New York Finnish Heritage
Finns in the Big Apple
The U.S. Immigration Station on Ellis Island was the first stop for most of the more than 300,000 Finns who came to America, mainly from the late 19th century to 1929. While the majority of Finnish immigrants continued west, substantial numbers stayed in New York and New England.
Jobs were plentiful in New York City’s booming construction industry in the early 1900s and 1920s, when Finns settled in Harlem and organized labor and social groups. In 1917 the New York United Finnish Branch of the Socialist Party bought a Beaux Arts building at 2056 Fifth Avenue and West 127th Street. They called it Työväen Talo (Workers House), known as Fifth Avenue Hall or Finn Hall.
It was a busy gathering place, with a cafeteria, small hall for dances, large main hall with stage for theatrical performances, billiards room and library.
Into the 1950s
By the 1950s the Finns had largely left Harlem; many moved to Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. As in Harlem, this “Finntown” had social halls, churches and organized labor groups. The Finnish language was commonly spoken, and the New Yorkin Uutiset delivered the news.
Brooklyn’s Finntown was home to some 20,000 Finns, who were serviced by Finnish restaurants, a bakery, markets, taverns, shops and saunas. The boom years ended in the 1960s, as Finnish-Americans dispersed and businesses and social centers closed, but its history will not be forgotten thanks to the efforts of Robert Alan Saasto.
His grandparents all came from Finland in the early 1900s, and he attended events at Finntown’s Imatra Hall and grew up in one of the two dozen co-op apartment buildings that dotted Sunset Park.
“Finns introduced the cooperative to the United States,” he explains. The first was built in 1916 and named Alku (Beginning), followed in 1917 by neighboring Alku Toinen (Beginning Two).
The attorney has dedicated decades to gaining recognition of Finntown’s history, leading the successful effort to designate 40th Street “Finlandia Street,” and working to gain recognition by New York State and the National Register of Historic Places for Alku and Alku Toinen.
The birth of the Metropolitan Chapter
In 1954, a group of Finnish-Americans founded the Finlandia Foundation New York Metropolitan Chapter. Early members included Edith and Paul Kaske, parents of current FFNYMC board member Judy Kaske-Cirigliano.
“Immigrants post-war were interested in keeping up their heritage in this country,” she says. “Because they didn’t have extended family here, they formed the chapter to stay connected.”
Just a year after its founding, the New York chapter and the United National International Symphony Orchestra and Music Institute organized the Sibelius 90th Birthday Concert in 1955 at Carnegie Hall. Guest conductor was Jean Sibelius’ son-in-law Jussi Jalas, and soloist was Sylvia Aarnio, a member of FFNYMC.
Changes Over Time
“The chapter was very active with events until the sixties,” says Judy. Her father was an amateur photographer who recorded images of Finnish life and locations in Harlem and Brooklyn. The photos were displayed at the chapter’s 65th anniversary celebration in 2019, and offer valuable insight into areas where little remains to indicate they were once Finnish enclaves.
FFNYM Chapter President Eero Kilpi notes that New York’s Finnish community is nothing like it was in 1954. Today, it’s largely ex-pats, professionals on assignment for international companies, with different experiences and interests.
“We all understand how important Finlandia Foundation National was in the 1950s and 1960s,” he says. “But that era doesn’t exist anymore. We have to do something totally different. Everything we do now has to be geared toward younger generations of Finnish-Americans.”
The Modern Metropolitan Chapter
The organization offers scholarships and hosts several events each year. To build attendance and grow its membership, FFNYMC has made a concentrated effort to partner with other organizations, including the Finnish American Chamber of Commerce, Finnish Church, Finnish School and Scandinavia House.
In 2020, with in-person events cancelled, FFNYMC launched online programming including a Juhannus concert featuring New York talent.
Eero sees cooperation as the key to the future of FFNYMC, which has an important role: “It’s educating people about Finnish values. Punctuality, low corruption, the structure of society, honesty… These values need to be shared.”