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Forum -Turf Wars and Sharing

By Jose B. Rivera

Place Matters, a joint project of The Municipal Art Society of New York and City Lore in cooperation with The East Harlem Historical Organization held a forum on Saturday, November 7th.  The forum was held a a movie showing room of the Museum of the City of New York. The topic of the forum had to do with three different Turf Wars and Turf Sharing.  One Generational, one based on issues as they pertained to the Antipoverty program and the last one dealing with turf wars as they related to gangs and stickball.

Picture of teenager Lady Ann Ceballo asking Petra Allende about living in East Harlem in the 1950s

Generational Topic
In the Generational topic, a young 15 year old East Harlemite, Lady Ann Ceballo, interviewed the venerable senior Petra Allende.  Lady Ann (yes this is her real name, her mother named her after British Royalty), asked Petra questions about what East Harlem was like when Petra arrived here from Puerto Rico in 1949.  Petra answered that although the pay was a low $12.00 per week, she found it easy to find work.  She worked at a factory on East 111th Street in the same building which housed the Con Edison offices.

What work was like?  Petra said that work was good.  She started out sewing and later on moved on to the printing business. 

What did they do for fun? The movies were a favorite pastime answered Petra, and there were no shortage of parties thrown by family and friends.

Was raising the children hard?  Petra said she made sure that the children respected others and that they respected themselves.  Neighbors helped with watching the children after school and ensuring that no harm came to them.

Picture of Anti-Poverty group panelist

Antipoverty Issues Topic
The issues turf discussion had to do with the beginning of the antipoverty programs which panelist agreed begin as a move to curb juvenile delinquency.  Many of the original players of the antipoverty program were present on the panel; Norman Eddy, Bobby Montesi, Eugene Calderone, Sarah P. Frierson, Mary Iemma, who told a beautiful story about how she came from close to death to being a vibrant participant in the early programs.  This discussion was the most complex of all three presented and is best to watch the video to garner its full impact.

Stickball Topic
The stickball discussion panel drew the most laughs of the day.  Especially when it was revealed that policemen of the day (1930s and 1940s) would accept brides in return for letting the stickball team play peacefully.  It was surprising to learn that some teams played for money and hence the cops came to get their share, sometimes once for every game played that day.

Picture of the Stickball panelist

The most interesting thing to learn about the stickball teams was that they were in effect a “Sunday Truce” from the other wise ethnic gang wars of the day.  During the week, the Puerto Ricans stayed West of Third Avenue for fear that the Italians would beat them to within an inch of their lives.  But Sunday allowed stickball team participants to walk right into the “enemy” territory to play against the same said enemy.

The Puerto Ricans were not the only ethnic group enclosed in an enclave.  The Italians, Polish, Jewish, African American and other ethnic groups had their own safe heavens and place which they should keep out of.  It was very interesting indeed to hear from those who experienced life back then as a series of sectored areas.  This author’s life never saw it as especially dangerous to go to Third Avenue.  But back in 1960, most of the gang nonsense has begun to wane.

Participants for the stickball panel included stickball old timers: Charlie Ballard (age 80), Vito Giannone, John Keeney, John Stephen’s, Charlie Candelario and Moe Morrero.  Charlie Diaz (East Harlem’s own)  of the East 111th Street Old Timers was also present and the youngest participant of the panel.  The participants had fun and most still continue to play in leagues throughout the United States.

The Forum ended with a nice reception featuring the food of East Harlem’s newest ethnic group, Mexican food.  It was delicious and well prepared. 

Editor’s Note:  East Harlem Online would like to congratulate Gina Rusch, of Union Settlement and of The East Harlem Historical Organization for leadership and work in getting the forum to the public.  Laura Hensen, also of the East Harlem Historical Organization, deserve credit as should Cathy Bensen of the Museum of the City of New York.  All the panel participants are also to be congratulated for giving of their time and history.

Recommendations:  More forum of this type should be held.  The East Harlem Historical Organization is encouraged to continue it good work.  Indigenous East Harlem residents should also form their own historical group.  The reason being that no one should allow someone outside of their ethnic group to write, tell, present the history of their group. History is experiential and hence not the “objective” thing most make it out to be. At best writing another ethnic groups history can be inaccurate and full of cultural biases.  At worst it can be pretty dam paternalistic.  It can also (usually) be resented by the group being written about. 

How to reconcile this with Gina’s group?  First is that all interested parties be invited to participate in the East Harlem Historical Organization (this group has been open, so the point is not that is is not, but to have a new beginning).  Second, hold the meetings of the group later in the evening when working class people can participate (more later about social workers and East Harlem).  Thirdly, split the group along ethnic lines so that each ethnic group can research and write their own history.  Lastly, come together on projects such as the recent forum to disseminate information. It would greatly enhance any historical group if the group had funding which would avail full time workers to “recover” the history of the past.  In the case of the East Harlem Historical Organization, each ethnic group should employ a full time worker to do the work necessary to complete their tasks.

Accompanying Article:
Obstructed Leadership


East Harlem Historical Organization
Gina Rusch
237 East 104th Street
New York, N.Y. 10029

The Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10029

January 24, 2004 - Webmaster’s Note: The East Harlem Historical Organization is now meeting at the Muesuem of the City of New York

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