“I Was Expected to Pave Them.”

“I Was Expected to Pave Them.”

Twelve million immigrants passed through Ellis Island. The majority were Italian. Most were escaping the rural poverty of Southern Italy. By 1900, there were 200,000 Italians in the City of New York. In ten years the population more than doubled. At this time, it stood at 545,000 and it was increasing.

The men were mainly laborers. They built streets, buildings, walls, subway lines and more. There was an old Italian saying: “Well I came to American because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here I found out three things, first, the streets weren’t paved with gold, second, they weren’t paved at all, and third I was expected to pave them.”

Italian track walker in Manhattan. Courtesy New York Public Library.

There is little history on the early Italians who worked or settled on Staten Island. But, there is one interesting passage in Staten Island and Its People by William T. Davis and Charles W. Leng. In discussing the construction of the Staten Island Rapid Transit Railroad on the north shore during the mid-1880’s the historians wrote: “the unusual nationalities of the laborers. Staten Islanders had been accustomed to seeing such tasks performed by men speaking the same language as themselves; sometimes with a pleasant brogue. But beginning in 1884 they saw gangs of Italian laborers, sober, and well organized to get results. It was impossible for most to understand the conversation they carried on; almost equally difficult to understand such severe labor followed by a lunch of bread and onion; but the greatest surprise was the community pot of soup into which each dipped his crust of bread for flavoring. As the years went on and immigration from the countries of Southern Europe increased, Staten Island became always more cosmopolitan in its population.”

Staten Island Rapid Transit railroad, 1907.

Soon Greeks, Poles, Hungarians, and later Puerto Ricans, Koreans, Mexicans and others were relocating to an ever-growing island.

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