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Out of the Balkans

Part 1: Out of the Balkans

Chapter 3:
Madame Helen, Louie and Lily:
New York, New York

In the spring of 1916, Eleni, now claiming to be thirty-one years of age but likely thirty-six,(1) married Leonardo Perna who was twenty-six. The newly weds moved with Evangelia to New York City in May. There, Eleni became Madame Helen, Leonardo - Louie, and Evangelia - Lily.

Eleni (never called Helen by family), Louie and Lily lived at several locations on Manhattan's West Side. At various times they had flats at West Twenty-first, Thirty-eighth and Fortieth Streets, at the edge of what was known as "Hell's Kitchen." The city was teeming with immigrants who had brought its total population in 1910 to 2.3 million. It declined thereafter, numbering approximately 1.5 million in 1990.

Eleni's last address in Manhattan was 250 West Thirty-eighth Street.(2) By the early twentieth century, the district of multi-story coldwater flats between Seventh and Tenth Avenues housed thousands of immigrant families who worked at garment and fur manufacturers, in slaughter houses and warehouses, and at the docks. Often Greeks, Irish, Italians, Germans, middle European Slavs and Jews segregated themselves by street.

Greeks who toiled in the garment industry clustered together close to their workplaces, seeking community and safety for their families. They lived in small two or three room flats heated by coal fired kitchen ovens, and, if they could afford it, by portable kerosene heaters. Gaslight illuminated their rooms after dark. On hot, humid New York summer nights they gathered on rooftops, sleeping on mattresses in makeshift family groups. Only in the best of circumstances did a flat have its own flush toilette and a tub where a bath could be taken with water heated in the kitchen. Yet compared to the refugee camps in Greece this was luxury.

The garment district was the center of clothing design, manufacture, and sales in the United States. It occupied eighteen square blocks of buildings between Thirty-fourth and Fortieth Streets, and Sixth and Ninth Avenues, and included the millinery industry within its boundaries. The fur market was nearby, just to the south between Twenty-seventh and Thirty-third streets. In lofts between Fourteenth and Twenty-sixth Streets, men's clothing manufacturers prospered. To the west of Tenth Avenue were slaughterhouses that fouled the air of the city and the water of the Hudson River. Along the river wharfs accommodated the coming and going of merchant and passenger ships.

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