By Mike Cuomo and David Van Pelt
I have a friend whose name is Mike Cuomo, and although we haven’t personally met, we have emailed each other off and on since 2005. Our correspondence mostly centered on his experience in the Butler Gents, an Italian youth gang from South Brooklyn in the early 1960s. The other day, in one of our email exchanges, he made a comment about how his grandparents from his father’s side had lived in the Fort Greene Houses, not too far from his home on Carroll Street in South Brooklyn.
This caught my attention because in February 2018, I had completed writing a book called Brooklyn Rumble: Mau Maus, Sand Street Angels and the End of an Era. It took 15 years to research and write. Part of my research centered on the Fort Greene Houses, where the Mau Maus youth gang had made their turf in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Although my book is completed, I still have an interest in Fort Greene. In this case, the possibility of learning about the perspective of the Fort Greene Houses from the point of view of Italian immigrants struck me as an important story to tell. So I asked Mike what he would think if I wrote about his grandparents and put their story on my website for everyone to read.
He liked the idea on the condition that he could read it over before publishing; he wanted an option to make edits and changes where needed. I thought this was a fair request and so the following is a joint project between Mike and me.
But first, the story begins in Italy, not Brooklyn.
In 1848, the Italian peninsula consisted of a hodgepodge of small states that were controlled by foreign powers like Austria and France. Instead of being the “Italy” as we know it today, these states were more like colonies of outside powers. It had been this way for centuries; in fact, the last time Italy had been unified was 1,300 years prior to 1848.
In the mid 1800s, forward-thinking visionaries began a process to unify these states into one nation. They had a word for this reunification: Risorgimento, meaning “resurrection.” This process took quite some time and it wasn’t until March 17, 1861, that Italy came into being. However, even then, the unification date of 1861 wasn’t technically true because the Papal States (territories that were owned and controlled by the Pope) had not acquiesced to unification. That took another decade and it wasn’t until October 1870, that Italy was truly “unified.”
I used quotation marks around the word unified because even though Italy was now a nation sensu stricto, slapping the letters I-T-A-L-Y on a map after a 1,300 year hiatus hardly made it united. This brand-new nation of 22 million people had to overcome centuries of cultural, political and economic differences to truly become unified. In particular, there was a gap between the north and the south of the country. This following quote encapsulates the mood at the dawning hour of Italy’s reunification: “Italy is made. We still have to make the Italians.”
After the unification, the economy in southern Italy suffered greatly. Poverty and organized crime were chronic issues. Parched soil from a hot, dry climate, banditry and poverty are themes that are still felt in southern Italian culture today. The Mafia sprung forth from this scorched land to grow into a monolithic presence felt across many parts of the world today.
These hardships spurred many Italians living in the south to emigrate across the world, particularly to North America, South America, Australia and other parts of Europe.
It is only a decade and a smidgen after the Italian unification that we find ourselves at the next point of our story.
Michele Cuomo in Italy
About 19 miles south of the major city of Naples, there is a small hill town in southern Italy called Gragnano. Gragnano’s claim to fame is that it is home to the best dried pasta in all of Italy. Just inland from the gorgeous coast of the Mediterranean and Amalfi, a resort city, the main street of Gragnano was built perpendicular to the coast so the sea air hit the street and mixed with mountain breezes that barreled in. This combination of sea and mountain air dried spaghetti that merchants hung like laundry on racks out on the streets and on balconies.
It was here in Gragnano that a baby boy was born on April 26, 1884. His parents named him Michele, but not much is known about his early life in Italy. Not even his family vocational background – likely farming, but even then, not certain – was known.
One of the very few things we know with certainty about Michele’s time in Italy is that he met a young girl named Giovannina, who lived in a town nearby called Casola di Napoli (more on this town later). This girl was to become his future wife, so this is likely the reason that Michele eventually moved from Gragnano to Casola di Napoli.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
The other thing we know about Michele is that he wanted out of Italy. His desire was to immigrate to the United States, where “streets paved with gold” awaited him. Michele was not the only one with this thinking. Many other Italians moved to America to better themselves, especially between 1900 and 1920, when the greatest influx of Italians had moved there.
