submitted by Steve Frangos on 12.10.2006
Steve Frangos, c. 2006
Contact, Steve Frangos
‘Gaslight New York’ is the phrase meant to invoke that transition period of the 1880s into the 1890s. The 1890s, also known as the ‘Gay 90s,’ was the era that marks the beginnings of New York City as it is today. For it was in 1898, that the five separate boroughs of Manhattan Island, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Stanton Island were consolidated into one common city. Greeks were living and working in all the boroughs long before their consolidation.
This was the era when the new urban environment was just developing in the United States. Tenements as a form of housing had begun to appear in New York in the 1840s. By the 1880s, with the influx of thousands of arriving immigrants they had become a blight on the city; disease ridden, prone to fires and overpopulated by anyone’s standards. With horse drawn carriages and wagons being the prominent mode of transportation the peddler’s carts and stands further clogged the narrow city streets which had never been designed for all this new culture of congestion.
It is critical to note that as New York City entered the post-Civil War era native-born Americans no longer able to live on farms began to enter the city. With the massive influx of new arrivals from Europe and those from rural America all surging into urban centers around the nation turmoil was inevitable.
Complicating this whole new social setting were the thousands of abandoned children. These children indicated the breakdown of the American family. Greek immigrants who themselves arrived between the ages of 6 and 17 years old faced this new metropolis with considerable trepidation and stoic bravery.
Licenses and Laws
Laws and licenses to uphold those laws are one thing and the experiences of Greek peddlers along the sidewalks of New York quite another.
In the September 23, 1899, edition of New York Times we read: “The case of Alderman John S. Roddy, who is charged with bribery by a Greek flower dealer, was before Magistrate Zeller again yesterday in the Harlem Court. After a short taking of testimony it was again adjourned until next Thursday. Councilman Herman Sulzer testified that he asked Alderman Roddy to vote for a permit to the Greek flower dealer to erect a stand at Eighth Avenue and One Hundred and Sixteenth Street. Roddy refused, because he said the Greek insulted him. One day Mr. Roddy was not in the Board of Aldermen and the Councilman had the permit passed. It was subsequently revoked when Mr. Roddy discovered that it had been passed over his head.”
Precarious relationships that existed between the Greek peddlers and city officials remained the norm for decades.
On July 1902, Stiero Bucheros’ fruit stand stood “against the western Central Park wall, on the southern side of Eighty-Sixth Street, a little red shanty filled with a choice assortment of flowers.” A neighborhood police man who according to this news story, “had many a scrap with the young venders” on seeing Bucheros’ stand knew it to be illegal and went to arrest Bucheros. But the Greek peddler was prepared.
“He paid little attention to what the policeman said about the law, and about the necessity for him to come along with him to the Arsenal Police Station in Central Park, and began fumbling in his inside pocket. Presently he pulled out a paper, and there, sure enough, was a permit properly signed by Commissioner Willcox, and dated April 23, permitting the Greek to have and to hold the red shanty, and to sell the flowers it contained (New York Times).” We hear no more of Bucheros but the disputes over the street side stands did not end.
The growing conflict between various levels of civic government is clearly evident in the topsy turvy legal turmoil Peter Rigas experienced. When we find Rigas it is Wednesday August 27, 1902 he is the propreietor of the fruit stand in front of the 89 Park Row, Manhattan. When we meet Rigas he was “jubilant to-day over a decision by Justice Giegerich in the Supreme Court. Rigas got a license to keep his stand from the Board of Aldermen and the Council on November 2 of last year. In March he received a notice from the Bureau of Incumbrances to remove his stand. The Greek Society counsel obtained an injunction, restraining the superintendent of the Bureau of Incumbrances, the Commissioner of Public Works and all their employees, servants, etc, from interfering with the stand during the continuance of Rigas’ license.
Associate counsel to assist the Corporation Counsel in fighting this injunction appeared and pending a hearing on the matter a resolution revoking the license was introduced in the Board of Aldermen and passed. This resolution was not signed by the Mayor, but, at the expiration of a certain time, it was assumed to have become operative and Rigas was arrested for not vacating. Hauled before Magistrate Zeller, he was, however, discharged, the magistrate holding that the board had no right to revoke the license.
