I have been waiting to come to the Feast of Our Lady of Carmel in East Harlem to see the dancing of the Giglio for months since I had finished the walk in the neighborhood. I was not sure of what to expect since there really are not many Italians still living in the neighborhood. The church I am sure still attracts people from all over the city and I could see that my the members of the lift team.
It was a glorious day for the feast. Warm, sunny and no humidity. You could not have asked for a better day to be outside. The Dance of the Giglio started at 1:00pm and wanting to get into the city early, I took the 10:00am bus into the city. Who knew that I would get uptown two hours early.
I started my day with a Bacon, Egg and Cheese Sandwich at Blue Sky Deli at the corner of 110th and First Avenue, home to the famous ‘Chopped Cheese Sandwich’ (see review on TripAdvisor & DiningonaShoeStringinNYC.wordpress.com). I swear, I don’t know what it is about this little hole in the wall deli but the food here is so good! The sandwich was one of the best breakfast sandwiches I had eaten outside my absolute favorite one, the Sausage McMuffin with Cheese at McDonalds. The sandwich was loaded with freshly cooked eggs, turkey bacon and American cheese. It was put on a hoagie roll and then pressed. For $4.00, it was a steal.
I took my sandwich and sat in Jefferson Park as I have had many times with my lunch and watched the world go by. A lot has changed since March and April. The park was in full swing and all over the place people were playing soccer, baseball, handball or swimming in their giant pool. It was a perfect day to be outside and relax.
All over the park, there were all sorts of birthday parties and family barbecues going on. Families really use this park and it was nice to see multi generations eating together. As I have said before, it is nice to see people socializing without a cell phone glued to their hands. There were lots of balloons and decorations and the boom of Spanish music to entertain them. Its fun to sit and watch people have a good time.
The Feast of My Lady of Carmel started around 1:00pm but the dance started late and everyone finally started to gather around the Giglio around 2:15pm. I give these men and women a lot of credit. The Giglio looked really heavy considering it was the structure itself plus about five musicians and the lead singer. One of the trumpet players was a little ‘zaftig’ to say the least. I will not be participating in this anytime soon.
The program started off with a prayer the patron saint, St. Anthony:
(from the prayer sheet):
Sant’Antonio of Padua: “The Wonder Worker”
St. Anthony is know as “The Wonder Worker” for the many miracles and conversions attributed to him. Although quiet and unassuming he was regarded as a sensational preacher in his time. A Franciscan priest and professor of theology, he gave up teaching to be assigned to preach all over Italy, attracting huge crowds wherever he went.
St. Anthony is often depicted as holding the infant Jesus as it is said that the Christ child appeared to him in visions.
He is known as being of particular help in retrieving lost articles because of a story in which a book of psalms that had been stolen was returned due to his intercession.
He died June 13th at the age of 36. He was canonized the following year and declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XII in 1946.
The Giglio Society of East Harlem’s roots can be traced to a town several miles from Nola called Brusciana. The annual dancing of the Giglio began in 1800’s inspired by Francisco Vivolo’s vow to St. Anthony, the patron Saint of Brusciana. Francisco vowed to dance the Giglio annually if St. Anthony would help his gravely ill son recover from a very serious illness. The prayers were answered and the dancing of the Giglio in honor of St. Anthony began in Brusciana and still continues today.
Immigrants from Brusciana continue the feast and uphold this grand tradition brought to this country by our forefathers. Our objective is to pass onto our children, as was done with us, the tradition of o’Giglio, truly one of the greatest wonders of the world!”
After the prayer was over, the crowd went wild and the ceremony began. These handlers really worked hard as they broke several boards lifting this structure. It was amazing as some of them were smoking cigars or drinking a beer while they were doing it. The guys all looked like military, construction workers, police and firemen. Some did their job with ease, others looked like it was going to be a long day.
After the prayer, their master of ceremony, Jimmy Alleva , sang a few songs in Italian and I swear that his guy had the most beautiful singing voice. I read his bio online and it seems that he sings in feasts all over the tri-state area. Even though the guy is self-taught, you would swear he is a classically trained opera singer. After he sang two songs in Italian, he ‘brought the house down’ with the crowd and there was a massive applause . Talk about bringing you closer to God when someone can touch a crowd like this. People were giving him ovations. Then came the lifts.
Like I said, some of these guys were experts and did it with ease and others were really struggling. They lifted that Giglio all over the neighborhood, up and down the street then to the church and back and then the Ladies of the Giglio did there lift and credit to all the women that lifted it along with the men because these ladies held their own. The Ladies of the Giglio did there lift with some of the men and these women were strong. They did a great job as well.
The lifts of the Giglio went on for quite awhile being dedicated to various families who must have made donations to the church. After that it was festival time. One of the announcers said that the feast just keeps getting bigger every year and you could tell by the crowd that more and more people are venturing back into this neighborhood for the afternoon. The place was packed.
The best part was the fresh zeppoli that were cooked right in front of me. There were not that many food vendors on the block so they had control of the whole crowd. For $5.00 for six, these zeppoli were some of the best I have had. They came right out of the fryer and loaded with powdered sugar. I devoured those fast.
I walked around the rest of the feast, looking at the small rides and the games of chance. This feast is only two blocks long but a lot of people are packed into this small space. The band kept playing for the rest of the afternoon and groups of families sat under tents on the sidewalks catching up with old friends and members of the church.
It is going to be interesting the fate of this festival in an ever gentrifying neighborhood that has switched from Italian to Spanish to Hipster. The neighborhood is changing fast even in the time I have walked it. More and more is under scaffolding.