While we aren’t certain of the exact motive that Michele wanted to move to America, most likely poverty was the biggest reason. We already know that people living in south Italy were the “have nots” compared to their fellow countrymen living in northern Italy. Michele probably wanted out of a place with dim prospects to begin a new life, the classic tale of many immigrants. If his family was into farming – like many southern Italians were – this was a demanding job to perform in the hot, unforgiving Italian climate.
Some of the Italians that moved to America would make multi trips back and forth between Italy and the USA before they officially settled in their new country. Often they would send for family members that were left behind, almost like a scouting expedition. In this fashion family members followed and supported each other and began building new lives in the U.S.A.
Michele’s immigration to America actually began with his Uncle Federico. Born in 1863 and 21 years Michele’s senior, Federico was a pioneer because he immigrated to America and became a citizen in 1885, well before the biggest jolt of Italians came to America between 1900 and 1920. Although details of their relationship are sparse, Federico could have been the daring, adventurous uncle that appealed to Michele as he grew up into a young man himself.
Somehow Michele got word to Federico of his desire to move to America, and Federico, the experienced, older uncle agreed to help. He paid for Michele to come to the new country and provided support to his young nephew for the great voyage across the ocean to New York City.
Michele Cuomo Comes To America
Michele was a one-trip man, and unlike many Italian immigrants at the turn of the century, it does not appear that he travelled back and forth before settling in America.
He arrived at Ellis Island at the age of 22 on June 8, 1907 aboard the SS Calabria. The manifest stated that his passage was paid for by his uncle and that his destination was “Uncle Federico La Mura.” Michele had $20 in his pocket, was in good health and his occupation was listed as a farm laborer, like most southern Italians moving into America were designated.
While we wonder to ourselves how Michele felt the moment he stepped off the dock and experienced New York City’s bureaucratic system as he went through the immigration steps, we travel back to the old country to meet Giovannina.
Giovannina Vuolo in Italy
Not too far from Gragnano was Casola di Napoli, a small village nestled in the foothills just south of Mt. Vesuvius. Surrounded by low hills which opened to a spectacular view of the sea and coast, Casola was closely associated with Gragnano.
On June 24, 1892, the presumably proud parents Valentino Vuolo and Rosa Cesarano gave birth to a girl who they named Giovannina.
Like Michele, little is known of Giovannina’s life in Italy, except for a couple of facts. The first is that she had two sisters living in Italy, and another sister who had moved to America. The second is that her family owned their home in Casola (which she later inherited and then gave to relatives). The structure of the house was very old and it was made of local stone. The kitchen was an exterior room, like a patio which opened to the outside, but was attached to the main building.
Giovannina Comes To America
Around the time that Michele entertained thoughts of moving away from Italy and immigrating to America, Giovannina – the girl that Michele met before he had moved – also decided to emigrate. Most likely she wanted to be with her love, but she was also probably affected by the poverty that afflicted so many southern Italians. And so it was that on December 31, 1907, Giovannina arrived at Ellis Island, on the SS Madonna, having sailed there from Naples on December 19, a 12-day voyage. Michele had arrived six months before her.
There is some confusion about how old Giovannina was when she arrived at Ellis Island. The ship manifest stated that she was 16 years old, but later her 1909 marriage document, as well as the 1910 census, stated she was 17. The reason for this confusion is it isn’t clear when the exact year of her birth was – 1892 may not have been the year she was born. This is common in the 1800s and early 1900s when birth records were not kept as accurately as they are now.
The sister that had immigrated to America before Giovannina was the one who sponsored her and paid her passage. When she stepped off the boat, Giovannina was 4’10” tall and she had $10 to begin her new life.
The Marriage of Michele Cuomo and Giovannina Vuolo
With Michele and Giovannina both in the land of the free and the brave, they married on May 30, 1909 at St. Michael’s church on Lawrence Street in Brooklyn. The church was in the neighborhood of Fort Greene which is where they also lived. According to several family members this was an arranged marriage between the two families in Italy.
Michele and Giovannina would eventually have six children: Carmine, born in 1910; Rita in 1915; Albert in 1916; Nunzio in 1920; Joseph in 1922 and Anna in 1926.
The Cuomo family lived at several Fort Greene addresses in these early years; all of them within a 5 or 6 block radius of each other. In 1910, they lived at 25 North Elliot and in 1925 at 88 North Oxford Street.
