During a recent radio interview, I was asked the question, ‘What makes Little Italy so special?’ My answer was … the people … the Italian heritage … and the fact that Little Italy has survived. One of my biggest delights in writing the book, "Baltimore's Little Italy: History and Heritage of The Neighborhood," is to say it’s still there … truly a unique neighborhood and a throwback to a bygone era of ethnic neighborhoods once common around Baltimore.
Since I am full-blooded Italian (second generation) I am not familiar with other ethnic groups' specific involvement in their own communities, yet within our Italian population in Baltimore, I consistently observe how powerful we feel about our legacy and ethnicity. It is a deep, bottomless passion. Little Italy and its offspring of Baltimore’s Italian community is about friendship and family, banding together for the good of the neighborhood and our ethnic history – whether you still live in Little Italy or not, or never lived there at all … yet feel an affection for its significance.
Italian immigrants are not flocking into America any longer. Those of us who are the children and grandchildren of the Italians who arrived here decades ago – sadly, it ends here. We were the first-hand eyewitnesses as we experienced their immigrant ways. Didn’t we watch our parents and grandparents do everything the Italian way? They showed us and taught us. They made everything by hand. They cooked for us. They passed along family heirlooms, recipes, songs, tales, and traditions. Yet now we are fully Americanized. I wonder … was that what they wanted or expected when they came here?
We do our best to continue it – to pass on the Italian heritage to our kids and grandkids, but it isn’t the same, is it? Half of us aren’t even married to Italians! Right there and then something is lost within our families – our opportunity as Italian couples in our roles of parents and grandparents, to hand over our heritage to our offspring. And when we do try to encourage them to latch on to the fact that they are certainly Italian, they may not quite ‘get it’ – they may not quite ‘feel it’ – because they probably do not completely 'understand it.'
I don’t believe they will ever feel it as solidly we do. Because most of them have not observed and lived the direct Italian immigrant connection – that most vital link. Some of you lived it more than others as first generation Italian Americans; and some of you are natives of Italy, and therefore, know it for sure.
We do our best to reverse the process, to maintain rituals in our Italian families, and to remember whose heritage we are living here in America. Yet we no longer have the elders to guide us the Italian way, do we? They have most all walked around the circle of life. And imagine what other wisdom we could have gained from the others we never met?
So yes, it was critical to put some of their history into writing, into a book; this essential and distinctive story of our Italian immigrant ancestors, and the neighborhood and surrounding Italian community, which they created.
Let's step back in time …
Little Italy had everything – once a self-contained, bustling area. 100% Italian at one time. The housewives hardly had to exit the neighborhood for want of anything: they shopped in local markets, received medicine from an Italian pharmacist around the block; sent their children to learn on Stiles Street in St. Leo’s School. Little Italy hosted lumberyards, a flour mill, a cotton broker, and a modiste who designed fashionable dresses and hats for women. There were taverns and boardinghouses, tailors and cobblers, confectioneries and a public bathhouse, where for 5 cents, you would get a small bar of soap, a towel, a cardboard comb and best of all – the luxury of a 5-minute hot shower.
A midwife scurries down the streets of Little Italy carrying her leather satchel, on her way to deliver a new bambino … a street peddler pushes his wagon of vegetables and fruit … the ice man slowly rolls by in a horse-drawn wagon. The butcher hangs fresh cuts of meat in his shop window … the coal man lugs his bulky load up the steps of skinny row houses … the pungent delicious aroma of baking bread wafts through the air, permeating the noses of neighborhood residents - of all ages - who are outside: kids play baseball, caddy, jacks and pickup sticks. They stop to dart into a corner store for a treat; neighbors shoulder to shoulder on their front stoops as they chat in fluent Italian. Some play guitars and mandolins; others play the game morra. They stop to clink wine glasses in a toast ("Salute!"); and sip the red wine made by hand in their old musty basements. The bells of Saint Leo’s Church chime the hour. Hurdy gurdy music plings happily through the air as its musician pulls the heavy musical box on a cart. Men play cards in the neighborhood confectionaries and bars. Cheese and bacala hang inside the Italian grocery stores; baskets of snails sit on the floor.
The neighborhood is full of life, bustling!
Nowadays when I walk through the streets of Little Italy, I must draw on my imagination to picture all of that, since none of those scenes exist today, except for the ringing of the church bells. Nothing in our world stays the same. Niente. That’s life. That’s progress. No more ice man. No more butcher shop. No more corner store. Not much rapid-fire fluent Italian. The hurdy gurdy is silent. The midwife is deceased, buried along with the many souls she once helped birth. The old wine press sits rusty in a basement.
Something the Italian immigrants did pass along to us was the concept of Italian-related groups such as The Appian Society, Sons of Italy, La Dolce Vita, Associated Italian American Charities, and others. Immigrants had once established various lodges, organizations and societies, so as to band together here in a strange land where they were trying to find their footing, to fit in, as they supported one another through homesickness, hardships, and serious discrimination.
Some of those groups have endured. Today, we act as their volunteers … members … presidents … officers … supporters … directors … and fundraisers … as we carry out the mission of promoting our Italian heritage.
We stand strong, proud and mighty as an Italian community in 2015 as greatly as our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents did in the 18-and-1900s. They arrived by ship, they eventually found Baltimore, and they created Little Italy, and beyond, to form a sizable Italian community.
That is us. Now. Today. That community. Continuing the good missions within these Italian-related groups. It allows us to greatly honor our family members who brought Italy to us – here in America. I bet that our ancestors would be nothing but pleased.
And for that work, for that pride, and for that concept, as we strive to continue the task of promoting our Italian heritage, whether belonging to an Italian related group, serving as president of a lodge or society, or writing a history book … I applaud each of us.
We do this because we GET it, we FEEL it … and we understand it – completely.
(Speech given during 4/28/2015 Appian Society meeting)