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.