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Immigrant Heritage Day – Taking a Walk to the Immigrant East Village

Immigration history in New York City is long, storied and full of notable events and movements which are personal and political. The City of New York is the ultimate city of immigrants and migrants. On April 17, 1907, more immigrants entered the U.S. through Ellis Island than any other day in history – it took 11,747 people to set the record. This date has been named Immigrant Heritage Day, which kicks off Immigrant Heritage Week. Today, we join the rest of New York in celebrating our collective immigrant heritage. According to NYC.gov, Immigrant Heritage Week’s theme this year is A City of Immigrants: United in Action.

Ellis Island in the 1900s was a very busy place. April 17th set the record.

GVSHP is no stranger to research, oral histories, and community programming that highlights immigration. This past summer, my colleague even created an exhaustive and marvelous roundup of GVSHP Blog posts about Immigration and the Village. This year, to celebrate Immigrant Heritage Day, GVSHP will unite in action with our friends at the Urban Archive, and our program participants, to experience some of the East Village’s immigrant history. The walking tour features ten locations and small businesses in the East Village that hold immigrant history. Read on for a sneak peek of some of the spots we’ll be visiting. And, check the Urban Archive app starting tomorrow to take the Immigrant Heritage walk yourself!

Carole Teller’s 1970’s photograph of the Madina Masjid Mosque

The Madina Mosque was founded in 1976. Dubbed the “Muslim cab drivers’ spiritual pit stop,” in an article by the Villager, it is the third oldest active mosque in New York City, daily bringing in hundreds of followers for prayer and worship.
In a beautiful profile in the Villager, we learn that the mosque is one of the city’s oldest, having been established by Bengali immigrants who owned some of the original Indian restaurants on E. Sixth St. Uddim Akmmonir, a Bengali cabdriver, has been involved with the mosque since 1989. He arrived from Bangladesh in 1983 and lived a few years in Queens before relocating to the East Village in 1998.
In the 1990s, the East Village was home to many Arab and Bengali immigrants, though a decades-long wave of gentrification has resulted in many relocating to the outer boroughs. New York’s Muslims have emigrated from a wide swath of the planet, covering North and West Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. They bring different cultural experiences and different languages but share their faith.
The nondescript brick exterior resembles a typical East Village building, except for the lighted signs in English and Arabic that wrap around it, reading, “There is none worthy of worship but Allah. Mohammed is the messenger of Allah.” Above the building’s back corner, away from the street, a demure minaret peeks up. Unlike traditional minarets, which are large enough for a person to stand inside and call the faithful to prayer, this one is only about 8 feet tall. The call to prayer is sung out from the front door, without a microphone, its only amplification provided by the wind.

Fresco Gelateria occupies the ground floor of an early 19th-century building, one of just a handful of fine Federal row houses left in the neighborhood.

Fresco Gelateria is a GVSHP Business of the Month and an immigrant-owned business which occupies the ground floor of a 19th Century building at 138 Second Avenue. The building is one of just a handful of fine Federal row houses left in the neighborhood. The store is owned and run by Anna, Ilias, and Vanessa Iliopoulos– three siblings who grew up in South Africa and Greece. They considered opening their business in Cyprus or Dubai, but eventually found their way to the East Village of Manhattan. Both they and their customers consider that a very good (and yummy!) thing.

From left, Anna, Vanessa, and Ilias Iliopoulos. The Greek word on the wall at right means “ice cream.”

The atmosphere inside Fresco is as contemporary as the façade’s Flemish-bond brickwork is historic – yet the siblings feel an intimacy in their space that translates into happy customers and new friendships. “It really does kind of feel like a village,” says Ilias. He hears many patrons “wanting to respect and wanting to belong” in the neighborhood’s culture. There are plenty of regulars with whom the siblings enjoy exchanging news, gifts and playful banter. Among the student clientele, they’ve noticed that Cooper Union students, in particular, will introduce themselves and take an interest in the proprietors.

“People are super happy that you’re doing well, and they bump into people they know,” Vanessa says of the daily scene.

Carole Teller’s 1970s photograph of Ray’s Candy Shop

Ray’s Candy Store is also a GVSHP business of the month and an anchor in an ever-changing environment.  The store is owned by an Iranian immigrant named Asghar Ghahraman who bought the place over forty years ago. Now in his eighties, he continues to run the store to this day — half his life! Ray’s has been in the East Village for years, providing the little things that make a neighborhood livable – a coffee on the way to work, an ice cream on the way to the park, fries late on a weekend night.

Ray has weathered rent problems and health problems to keep his business open. He says he’s feeling okay – planning to work the overnight shifts this weekend as usual – and doing okay with the landlord too, on a year-to-year lease. Let’s hope his beacon keeps blazing because clearly, we need him. (From our Business of the Month profile)

St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church parish was organized in 1847 by Rev. Richard Kein, pastor of the Church of the Nativity. Construction began in 1848 by Irish shipwrights for those fleeing the Great Irish Famine. The architect of the church was Patrick Keely, who hand-carved the gothic altarpieces himself. The church was dedicated by Bishop John Hughes on December 2, 1849.
“In its early years, St. Brigid’s served as a haven for Irish immigrants fleeing the famine, and later as a stalwart presence for the ever-changing immigrant populations to the neighborhood, from the Polish and Germans, to Ukrainians and Puerto Ricans,” wrote Adam Farley, when the church was re-opened in 2013 after almost ten years of renovations and efforts to save the building, which the Archdiocese of New York had tried to close. Instead, the pews were replaced and the exterior restored to resemble the original brownstone. Stained glass windows were brought from St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Harlem, which closed in 2003. The parish also merged with St. Emeric’s nearby, and the parish and the church are now known as St. Brigid and St. Emeric.

You can find our Immigrant Heritage Walking Tour on the Urban Archive App, which is available for download from the App store for iPhones. Click “Walks” and scroll down to find our walking tour, learn more about the route and the sites on the walk, and enjoy the functions of the App to take photos and compare vintage photos with how the buildings, blocks, and streetscapes are today.

We’re so glad to be visiting and supporting GVSHP Businesses of the Month on Immigrant Heritage Day. Learn more about our Business of the Month initiative, and support the Small Business Jobs Survival Act! Tell us what special small business you would like to see featured next? Just click here to fill out a brief form.

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