I stayed for about two hours and then decided to walk around the neighborhood. My walk took me past the Jefferson playground, down FDR Drive to the dreaded East River Houses (they still have not finished that playground facing the drive) and I walked across the pedestrian bridge to Randalls-Ward Island and walked across the explore the island. I walked the entire length of the island and it took about two hours.
Randalls-Ward Island is a island in the East River bend off Hell Gate and is connected to Manhattan by two pedestrian bridges one on 105th Street and the other on 125th Street plus the bridges leading you to the South Bronx. The island is part of New York County which is where Manhattan is located but it is truly one of those hidden ‘gems’ of the city that most people don’t know exist. I never knew it was there. When I crossed over the pedestrian bridge, I never knew of islands and their dark past. You would never know it from the new playgrounds and ball fields.
From what I had read online, the islands were once separated by a stream called ‘Little Hellgate’ that was filled in years ago to create one island. The reconfiguring of land that you see all over Manhattan, like in Marblehead and in Battery City. The islands were originally used for farming by the American Indians, Dutch and English but it was during the Civil War, they started being used for a dumping ground.
At various times up until World War II, the islands housed a potter’s field, homeless shelters, a ‘Insane Asylum’, small pox ward and a dumping ground for orphans. They were considered ‘islands for the undesirables’ and most of the city’s problems were shipped to the island, similar to the role that Riker’s Island plays today.
You would never know it now with all the new playgrounds, picnic sites, ball and soccer fields, concession stands and thank God, new bathrooms and water fountains. When I got to the island, everything was in full swing on a beautiful sunny day.
You thought the parties were in full swing in Jefferson Park, you should come to Randalls-Ward Island. All over the edges of the island were barbecues with meat sizzling on the grill, birthday parties with balloons with pink and blue all over the place and Spanish music blasting over their heads. These were not small parties but big family get-togethers. Its nice to see people having such a good time.
Even the ‘hipsters’ are discovering the island mostly hanging around that southern part of the island that faces the Upper East Side and the rapidly developing Queen’s waterfront. Theirs is the quieter section closer to the pedestrian bridge with the better vantage points over-looking the new ‘hipster’ enclaves.
Walking the island took me close to two hours as I walked through the parks and ball fields and under the bridges that crisscrossed the island. There were many natural flower gardens on the northwestern part of the island overlooking Astoria Park on the other side of the river. The Wildflower Meadow was in full bloom and was attracting all sorts of butterflies and honeybees. As you walked in there were all sorts of benches to relax and just watch the view.
The island is still has remnants of its past. I passed the water treatment plant, a much needed addition to an ever growing city that seemed quiet that day and the FDNY Training Academy which was closed for the afternoon. You could see from the street the size of the academy and how much training these guys really get. It is isolated from the rest of the island.
On the most Northern part of the island , the police have their back offices and training facility and in between both of these are ball fields in which many leagues were playing that day. The nice part was when following the paths there were plenty of new bathrooms and places to just relax as well as snack bars where the prices were not unreasonable.
The New York Psychiatric Center still sits on the northern part of the island like a fortress. The ironic part of this is that it is surrounded by paths of flowers, marshes and lagoons that have been built around the island to clean the water. The Water’s Edge Garden sits just past the Center and offers the nicest views of the new Harlem being built.
The western part of the island has the nicest walking paths by the water and many different gardens that are in full bloom. I passed the Icahn Stadium, where a small game was going on and could hear the cheers in the background. I kept wondering why such a great set of parks was not being better taken advantage of by the entire city.
I rounded the path back to the pedestrian bridge and while walking across tried to spot the ‘spotters’ that everyone talked about at the East River Houses. I saw a lot of open windows on the top of the complex but not a sole in sight. I will avoid this place in the future now.
I walked back to the Q subway on East 96th Street going full circle since my day at Coney Island and took it down to Little Italy downtown. I had such a craving for Italian food that needed to be filled.
Little Italy now is just three blocks by one block and its barely that anymore. Even in between the famous restaurants that still exist, new boutiques are opening. The area is now squeezed into Mulberry Street from Canal to Broome Streets with a smidgen of restaurants up to East Houston, the original border of the neighborhood. Anything above Broome Street is not longer ‘Little Italy’ but ‘NoLiTa’ (North of Little Italy).
This area has been becoming trendy for about twenty years. Most of the old Italian businesses have closed by the late nineties and have become boutiques and non-Italian restaurants. If my grandfather who was raised here had a crystal ball and had owned one of these buildings, we would have been set.
There is even a change from the ‘red sauce’ restaurants of the past to more sophisticated Italian dining leaving the old restaurants to the tourists. One by one they are closing down or changing hands. It shows in the food quality.
I went to the Grotta Azzurra at 177 Mulberry Street (See reviews on TripAdvisor), where I have been eating for years and the food quality and service have gone way down. While I ordered my dinner, the table next to me the guest was fighting with his waiter on a glass of wine that he had ordered that he was not happy with and the waiter was giving him attitude. Not smart in an economy like this.
The food was mediocre at best that night. The fried Mozzarella was cooked perfectly on the outside and not cooked on the inside and I had to send it back. The second batch was better. The manicotti was good and the sauce was decent but the runner who served me the dish dumped so much parmesan cheese on top all I could taste was the cheese. It was such a waste. The service was good but not great. All of this reflected in the amount of people eating there that night. Most of the other restaurants were much busier than here.
I walked back down Canal Street to the E subway and back to Port Authority to go home. I must have walked five miles today but got to see so much of what makes this city great. The cultural festivals of certain parts of the city have not died yet and still thrive with more attention from outlets like YouTube. It was an interesting afternoon into my own family’s past.