With an essay in NY Press, artist and photographer Anne Kristoff began chronicling the last of the Italians in Manhattan's South Village, that one-time Italian enclave that's being swallowed up by Soho, as long-time small businesses like Rocco's, Pino's, and Joe's Dairy are taken over, threatened, or simply shuttered.
Anne has expanded the project to a wonderful website of photographs and audio that tells the oral history of the people and the place--click a photo and you'll hear a story.
Her work will also be on view during the Feast of Saint Anthony, June 13, at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art. I asked Anne a few questions about the project.
photos by Anne Kristoff
Q: What inspired you to chronicle the last of the Italians?
A: I started dropping in at St. Anthony's and began noticing that the senior women all arrived separately but then sat together. They all seemed to know one another. I began asking questions and it turned out that most of them had lived in the neighborhood for their entire lives. Many still lived in the apartments they grew up in. They attended St. Anthony's, went to St. Anthony's school, got married there, and raised their families in the neighborhood. Those that had married had all lost their husbands. Their kids had moved out to the suburbs. But they stayed and will not be leaving.
I wrote a story about them for NY Press/Our Town Downtown last summer and I had a lot of photos left over, so I applied for a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Grant to produce an exhibit, and I found out in February that I got the grant! Since then, I've interviewed so many other people from the neighborhood that the exhibit went from being called "The Women of St. Anthony's" to "The Last of the Italians." The community that is left is strong but dwindling.
Q: How did St. Anthony's help to shape this community?
A: St. Anthony's is the "oldest existing parish founded for ministry to Italian immigrants in the United States." Anecdotally, I've been told that the parishioners at St. Anthony's were from one part of Italy, while nearby Our Lady of Pompeii was home to immigrants from another part of Italy. The two groups had a long running rivalry and didn't mix much. That has changed over the years as both communities have grown smaller in numbers.
Some of the women have told me stories of "Oh, you didn't go East of Broadway back then!" I guess for no other reason than because it was not their neighborhood.
Q: What was it like back then?
A: They tell me stories of whole families living in one building, no one locked their doors, everyone knew everyone and looked out for everyone. If you did something bad, by the time you made it home your family already knew about it. They would fly kites from the roofs, bring pots of sauce and pasta up to the roof for dinner. Swim in the water towers on the roof. Pushcarts lined Bleecker Street. You had everything you needed on your block--the butcher, the vegetable store, etc. Every day or so you'd walk the block to pick up whatever was needed for dinner that night. They all have tales of the 4th of July and how Vincent Gigante would put on a huge fireworks display every year on Houston St.
The fun thing about New York is that you can stand on that block and really imagine what it must have been like. The sad thing about New York is that it has changed irrevocably.
Q: With Joe's Dairy and Rocco's gone, what Italian businesses remain here?
I let the people from the neighborhood be my guide. They talk a lot about places that no longer exist. A lot of candy stores. Virginia's for sandwiches. A few places that they frequent have been around for a while but nothing from back when they were growing up. A lot of the women have been going to Villa Mosconi since the 80s. Frances Ciotta talked about Mosconi in her interview here (she died in December).
You still have Raffetto's and they have no plans of ever leaving. Romana (mother), son Andrew, and his daughter Sarah still run the business. Pino's is still on Sullivan. The women also frequent Arturo's a lot and are close with Lisa there.
I would say that the most authentic thing that still happens in the neighborhood would be the procession on St. Anthony day. They used to have a feast that rivaled San Gennaro and the procession was very long. Now it's shorter but it's really a good time. The church is packed to the gills, the balcony is opened. Everyone follows behind the statue of St. Anthony--up Sullivan, across Bleecker, down Thompson I think to Spring or Prince and then back up Sullivan. It's really neat to see.