Department of Health

The Lung Block: A New York City Slum & Its Forgotten Italian Immigrant Community

On April 25, 2019, the Department of Records and Information Services opened a new exhibit: The Lung Block: A New York City Slum & Its Forgotten Italian Immigrant Community. Set during the Progressive Era of the last century, curators Kerri Culhane, an architectural historian, and cultural critic Stefano Morello tell a story of immigration, public health, and housing reform as reflected in the experience of one block in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Visiting Nurse in tenement backyard, Jessie Tarbox Beals, ca. 1912.

Visiting Nurse in tenement backyard, Jessie Tarbox Beals, ca. 1912.

Co-sponsored by The Center for the Humanities of The Graduate Center, CUNY, the Calandra Italian American Institute, and Queens College Makerspace, the exhibit will be on display at DORIS’ 31 Chambers Street gallery from April 26 to August 29, 2019.

Co-curator Stefano Morello is a native of Torino, Italy. In 2013, Stefano set out to solve a family mystery. He knew that in 1913 his great-grandmother, Salvatrice Nigido had emigrated to New York City from Militello in Val di Catania, a small town in Sicily. She left behind a 5-year old daughter and was never heard from again. Thanks to the availability of on-line indices to New York City vital records and the Municipal Archives’ mail-order service he obtained his great-grandmother’s death certificate. He learned that she had died in the Lung Block of influenza in 1920. In 2015, Stefano came to New York City for graduate studies at CUNY Graduate Center. While his dissertation research focused on the punk world in the San Francisco Bay area, he also decided to try to learn more about his great-grandmother’s life in New York. His research led him to Kerri Culhane, and the work she did researching the history of the ‘Two Bridges’ neighborhood of the Lower East Side. Together, they realized the story of this area, and specifically the Lung Block, was more complicated than the accepted narrative that had assigned to it such dire conditions that its destruction was inevitable.

The following excerpt from the exhibition narrative recounts the story of Salvatrice Nigido and some of her fellow villagers.


THE PLACENTES & FAVARAS ARRIVE, 1904-1905

In 1904, Salvatore Placente arrived in New York City from Militello in Val di Catania. He was the first paesano from Militello to set foot in the Lung Block, preceding over 1,000 fellow-villagers who settled in the neighborhood over the following twenty years. The community from Militello was one of the largest on the block, and one of several Eastern Sicilian clusters that coexisted with enclaves from Italian districts as far apart—culturally and geographically—as Abruzzi, Piacenza, Western Sicily, Irpinia, and Tuscany. Although the general narratives treated the Lung Block as a discrete entity, its residents were indeed part of a larger community that extended well beyond its borders.

Passport photo of Salvatore Placente, 1921. United States Passport Applications, 1795-1925 Collection, National Archives and Records Administration. Courtesy of FamilySearch.

In 1905, Salvatore’s brother Sebastiano and brother-in-law Francesco Favara joined him in his rented tenement at 31 Hamilton Street. Unlike the Gaimaris, who came from a family of artisans, the Placentes and Favaras worked as peasants in their native land and arrived in New York at a time when the competition for manual work was fierce.

In 1913, Salvatrice Nigido fled Militello in rural Eastern Sicily to join her brother, Mario, and her sisters-in-law Arcangela, Genueffa, and Maristella Ragusa, in New York City. She said her goodbyes to her daughter Antonia, only five years old at the time, with the ultimate goal of earning enough money in the new world to eventually reunite. However, things did not go as planned. In the Lung Block, Salvatrice became romantically involved with Salvatore Placente, at that time president of the Independent Sons of Militello Society, and a prominent figure in the Militellese colony. Though her family disperses—brother Mario back to Militello and her sisters-in-law to Plainfield, NJ, Salvatrice stayed in the Lung Block. After seven years working as a seamstress in the tenement apartment she shared with Placente at 47 Market Street, she passed away in February 1920, due to the pandemic influenza still ravaging the city. She was barely thirty-two. Her family back in Italy would not learn her fate until 2013, when great-grandson Stefano Morello uncovered her story and through it, the story of the Lung Block.

