Neighborhood History

 Middletown's history begins in 1651, when Puritan settlers from the
Massachusetts Bay Colony founded the settlement of Mattabeseck, on the
land currently encompassing Middletown, Cromwell, Middlefield,
Portland, East Hampton, and (part of) Berlin. Three years later, 31
"taxable persons" lived at Mattabeseck, most residing close to the
Meeting House which had been constructed at the north end of the
current Main Street. The settlement was re-named Middletown in 1661
(according to one source this occurred as early as 1654),
acknowledging its location as the midpoint between the Hartford and
Saybrook settlements. While its founders had initially designated
Middletown's north end marked by the Meeting House as its center, the
city's first century saw residents and businesses beginning to shift
towards the central and southern sections of Main Street.

By 1790, Middletown was the biggest city in Connecticut, and its
salmon fisheries, livestock farms, textile mills, and brownstone
quarries (located in what is presently the city of Portland) shaped
its economy. During the late 18th century Middletown's economy
flourished, as merchants traded extensively with the West Indies. When
trade with the West Indies later became centralized around Boston, New
York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore after 1810, industry in Middletown
became manufacturing-based. During this period Middletown emerged as
the most prominent manufacturer of elastic webbing (as used in the
production of suspenders) in the world. This turn to manufacturing
prompted the influx of various immigrant groups, drawn to Middletown
by the prospect of employment in factories seeking cheap labor. The
mid 19th century also saw a great number of African Americans
migrating to Middletown, as the state of Connecticut banned slavery in
1830. Middletown's strong economy attracted freed slaves seeking
employment, though they faced considerable discrimination upon
arrival.

These new populations found housing in the tenements of Middletown's
North End, which was redeveloped in the 19th century and again became
heavily populated and commercially active. While tenements were
constructed on Ferry and Green Street to house the first waves of
Irish immigrants in the mid to late 19th century, the construction of
a railroad station marking the intersection of two major railway lines
also brought significant growth to the North End. This station
prompted the constructions of both Rapallo Avenue, which made train
access easier, as well as two nearby hotels.

The first wave of Irish immigrants arrived in Middletown between 1820
and 1845, and was primarily composed of Irish Catholics who found work
in the brownstone quarries. Between 1846 and 1900, another wave of
Irish immigrants arrived in Middletown, as the "Great Potato Blight"
left farmers and other agricultural workers desperate for a new life.
These immigrants found housing in North End tenements and, by 1880,
composed 30% of the North End's population. In her A Pictorial History
of Middletown, Liz Warner explains that these immigrants acquired more
economic stability when, in an effort to boost the economy in the
1870s, Middletown banks offered them loans and credit which enabled
them to purchase homes or commercial properties. This prospect of
homeownership prompted many Irish, who accounted for a third of the
neighborhood's population in 1880, to move out of the North End
tenements. By the 1890s most of these Irish had left the North End to
build their own homes in other parts of the city. New, southern
European immigrant populations would become the North End's new
residents, beginning a cyclical pattern of movement for the
neighborhood; as the older immigrant groups became more economically
successful and assimilated to a new life, they sought better housing
outside of the North End, allowing the next wave of immigrant groups
to settle there. As Warner describes in the case of the Irish, "The
assimilation of Irish-Americans accelerated with the arrival of the
new immigrants, leaving the Irish as "old stock" in a town that now
included Germans, Swedes, Jews, and Poles."

After the Irish, the most prominent group of immigrants to arrive in
Middletown were Italian, coming from both northern Italy and the town
of Mellili, Sicily. These Italians began to arrive in the 1880s,
after, supposedly, a Mellilian who had come to the United States to
manage a three-legged boy performer for Barnum and Bailey encouraged
his brother -Angelo Magnano- to immigrate as well. Magnano became
Middletown's first Sicilian immigrant, and in turn encouraged
Melliliian friends and family to follow. These immigrants moved into
the North End east of Main Street, essentially transforming this
neighborhood into an Italian-American enclave, or a 'new Mellili.' As
Warner states: "It was a self-sufficient community, where families
grew their vegetables in their front-lawn gardens, spoke Italian to
their neighbors and children, and preserved the old ways of Mellili."
Italian-Americans would become the most prominent ethnic group in
Middletown, by 1920 accounting for more than half of North End
residents east of Main Street, and by 1955 owning half of Middletown's
groceries and a third of its gas stations. While Italian-Americans did
move out of the North End after becoming more successful-as the
historically-rooted cycle went-many remained in the neighborhood
because it had become so heavily marked with an Italian identity. As
Warner notes, the Italian presence in Middletown and the North End
remains strong: "...With the help of Italian fraternal organizations
such as the Sons of Italy and the Garibaldi Society, as well as the
church [of San Sebastian, located on Washington Street and modeled
after a church in Mellili], subsequent generations have maintained
their Italian identity, and perpetuated Melillese traditions." Today
the North End neighborhood east of Main Street (including Ferry
Street, Green Street, and Rapallo Avenue) remains 52% Italian
American.

In addition to these primary ethnic groups, Middletown received many
African Americans during World War II, who emigrated from the South
seeking those jobs which many Middletown residents had vacated in
order to serve in the military. By 1970, 3,500 African Americans lived
in Middletown, accounting for 10% of the entire population.
Middletown's population continued to diversify as its Hispanic
population doubled between 1970 and 1990, while hundreds of Southeast
Asians settled in Middletown during the 1980s.

In the year 2000, the U.S. Census bureau documented Middletown's
population at 43,167 residents, 9,954 of which identified as
Italian/Italian-American. While the North End (which encompasses the
entire area between Washington Street and the Arrigoni Bridge,
stretching from Rt. 3 in the west to the Connecticut River in the
east) and specifically the Ferry St/Green St/Rapallo Avenue
neighborhood east of Main Street, is no longer an exclusively Italian
enclave, its history as such, and the historic role it played in
Middletown's manufacturing era drive its preservation as a residential
neighborhood. Largely due to residents' objections to the continued
urban renewal projects that were destroying sections of historic Main
Street, the North End escaped those 1950s urban redevelopment
projects-funded by Harry S. Truman's Fair Deal plan, which supported
urban renewal and social improvement projects nationwide -that
eliminated the historic residential neighborhoods of Middletown's
South End in the interest of developing a downtown commercial
district. Thus, the North End remains as Middletown's last truly urban
residential neighborhood. The most extensive housing redevelopment
project currently underway in Middletown, on the North side of Ferry
Street, seeks to preserve its identity as such.

Laura Seigel, Author

"The Origins of Middletown, Conn." From The Middler: Newsletter of the
Society of Middletown First Settlers Descendants. Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall
2005. p. 8.

Ibid.

Warner, Liz. A Pictorial History of Middletown. The Greater Middletown
Preservation Trust: 1990. p. 19.

Warner, p. 78.

The Middletown Report, Yale Urban Design Workshop, 1998, p. 5.

Warner, p. 9.

Lindsay, p. 18.

The Middletown Report, p. 6.

Warner, p. 78.

Ibid., p. 99.

Warner, p. 78.

Lindsay, Rachel Wyatt. 46 Ferry Imag(in)ed: Growing Community and

Change in the North End. Wesleyan University Thesis, 2005. p. 17.

Ibid.

Ibid., p. 101.

Lindsay, p. 17.

Warner, p. 112.

Warner, p. 113.

Warner, p. 78.

Lindsay, p. 18.

Warner, p. 114.

Taken from a personal interview with Ricardo Morris.

 

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