I just finished reading “Little Italy of the BRONX: Arthur Avenue and Belmont” (New York City). Very informative! Described as “One Big Family”, the Italian immigrant culture that developed here is said to be comparable to “a new Italian village”, as Italians from all over Italy merged into one newly formed community. The authors, Stephen M. Samtur and Paula DeMarta Mastroianni, share their wonderful memories of growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, and give an overview of the history and development of this area of the Bronx. What is now generally referred to as “Belmont” was a neighborhood called “Fordham”.
Arthur Avenue (which I visited in person last month), was lined with shops, as it is now. Italian immigrants helped to build the Bronx Zoo, Botanical Gardens, railroads, tunnels, subways, and other construction projects. [p.33]. In the early 1900s, there were farms in the area that needed laborers. Some immigrants started a business. Prior to 1920, it was dominated by noodle, macaroni, and baccala stores [p.5].
For several decades there were street vendors with pushcarts everywhere—up and down the main street. One former cart owner remembered how he used to get up at 3:00 in the morning, take the train to a market in Manhattan, and bring back fresh lemons to sell on Arthur Avenue. [p.165] Then the mayor arranged for a new indoor market in 1940, and vendors no longer had to stand outside in the rain and the cold, huddled around open fires in garbage cans. [p.49]
If you go in a Time Machine– to a different era, shop keepers in general then were like my own grandfather, who ran an Italian-American grocery store in Jersey. Relationships with customers were more personal. And, you could send a kid down to the corner store and say “put it on our tab”, and pay for it later (not on a credit card, but “interest free” for perhaps a week or so). Shopkeepers knew their customers. That’s because when they came in the store, there would be a conversation that resulted in the store owner knowing all the families in the neighborhood quite well. When you go into a modern supermarket, the person at the cash register most likely is not the owner, and doesn’t have time to chat, with a line of people waiting. It was very different then, life was much slower. Paula says it was a place where “everybody knew your name”–a neighborhood of families, [p.5] with the Catholic church at the center of life. [p.31] On the parish website, it says, “The immigrants brought with them a strong faith and family values.” By the 1940’s and 50’s there were more than 40,000 members. [p.33]
Church history at this link: check out their Bulletin, parts of it are still written in Italian ! http://www.ourladymtcarmelbx.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4&Itemid=8
Valuable information is given regarding the name of another church a good distance away, the St. Phillip Neri Church, was first used by the Italian immigrants [p.33]–a big clue where to find marriage records from that earlier era of the actual immigrants themselves getting married. For the author, there are “memories of baptisms, weddings, and funeral events” at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. [p.40] But genealogists seek the documentation that resulted from these events of the past, in order to link one generation to another, and build a lineage. Only so much can be learned about these families by looking at documents though. How wonderful it is that Stephen and Paula got together to write “a collective memoir”, that records “stories” and brings this neighborhood to life, so that we can all visualize the culture Italian immigrants and their descendants had going on in the Bronx.
I grew up in a small town, but had the same situation with most of our immediate family living close by. I understand the concept of teenagers having relatives reporting back to parents when seen hanging out in wrong places ! My grandmother and her friends had a gossip phone line. In the Bronx, there was a “Clothesline culture”. Laundry hung out between buildings so close , women could chat back and forth while doing their daily chores. In suburban towns, neighbors tend to be “at a distance”. The Bronx women knew each other from many different daily activities. Because of the close proximity to one another, there was much more “socializing” amongst people in the neighborhood–who happened to be mostly other Italians.
They shared Italian traditions, such as everybody cooking meatballs on Sunday. This we did too, but probably only our family. Growing up in the Bronx, most all of their neighborhood friends were fellow Italians. Probably, they didn’t experience as much discrimination for being “strange foreigners”, as my great aunts did in our small town, where they were the lone Italians. In the Bronx there were MANY Italian immigrants (all speaking in the Italian language), so many that they could have an Italian language church. In these city neighborhoods there’s a higher chance that marriage partners would be chosen from another Italian family. Assimilation would be slower—with children remaining “Italian” longer . The author specifically states that it was NOT a “Leave It To Beaver” culture. I suppose our family WAS that (straight off of a 50’s TV show.) Little Italy of the Bronx was something very different. There are aspects of this kind of neighborhood that people like me really did miss out on ! — the camaraderie and Italian pride.
In her latter days, my Italian great grandmother sat in her chair in isolation, staring at the creek behind her house from her 2nd story bedroom window. Whenever I ask what she spoke of, I’m told nobody ever knew what she was saying. She spoke in Italian. Her husband died young, and the two older children born in Italy were “Americanized”, instructed to SHED anything Italian. They were very young when they came. There were a few Italian friends she knew in the next town, but I know she would have enjoyed “the clothesline culture” of the Bronx and having other Italian women to talk to!
Little Italy of the Bronx is described as a large territory that covered from Fordham Road to East 180th St., and from Southern Boulevard west to Third Ave. The book has lots of old photographs, dating back to the 1930s, so that we may see the area “as it once was”—in another time. When I walked through this neighborhood recently, I could not possibly have known all that once went on here—the friendships and unique history of this particular neighborhood that bonded these people. I saw a lot of Italian restaurants, and many wonderful Italian bakeries. But they were all strangers to me. Many are direct descendants of the original Italians who settled this place, and they have by now been through several generations together–bonded through their memories of shared experiences. And it is only through their memories written down, and what has been preserved in old photos and documents, that we who did not grow up there can catch a glimpse of an Italian neighborhood, distinct from any other, yet in many ways the same as other Little Italies. In places like the Bronx, there is still to this day a core of people there who remain full blooded Italian, still keeping the same old Italian traditions alive for the rest of us to be able to visit.
