Andrea Daley, who created this new exciting project to fill Little Italy with frescoes by local artists, asked me to emcee the ceremony and to describe what living in Little Italy was like in the past. This is part of those remarks. I'm not sure she wanted me to go back this far, but I'll start in the late 1800's.
(Outside of my family stories and experiences, everything else I know about the neighborhood comes from Mike Esposito, who knows all and tells all, and all you have to do is ask him. He's also written a wonderful photo and history book of the area, “Troy's Little Italy,” which you can find at your local bookstore.)
My parents were the youngest children of the Viscos
and the LaPostas –
-- two families that had a lot in common, their patriarchs arriving from Italy just about a generation after our Civil War, which coincided with the long overdue unification of Italy. My grandparents were also two of the original eleven families who helped to establish the “Italian Church,” St. Anthony's.
Antonio and Philomena Visco raised their family in a ramshackle house they owned. It had 4 tiny flats, and was moved in the late 1800's from Williams Street Alley around the corner and up to Liberty Street, between St Mary's & Haverman's Avenues. I can only imagine the teamwork that must have taken, with neighbors pitching in with their muscle, ingenuity and home-made wine.
My father had three brothers and four sisters, and outside of the daily grind of homemaking, working in laundries, foundries, factories, haberdasheries, and local politics, the Visk family, as they came to be known, loved putting on shows in order to raise money for St. Anthony's, and for other local organizations. During World War Two, the beneficiary was the USO. Everyone in the neighborhood was welcome to participate, either in front of or behind the curtain.
When I came along, our property was a four ring circus, full of people playing good-natured practical jokes in a cramped backyard that had a pond, a garden, a boccie court, and a green “banquet hall” built and named by Uncle Jimmy, so the family could gather for communal meals in bad weather. My mother renamed it “The Barracks,” because that's what it looked like, and the name stuck. Uncle Jimmy was not too happy about that. When I say the family gathered in the backyard, I don't just mean blood relatives. I remember neighbors and friends and even Franciscan priests being part of the fun. And not everyone was Italian, either. Italian boys fell in love with Irish girls and they were welcome, as were many friends and neighbors whose families came from all over the world.
As the years went on, some stayed, and some moved away – to other parts of the city, to the suburbs, even to careers in major cities.
But a spirit of family, and support for building a prosperous future stayed with us all. It never died. It grew, it brought some of us back, and it continues to attract people who sense that something special is still alive in Little Italy today. That same cooperation, tolerance and true camaraderie that moved houses and shared entertainment and meals seems to have become part of the buildings, the streets, the very air.
People still move here and stay here because of it. And it's that spirit that brings us together here tonight to start this project. People who were born here, people who feel that their lives are reborn here --- all who want to be – need to be – part of keeping it alive and helping it grow. That's why we need people like Andrea – a bundle of energy and talent that's focused on encouraging the growth of that spirit – one that I believe will live forever in Little Italy, and spread throughout the city – becoming our own renaissance. I hope you'll take a few more minutes to visit this webpage, learn more about the wonderful Bella Vita project and contribute as an artist or a sponsor.