felitti, decided to make a home (and business) on this block in 1890. Its ethnic composition, close proximity to the East River, and office space where Pasquale could practice medicine were all huge factors in that decision.

Economic stability was also on Nicoletta’s mind. Her granddaughter recalled, “[Nicoletta] had a great sense of self and a direction in mind. This related to what she had said to her young husband when she told him lovingly…’don’t give me jewelry, give me property.'” And so he did.

They began raising a family in a house on 114th street between 1st and Pleasant, but eventually invested in a tenement property right on the corner (401 East 114th Street) for $32,000. They purchased other properties as well, and doing so marked another step forward for this Italian immigrant family. Having spent most of their lives living in New York “slum” housing, they not only had their own home, but properties from which to run business and collect additional revenue. One can only imagine the difference between a four-story home, as compared to a small cramped room, that they had undoubtedly been so accustomed to. The family tenement provided economic income, as well as a space on the ground floor for Pasquale’s medical office, which operated behind the Farmacia Vesuvio.

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The drugstore at 114th St and 1st Ave. Farmacia Vesuvio. The vesuvio is painted on the ceiling.

The grandson of Pasquale recalls:

Most of Pasquale’s patients were poor. Many of the fathers were day laborers who were irregularly employed. Many men were alone, or living in small groups, trying to save money enough to bring their families over or to return to Italy and buy a piece of land. Quite a number of immigrants, especially among the Italians, were not really immigrants, especially since they never had any intention of remaining here. These people came because they were land-poor or landless, knew the exact price of a piece of land at home and intended to make that much money and a little more, return to their villages, and buy a piece of land to better provide for their family and the future. And many did. And many more didn’t.

In 1910, a decade after Pasquale and Nicoletta purchased the tenement at 401 East 114th Street, about ten families moved in, comprising around 45 people. Common occupations of these dwellers consisted of street work laborers (the most common), “odd jobs,” stonemasons, saloon bartenders, cement laborers, tailors, and concrete laborers. Pasquale was the only physician on the block.

This building changed hands several times throughout the years and would eventually fall on hard times. It was purchased by a religious group and was subsequently damaged by a fire in the 1980s. The building survived but fell further into disrepair; it was later sold by one of the remaining members of the religious group.

While its conversion awaits, here are some additional photos:

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Pasquale, ca. 1910ish

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These are the basement steps which go up towards 1st avenue.

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Remnants of an old bread oven in the basement! Lever still visible.

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Steps leading to the door onto 114th Street. Likely the entrance all residents used.

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Same steps except now looking upwards. Likely the original bannister.

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Tenement Hall

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Looking down at the first floor. Original black and white tile still in great shape.

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Looking at the tenement from 114th street (behind the camera is Jefferson Park).

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Taken in 1934 during the Feast of Mount Carmel. Tenement in the background; Photo: NYPL

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Pharmacy can be seen towards the upper right of this photo, 1934. Photo: NYPL

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Another view of the Tenement stairs.

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Original railing. This would be the first flight of steps residents used upon entry

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