Photo of Salvatrice Nigido, 1919. Courtesy of Stefano Morello.

During his first year in the United States, Salvatore held several blue-collar jobs in and out of the city, mostly seasonal construction work common to Italian laborers. In 1905, Salvatore embarked on a white-collar career as a clerk for the local banca La Sicilia, serving the Militellese community from 61 Catherine Street. A banca—combination travel agency, post office, and bank—was a lifeline between the Italian immigrant and the home country. Francesco and Sebastiano continued to work as laborers in the neighborhood. Between 1907 and 1913, all the women in the family, Concetta and Grazia (Salvatore’s sisters) and Nicoletta (Sebastiano’s wife), also immigrated from Militello to New York City.


GAIMARIS, PLACENTES & FAVARAS IN THE 1910S-20S

The Gaimaris took ownership of the property at 142 Cherry in 1921, while continuing to act as brokers for other buildings in and around the block. Together with the Rofranos, the Garones, and the Torregrossas, the Gaimaris were among the Lung Block’s prominenti: middle-upper class Italian professionals and business owners, often earlier-comers, who gained financial and political prominence within the community. The family’s influence in local politics and their lobbying for neighborhood improvement continued throughout the decade. This is exemplified by the petition filed by Albert Gaimari in 1922 to convert the neighborhood from unrestricted use to residential and business, to protect the thriving community that had come to life.

In 1910, the Placentes & Favaras lived in different units of the building at 148 Cherry Street, owned by the Gaimaris. By 1915 on the Lung Block, most Italian residents were renting from fellow-countrymen. Although they tended to move frequently, Italians generally stayed within the neighborhood, in proximity to work, kin, and fellow-villagers. This trend of frequent residential mobility decreased as they were able to find steadier employment and more desirable living conditions. Between 1904 and 1914, the Placentes resided at several addresses on (or in close proximity to) the block: 31 Hamilton, 2 and 8 Monroe Street, 153 and 148 Cherry. Despite being employed in different parts of the city and different lines of work, after 1914, Salvatore and his siblings finally established lasting living quarters in the neighborhood: at 122 Cherry, on the Lung Block; and ½ a block away at 47 Market. …

Map of the “Lung Block” from A Brief History of the Campaign Against Tuberculosis in New York City, Department of Health, 1908. NYC Municipal Library.

Readers are invited to learn more of the fate of the Gamaris, Placentes and Favaras and their homes in the “Lung Block” of the Lower East Side in the new exhibit The Lung Block: A New York City Slum & Its Forgotten Italian Immigrant Community, on display at DORIS’ 31 Chambers Street gallery from April 26 to August 29, 2019.

Mass Inoculation or: How New York Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Polio Vaccine

As each summer rolled around during the first half of the 20th century, parents, children and health officials dreaded outbreaks of poliomyelitis, commonly called polio. This was especially true in New York City, where people lived in such close proximity to each other. The polio virus is spread by person-to-person contact, is extremely contagious and can affect the spinal cord and brain. In many cases it causes paralysis and can be fatal. Polio was often referred to as “infantile paralysis,” because it was especially prevalent in children, though people of all ages could contract the disease.

The Flu Epidemic of 1918

We all have heard warnings about the flu season. It seems to be following a typical pattern as occurs almost every decade—1947, 1957, 1968, 1977…But there is an outlier in the routine: the flu pandemic of 1918 which killed 55 million people around the world and is considered the deadliest health crisis in modern history and perhaps, ever.

1918 began in a regular manner. New Yorkers were focused on the Great War that raged overseas, food rationing and other mundane issues. 

Got Milk (Regulations)?

Throughout the early and mid-1900s, dairy products were a significant source of foodborne illnesses. Hundreds of children died due to the consumption of milk, leading to the 1911 creation of milk stations that dispensed free pasteurized milk. During the 1930s and 40s the New York City Department of Health, under commissioners Shirley W. Wynne (1928-1933) and John L. Rice (1934-1942), took many steps to regulate the production and storage of dairy products, which were regularly consumed in high quantities by New Yorkers of all ages. Milk and ice cream were of particular concern.