If I could go in a Time Machine, back to the golden era of Little Italy of the Bronx, when people who were the grandchildren of Italian immigrants were growing up , I would especially love to have been able to experience the days when the Bronx’s own Dion DiMucci and his friends were hanging out on the street corners “just messing around”, and putting together little songs that were about real people passing by, that they made into “characters” for songs that would become famous across the nation ! That there was a real person named Jack (with a tattoo of “Rosie on his chest”) who “used to swagger down the middle of the street”, “The Wanderer”, [p.139] is so exciting to hear in Dion’s first hand contribution to one section of the book—because the whole nation actually did share in “growing up in Little Italy of the Bronx”, without realizing it ! We all know the words to those songs. I loved hearing about the early days when he and his street corner gang would bang on cardboard boxes or use whatever else was at hand to create music (which to them at the time was just about having genuine fun). He didn’t fit in so well when it came to school and doing homework. He was meant for something else. His talent developed in a time and a place forever recorded through his music.
As a teen, Dion liked to go to Greenwich Village “to be with other beatniks”. [p.142]If that was a trend amongst a lot of kids from the Bronx, then this is a clue about where some marriage partners might have come from, and churches in other areas that might have documents. He knew people there who liked to discuss Plato and philosophy, and beat on bongo drums. [p.142]They took the train back and forth. These people did not live in isolation in one neighborhood. They could easily get around all over various areas of New York City on public transportation. But there were certain places where they tended to hang out.
There were also little internal migration patterns that developed after the initial arrival of many immigrants. Some remained always in Manhattan, while others went to Brooklyn (but that’s a different place). I studied those Italian neighborhoods on my trip also, but started and ended with Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Before the trip and the book, I was disconnected from this place. But I felt it was important to become more familiar, because many of my clients have ancestors who lived in these New York City neighborhoods. This book was like a little window that opened up and allowed me to see an overview of a whole era– in a place where I have never been before last month.
I drove up and down the streets, marveling at the old architectural styles of the houses on the residential streets
(actually checking out some specific addresses of a particular Italian family mentioned on old census records) to get a sense of where they lived. As it turned out, one family’s home no longer exists. An obviously rebuilt structure is where it once stood (below, the house on the left is newer).
The homes of a certain architectural style are interrupted by the modern building and then continue on in the original style (photo below).
This is a clue that there might have been a fire. Perhaps there is a news article to find. But the client’s family moved around to several different streets, and the immigrant also originally lived in Manhattan. I was just “getting a sense of”– all the different places mentioned on census records and other types of documents to better understand this family’s story.
On a Sunday afternoon, after a few days in Manhattan’s Little Italy (where the immigrant started out) , we stopped here in The Bronx. We had a nice dinner on Arthur Ave., the commercial center of Little Italy of the Bronx, and spent some time getting photos and “sense of place”. We noticed a girl playing dominos with her father at a little table outside, and others engaged in “a sidewalk culture”. We had driven through on Friday night initially on our way to Manhattan, but now, in the daylight, we could see their faces—lots of Italian-looking people. There was a casual police presence. The neighborhood felt safe for strolling. I noticed the Catholic church, and got pictures. I didn’t know when it was built– if it was old enough to be the one that served the early families. I needed to do further outside research to learn more. So I bought this book.
It was a tremendous help in bringing this place to life for a much better understanding—of one particular Italian American neighborhood and its history. Now in the future, if I see the word “Fordham” written on an old document or mentioned in an early obit, I’ll know better what it means—that the person was a member of “that family” (the Belmont & Arthur Avenue Little Italy of the Bronx culture). Knowing something about a community where an immigrant settled and raised his family, is as important as learning the history of the Italian village where he was born. The written history reveals little clues, such as where they went to church, what other places interacted (source of marriage partners), who else lived there (and where they came from) is important if you’re trying to discover the Italian village of origin, as people often followed friends and family to a new location).
Dion & The Belmonts, came to fame here in the early days of Rock-n-Roll (1958-1960). Some of the best known hit songs were: Run-Around Sue, I Wonder Why, Teenager in Love, The Wanderer, Dream Lover, Donna the Prima Donna, Where or When, Lovers Who Wander, Ruby Baby). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AzdigxCIuOE
If his songs were about real characters that he was seeing walking down the street, it’s another way to visualize a time gone by –more than can be learned from just looking at old documents—something different even than looking at old photographs of street scenes.
It was the same environment where one client’s family resided for part of their family history story. The immigrant (a barber, from a family of Sicilian blacksmiths) was married in 1908 in Manhattan. But he had moved to the Bronx, and lived on the street with the missing house (on Crotona Ave.), by 1921, the year he became a US citizen. The immigrant’s son (born in Manhattan in 1910) grew up mostly in this Bronx neighborhood. He walked by the same street corner where Dion and his gang hung out, and their life had adapted from Mulberry Street to Arthur Avenue culture. But many Italians of the Bronx are descendants of ancestors who entered the Port of New York and came straight to the Bronx. They followed employment announcements.
I am going to return to Arthur Avenue in June, to experience their annual St. Anthony’s Feast Day celebration, and would like to see the inside of their Italian church that has served the Italian population there for over a hundred years ! Their church Bulletin is still published partially in Italian. I’m sure I also missed a couple of other things, such as exploring the collections at the local historical society and public library. If you go to check out Little Italy of the Bronx, it might also be nice to visit during Christmas season!
They call it “The Real Little Italy”, because it still remains a real and functioning neighborhood of Italian families (compared to some other Little Italies who have been experiencing a dwindling Italian population and now seem more for tourists). You won’t find the accordion man that strolls from one sidewalk restaurant to another, nor a string of gift shops, but there are many authentic traditional Italian food establishments–some that are still run by descendants of those who started the business many decades ago.