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Building Little Italy: Philadelphia's Italians before Mass Migration.

Building Little Italy: Philadelphia's Italians before Mass Migration. By Richard N. Juliani (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998. xxi plus 398pp. $50.00/cloth $19.95/paperback).

In this useful study, Richard Juliani builds on the methods and insights of thirty years of research on Italian American life during the mass migrations, but charts a new course by examining the years before 1870. He opens new areas of inquiry while also addressing questions central to the historiography on the later period. Using the methods preferred by ethnic historians since the 1970s--the social history of one community--Juliani has mined a rich variety of local sources. His book describes the growth of Philadelphia's Italian-born population from several dozen in the late eighteenth century to over five hundred by 1870. During these years, Americans' attitudes towards new arrivals from Italy changed significantly, as did migrants' understanding of themselves.

The earliest migrants from Italy to Philadelphia came as culture bearers to a colonial society with few intellectuals and a limited cultural life. They brought with them cultural forms (baroque music, opera, etc.) identifiable as "Italian" even before a united and independent state of Italy came into being (during the 1860s). They both enjoyed the admiration of Americans and sought influence and employment among Americans, without forming a cohesive community. Most were northern Italians.

During the early nineteenth century, cultural missionaries gave way to artisans, street musicians, vendors of plaster figurines, entrepreneurs in a varieties of trades, and an occasional nationalist exile fleeing the political turmoil of Italy's movement for independence. Juliani finds evidence of the first chain migrations (from Liguria) and of settlement in South Philadelphia--the district that would eventually become the largest Italian immigrant neighborhood in the city. During the 1850s and l860s, the first institutions of the community appeared, including an Italian Catholic parish and a mutual aid society. While men outnumbered women, most immigrants already lived in family groups. Cognizant of changes occurring in the homeland, Philadelphia's immigrants increasingly thought of themselves as Italians (rather than as members of regional groups) but seemed less interested than New York's Italians in political controversies in the homeland.

Only in 1870--e.g., after Italy's decade of unification--does Juliani see an Italian-American community coalescing in Philadelphia. Concentration in South Philadelphia became more pronounced, as did American opposition to their arrival. The group's self-consciousness also increased. Juliani associates rising ethnic identity with a new generation of Italian merchants who--unlike those of the past--built businesses by selling services (groceries, steamship tickets, etc.) to their fellow migrants rather than to Philadelphians more generally. Juliani links the emergence of the ethnic group to this new and self-consciously ethnic leadership of prosperous businessmen he calls "I primi prominenti--the first notables."

The strength of Juliani's study is his ability to tease out the implications of these early years of migration and settlement for the subsequent history of Philadelphia's Little Italy. Of these, two stand out. The first is how early one can discern the territorial basis for ethnic group formation in South Philadelphia.

The second is the absence of padroni (labor agents) drawing mass migrations to the city. The north Italian artisans, street traders and businessmen Juliani finds among migrants before 1860 did not become the recruiters of the southern Italian migrants who moved to Philadelphia in large numbers after 1870.

Juliani seems to have experienced greater difficulties in interpreting Philadelphia's early Italian residents within the context of their own times, especially before the Napoleonic Wars. He effectively links the history of the city's Italian settlers to the development of the city itself in the early nineteenth century--noting Philadelphia's declining importance as a port, its ethnic conflicts, and its diverse, industrial base. He also links events in Philadelphia to those in Italy during its risorgimento. But his major concern in analyzing the earliest migrants seems to have been to avoid filio-pietistic interpretations of the artists and musicians. To understand these migrants probably requires a deeper appreciation of their many more numerous contemporaries who went to London, Paris, Buenos Aires, Munich, Vienna, and Alessandria. A global and comparative approach may be the only way to grasp the significance of Philadelphia's Italians in this earliest era.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Gabaccia, Donna R.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1999
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