The Early Years in America
America was naturally different than Italy and the Cuomo’s had to adjust to a different culture. One of those adjustments was learning the English language. However, even thought they had moved to America, Michele and Giovannina spoke virtually no English; in fact, 99% of what they spoke was Italian. Even though they were in a new land over 5,000 miles away from Italy, the Cuomo’s world was still very much Italian.
Although Michelle and Giovannina chose what language they spoke, they could not control what names they were called. When they moved to America, Michele became “Mike,” and Giovannina became “Jennie.” This anglicizing of names is a common immigrant experience in the USA. This was especially prevalent in the school system when teachers who were confronted with unfamiliar names changed the name of their pupils to something that sounded more American. And so, all over the city, little Italian boys and girls names changed without their having a say in it. Michele became Mike, Scholastica became Mary, Angelina became Lena, Lizabeta became Elizabeth. Those ones made sense and you can see how a Michele became a Mike. But some made no sense at all. For example, an Italian girl whose name was “Damarda” inexplicably became “Florence.” How a teacher got Florence from Damarda is anyone’s guess. In Giovannina’s case, her anglicized name is Josephine, but somehow she became “Jennie,” another bewildering metamorphism that made no sense. We shall now refer to them as Mike and Jennie.
In moving to such an urban area like Fort Greene, there was no hope of farming, so Mike got a job as a foundry worker. In the 1910 US census his occupation was listed as a “melter” in the iron industry. In 1925, the NY census listed his occupation as simply “iron” and in 1930 census documents Mike was listed as a laborer in “brass.” In one form or another, Mike worked in the metal industry for at least 20 years.
During that time he worked his way up to supervisory positions in the industry and became quite knowledgeable and experienced in metallurgy. His expertise was so good that he was supposed to have created a process that greatly improved the manufacture of brass from copper and zinc. However, his bosses took advantage of Mike – an uneducated and barely literate immigrant –stole his formula and took credit for his discovery. This netted them a huge financial gain and Mike never saw a penny.
Whether these details are true or not, by the time 1940 came along, Mike was out of the metal industry and the census had no occupation listed for him.
It was sometime between 1930 and 1940 when Mike became an entrepreneur. He owned a “café” and “poolroom” which was able to provide income that sustained the Cuomo family. This dive into the business world started something special and Mike became the first of a line of family entrepreneurs which included his son Joseph and Joseph’s children (Mike’s grandchildren), all of whom worked the majority of their lives as owners of small businesses.
Mike’s first café was located on Park Avenue near North Portland. But in time it was closed and a larger one was opened on North Portland closer to Myrtle Avenue – still in Fort Greene. Both cafes were very close to the family home at 81 North Oxford. Mike sold pastries and Italian coffee at the cafés as well as time on the pool tables.
The cafés weren’t just important for financially providing for the Cuomo family. They also served as a “fratellanza.” Fratellanzas were a type of social club that could be found in many Italian neighborhoods; this is where the men would gather to fraternize (no women and children were allowed to participate). These community gatherings of Italian men were informal, but very important, functioning as social glue between friends and neighbors.
While a formal organization founded in Italy in 1866 was called “The Fratellanza,” the term itself translates to “fraternity.” It was simply the gathering of men in a particular place to gossip, discuss community affairs, births, deaths, christenings, marriages and the like, similar to the old world custom of the village men gathering in sunny piazzas to fraternize and wile away the idle hours.
Mike’s interpretation is that Italian men are like yentas…they yap and gossip as bad as any woman you ever stereotyped. In Italy, the men who didn’t have to go to a job (and that was a big percentage of “pensioners” in southern Italy’s poor economy) would gather in the sunny village squares and lazily sit around and talk and gossip and play cards all day.
This old world tradition continued on in America and Italian neighborhoods had men who would meet and spend their day doing mostly nothing. They ate, drank homemade wine, and played bocce ball and card games at these gatherings. These collections of Italian men could gather anywhere: a bocce ball game, the street corner, an outdoor social club, someone’s back yard, a courtyard or at a commercial establishment likes Mike’s café.
While Mike ran his cafés and contributed to make a fratellanza in Fort Greene, he and Jennie found another source of income: taking numbers for the local Mafia bookmaker. Bettors would come to their home at 81 North Oxford to play their numbers. Jennie kept “book” in a little ledger that she hid in a special compartment built into the inside of their refrigerator. Thankfully, Mike’s Aunt Anna remembered these times and shared a humorous story with him about one of Jennie’s adventures in taking numbers:
As Aunt Anna tells the story, one day a family “paisano” (peasant) came by to play, and with him was a man she had never seen before, but who was vouched for by the family friend.
