From Sicily to Elizabeth Street

Housing and Social Change among Italian Immigrants, 1880-1930

By Donna R. Gabaccia

Subjects: Italian Studies
Paperback : 9780873957694, 174 pages, June 1984
Hardcover : 9780873957687, 174 pages, June 1984

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Table of contents






Environment and Behavior

From Agrotown to Tenement

Chapter One: Sicilian Social Ideals in the Nineteenth Century

Family and Familism

Occupation and Social Class

The Social Origins of Conflicting Ideals

Chapter Two: Residential Choice in the Sicilian Agrotown

The Physical Setting

Choosing a House

Occupation, Class and Kin

House and Household

Residential Mobility


Chapter Three: Everyday Life and Sicilian Society

A Typical Day

Activity, Time and Location

Agrotown Social Patterns


Chapter Four: Sicilian Migrants

Familism and Migration

The Social Organization of Migration

Class and Immigrant Occupations

Chapter Five: Tenement Residential Patterns


New Restraints

New Opportunities

New Restraint or New Ideal? The Malleable Household and the Kitchen Salotto

Environmental Change and Residential Patterns in New York

Chapter Six: Everyday Life in New York

A Typical Day

Activity, Time and Location

Environmental Change and Everyday Life

Chapter Seven: Immigrant Society and Culture

The Nuclear Family and American Individualism

A Family Social Cycle

The Question of Class

Social and Cultural Change

Appendix A: Social Ideals in Sicilian Proverbs

Appendix B: A Note on Sources and Methods



Sicily and Migration

Immigrant Italians

Environment and Behavior


For many immigrants, the move from Sicily to a New York tenement was accompanied by rapid, significant, and often surprisingly satisfactory changes in a wide variety of social relationships. Many of these changes can be traced to the influence of a changing housing environment.


From Sicily to Elizabeth Street analyzes the relationship of environment to social behavior. It revises our understanding of the Italian-American family and challenges existing notions of the Italian immigrant experience by comparing everyday family and social life in the agrotowns of Sicily to life in a tenement neighborhood on New York's Lower East Side at the turn of the century.

Moving historical understanding beyond such labels as "uprooted" and "huddled masses," the book depicts the immigrant experience from the perspective of the immigrants themselves. It begins with a uniquely detailed description of the Sicilian backgrounds and moves on to recreate Elizabeth Street in lower Manhattan, a neighborhood inhabited by some 8,200 Italians.

The author shows how the tightly knit conjugal family became less important in New York than in Sicily, while a wider association of kin groups became crucial to community life. Immigrants, who were mostly young people, began to rely more on their related peers for jobs and social activities and less on parents who remained behind.

Interpreting their lives in America, immigrants abandoned some Sicilian ideals, while other customs, though Sicilian in origin, assumed new and distinctive forms as this first generation initiated the process of becoming Italian-American.

Donna R. Gabaccia is Assistant Professor of History and Political Science at Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry, New York.