Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Last of the Italians

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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for doing the interview with Kristoff and for the head's up on this whole project. Can't wait to see the show.

What about the Cafe Dante and the Cafe Reggio? Don't they count as old guard?--the last of the real MacDougal Street.

You can see these women all the time--now shopping in the aisles at Morton Williams on West Broadway.

Macheath48 said...

As an Italian American who lived in the next parish (St. Patrick's on Mulberry Street), this bought back many happy memories.

In the 50's and 60's, entire families sat on fire escapes, or roof tops, and talked and laughed. It was one, big happy family growing up back then. You shopped locally (we did sneak off to Macy's for Christmas presents) and you bought fresh, never frozen. We ate lemon ice and drank Manhattan Special and cared, really cared, about each other. Some people made fun of our neighborhood ("move to the country, let the kids play on a lawn") but we were happy and healthy. Gone are those days.

Ed said...

I love these pieces and St. Anthony's is worth a visit.

I've noticed that alot of the ethnic groups (Blacks, Jews, Italians, though Puerto Ricans are still hanging in there) that dominated the city when I was growing up are a reduced presence now. And this sort of churn is normal in New York history. But we should celebrate a departing group when they made a particularly good contribution to New York's culture or had a way of living that meshed well with the urban fabric.

Uncle Waltie said...

"...or had a way of living that meshed well with the urban fabric."

I have no idea what that means.

Anonymous said...

Uncle Waltie--
It means these groups preserved and added to the city as they found it--without completely subverting its character, as the current spate of extremely high end, glass boxes full of wealthy people who have no concern for life on the block are doing.

The new wave has no connection to the mesh or the weave or the fabric or anything to do with the complex diversity and history of NY.

That;s what Ed means.

mch said...

I hope I can get to the city to see the show. This all makes me think of my WASP mother, living as a young mother in the village in the late 1930's and 1940's, and of all she learned from Italian grocers and neighbors (basil as an exotic herb!), and then my own growing up in suburban, heavily Italian NJ in the 1950's and '60's (those two Italian groups: Neapolitans v. Sicilians -- very familiar to me). Our next door neighbors and my main playmates (Neapolitans, by descent) had a grandmother who looms in my imagination to this day: terrifying! We were supposed to keep so clean as we played! And there were all kinds of other restrictions (donta eata tosa grena apples-a -- yes, she talked that way!).

Grandma P knew little English, though she'd come to this country to marry at the age of 16 and had raised her children in "Little Italy." No need to learn English there, then. Much later (a world war), living in the suburbs with one of her grown sons (and near all of her children), she and my mother were curious friends and allies, two women from utterly different worlds. Grandma P asked permission of my mother to set traps for birds and rabbits in our yard, gave my mother cooking advice (I still prepare blue fish her way), admired my father's tomatoes and herbs (which, of course, we shared with her). She admired, too, my family's books and learning, though she herself couldn't read. (Though she'd managed to raise a son who became a dentist, another who became a judge, and a daughter who married a doctor!)

Amazing, these women!

Eileen said...

I lived here in the early to mid 90s with my husband & young son who attended St. Anthony's from PreK4 through 8th grade. It was a wonderful, wonderful neighborhood. All the kids & parents knew one another, and the church was really a safe have for one and all. It was like a bit of the country in the heart of the city. Beautiful tree-lined blocks (Macdougal, Sullivan, Thompson) and the nicest neighbors you could hope for. All the older ladies in our building were just the sweetest, and you loved to help them when the weather was bad as they had the best stories. They all showed up at my son's First Communion, and it really touched my heart. Had to move to the LES as the rents were skyrocketing, but I continued to take my son to St. Anthony's to school as it was just a great education and wonderful people.