Grandma took their money and entered the bets into her little book. She opened the refrigerator and placed the book into the compartment, unaware that the men were still in the room, but unconcerned because the friend was someone she trusted.
The next day there was a commotion and a pounding on the front door. Peering out thru the curtains she saw that it was a group of policemen. Panicking, she ran to the kitchen and took the book out of its hiding place and, not knowing what else to do, shoved it down into her underwear. She went to the door and let the police in, who told her she was being raided for bookmaking and immediately went to the refrigerator, opened it and opened the secret compartment. Obviously the man who came with the family friend was a policemen or an informant of some kind. She had been “ratted out”.
Angry now that there was no evidence where they expected to find it, the police began to ransack the house, looking for the little book. As they searched, Jenny began to complain that she needed to go to the bathroom. Eventually they let her.
She went into the bathroom and quickly opened the window and climbed out. There was an alley and a fence between the house and the next. She had an agreement with her friend next door that in case of just such an event she would throw the book over the fence and into the neighbor’s yard. She called to the neighbor and threw the book.
Climbing back into the bathroom, she came out to find the police scratching their heads and frustrated that there was no book and thus no evidence of bookmaking. They left and gave her a warning, but never came back, even though she resumed her bookmaking and continued it for years. I even remember that as a kid of 7 or 8 people would come to the door and give grandma money while whispering their bets to her. Grandpa Mike would just shake his head and smile.
It’s here that a detour off the path of the Cuomo history must be taken.
As mentioned above, Mike and Jennie lived in the neighborhood of Fort Greene. Just south of the East River and the Brooklyn Naval Yard area, Fort Greene had a history that must be understood in order to appreciate what the couple were about to go through in the mid 1940s.
While Mike and Jennie settled into their new life in America, Fort Greene was going through some changes. Not that this was surprising, because Fort Greene, like any neighborhood, had been going through changes since its inception in the late 1800s.
In the early to mid-1800s, when Brooklyn was growing at a dizzying pace, Fort Greene was still sparsely populated, not yet tapped for its advantages. In the 1850s, Fort Greene was still farmland and one could imagine how amazed the original residents would be – some of them farmers – to imagine that it would balloon to its present-day population. This began to change in the 1860s, when people moved into the area during the Civil War. This war was brutal for countless civilians and soldiers across the country, but a boon for others. Prosperity from government contracts during the war created an abundance of wealth, allowing affluent people to build beautiful homes in Fort Greene. Close proximity to Fort Greene Park (the first park established in Brooklyn), gave the rich a reason to build their mansions on streets surrounding the park. The riches of these new Fort Greene residents gave Cumberland Street its own nickname – “millionaire’s row” on account of the super wealthy living there.
This reputation and home for the rich continued into the turn of the century, past the First World War and into the Roaring Twenties. In 1923, despite the emergence of commercial buildings in the neighborhood, the New York University Bureau of Business Research considered Fort Greene “one of Brooklyn’s best residential sections,” where “apartments of the best class and private houses” could be found. Fort Greene was still the place to be for the wealthy. This was around the time the Cuomo family was busily building their new lives in Brooklyn.
It was sometime between 1925 and 1930 when the Cuomo family bought a two-family home at 81 North Oxford Street. By the 1940 census, Mike and Jennie still lived at 81 North Oxford Street, but also lived with five of their children: Rita, Albert, Nunzio, Joseph, Anna, and two grandchildren, Anna and Vincent.
81 North Oxford Street was a 3-story brick house with a large, wide backyard. It had a grape arbor with grapevines growing on it, a bocce court on the one side and a vegetable garden two big fig trees. Mike’s friends would come over all the time to play bocce and drink wine. Mike made his own wine every year; a cellar under the house with two huge wine kegs held his home-made wine. Every year he had grapes delivered to the house in order to make the wine.
Mike and Jennie and their children lived in the first and second floors and a tenant lodged in the top floor apartment (later, other members of the Cuomo family moved into the top floor apartment and the tenant moved out).