Subsequently dispossess proceedings were begun, but these, also, were squelched. In the meantime, a date which had been settled upon for the hearing of the original injunction was set forward ten days on application made by the Corporation Counsel and opposed by counsel for Rigas, and on July 18 Justice Giegerich heard the case. The point was made that the present Board of Aldermen had no right to modify or revoke a license granted by the former board and Council. The justice ordered the injunction continued and allowed $10 costs for Rigas. In his decision he observed that the Mayor and the License Bureau had the only power over licenses at present (Brooklyn Eagle).”
Greek fruit stands continued to receive licenses and continued to be capriciously smashed all over New York City well into the 1900s.
The Dirty Greeks!
Another form of ‘attack’ is to treat an individual as a sub-human. For the Protestants, and their schismatic interpretation of the Bible, lepers are those who are totally outcast not simply from society but from all that is holy. It is more than a little revealing that WASPs in New York City found Greeks to quite literally leprous.
Under the headline, “A Leprous Greek Peddler” we hear the following story: “The sanitary officers have under observation a case of suspected leprosy. The man who is supposed to be a leper is a Greek peddler who lives at a lodging house in Oliver Street. The name of the patient and his domicile the officers refuse to make public. The first information of the case came from Dr. Alonzo Blauvelt, of the Health Department, who informed Dr. Cyrus Edson, Chief of the Bureau of Contagious Diseases, that he had been called to attend the peddler yesterday and at once diagnosed the case as leprosy, one of the worst cases of the disease he had ever seen.
The patient came to this city a short time ago from Mexico and was in urgent need of hospital treatment. Two of the inspectors of the Health Department paid a visit to him but they could not decide that the man was suffering from leprosy, although it is probable from the symptoms that he is. He has been isolated and will be kept under observation. Dr. Edson will see the man to-day in company with Dr. Piffard, the dermatologist of the department, and it is expected that a correct diagnosis will be arrived at (May 6, 1891 New York Times).”
So although Dr. Edson asserts the unnamed peddler’s case of leprosy is “one of the worst cases of the disease he had ever seen” we hear that “it is expected that a correct diagnosis will be arrived at” by and by.
If this were an isolated case we could simply shrug it off as an oddity. Expect for the strange case of Georgios Gerondakos. “It was said at the Barge Office yesterday that Georgios Gerondakos, a Greek peddler, who was arrested in Newark, N.J. by an immigrant inspector, is not suffering with leprosy. He arrived in his country on October 24. He was committed to the Long Island College Hospital, in Brooklyn, but escaped, and since that time the immigration authorities have been looking for him. He was taken before a surgeon, who examined him and found that he had recovered from a disease from which he now is still under observation (Brooklyn Eagle March 12, 1899).”
On September 12, 1910, Peter Coropulas, who was on his way to Greece and literally in the ticket office was arrested “on suspicion of being an escaped leper for whom the police of a dozen cities have been looking (New York Times September 13, 1910). While Coropulas “denied vigorously the charge made against him,” especially since the police were looking for a Greek named, “John Kekas” was still taken into custody. “Dr. Zimmerman of the Hudson Street Hospital was of the opinion that the man detained had leprosy” but he “said the patient told him that he had been held up in several Western cities, but that he had been discharged each time, after investigation.” Doesn’t it seem odd that none of those doctors had attempted to cure Coropulas? And how did the esteemed Dr. Zimmerman know what leprosy looks like? From his many years of experience with that disease among those he treated in New York City, perhaps?
No apologies seemed to have been necessary. Just another diseased WOP. For those of you not familiar with the 1880 to 1920 era of the massive wave of immigration, “wop,” is an Ellis Island term. With so many people entering the country, and at such speed and in such overwhelming numbers, port officials assessing and processing the necessary legal papers ended up writing in caulk on the backs of immigrants who could not speak English. “W.O.P.” was only one of the short hand terms written on people’s shoulders, it meant, “with out papers.” In the confusion and reassessment common on Ellis Island more than one dazed newcomer would enter lower Manhattan with WOP on his or her back. The transformation of that signification into a denigrating term soon followed.
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
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