While the Cuomo family was industriously building their version of the Great American Dream, Fort Greene began to change for the worse – as quickly as the positive transformation in the 1860s had happened. Nine years after the 1923 report which said that Fort Greene was still an excellent neighborhood, new information surfaced that chronicled the beginnings of Fort Greene eventually becoming a poster-child for one of the most undesirable places to live in New York City.
In 1934, the New York City Market Analysis reported that some sections of Fort Greene that previously commanded high prices had declined in recent years and that other parts of the neighborhood were becoming more industrial. The reasons for this deterioration were varied. Although the Great Depression played a role in dropping the value of homes and seizing up credit, this was only part of the problem. Opulent buildings that were desirable in the late 1800s became outdated in the 1900s. Transportation worked hand-in-hand with changing ideals of where people wanted to live. A rapid transit system and the automobile allowed the middle class the luxury of moving further away from their employment. More modern housing became available elsewhere in the city and brownstone row houses became a relic of the past, ditched for newer designs and architecture. German and English residents dumped their houses for low prices and those moving in to take their places had less wealth and limited resources. Brownstone homes became shadows of their glorious past; nobody cared, and they fell into disrepair, unappreciated and decrepit. They became magnets for cheap, multi-family homes. Landlords rented them until they were brimming full, with no attention to upkeep. This mutation quickly transformed Fort Greene into a have-not section of Brooklyn with 82% of dwelling units needing repair and nearly 25% needing major work. By the late 1930s, Fort Greene was a slum, and something had to be done to halt its misfortunes.
The City of New York got involved and swung into action to fix the problem. Their solution was to raze large patches of Fort Greene’s tenements to the ground and replace them with towers of brick and glass. Civic planners set progress in motion and dispatched heavy machinery to begin major demolition which was followed by construction of a new public housing development called the Fort Greene Houses.
The Fort Greene Houses were not built to solely purge the area of eyesores and spruce up the neighborhood. They were also homes for workers that toiled in the nearby Navy Yard, north of Fort Greene. In 1938, about 10,000 people worked there, but accelerated production of ships for the war effort triggered an economic windfall to the area; acute requirements for more labor skyrocketed. Employment exploded and at one point during the war, 71,000 were employed in the Navy Yard. These employees labored in dangerous situations, fixing and assembling boats for America’s shipping industry. With the advent of World War II, the construction of hulking warships like the Iowa and Missouri began in earnest. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an entirely efficient operation – employees often had to travel long distances throughout the city for their work shifts in the Navy Yard. Building the Fort Greene Houses neatly solved this problem by allowing workers to live in a nearby, central area and give them an opportunity to walk to work.
Land was purchased on September 23, 1940, and leveling of run-down buildings began on December 16, 1940. Entire blocks were scraped clean.
In total, 710 tenement buildings were demolished, forcing the City to relocate 1,570 families that lived there. It was a huge undertaking covering 39.02 acres of land, or twenty-three city blocks. It took a year and a half for the city’s thirteenth housing project to be completely flattened. The project consisted of twenty-seven 6-story, four 11-story and four 13-story buildings. An overhead aerial view shows a conglomeration of buildings that look like Lego. Built between 1941-1944, the monstrous buildings cost over twenty million dollars (more than $250 million in today’s dollars). It accommodated 3,501 families for an estimated population of 13,040 people. The families that lost their homes to the uncaring wrecking ball were among the first residents to move into the brand-new Fort Greene Houses, marshaling a hopeful new era of modernity and respectability.
One boy described what it was like for his single mother to move from a cold-water flat in the Navy Yard area to the gleaming Fort Greene Houses. It was a huge step up for their family, not only because it was a much better apartment, but because there were many ethnic groups and language groups to mingle with. These included Italians, Irish, Jews, black, Spanish and even Chinese. The people in his building got along famously and “everybody broke bread together…little kids. They would spend the night you know, Italian boys; we all got along very well in certain buildings.” Somehow there was a balance with all the different types of people living there. But as time went along, many of the richer families moved to better areas in Brooklyn and Queens. This movement which became apparent in 1954 and 1955, launched an ethnic and income change in those living in the projects.
But was it good news for everyone? What about the adults that were affected by the Fort Greene Houses? What about their homes?
Unfortunately for the Cuomo family, not only was their home in the district of the so-called tenements that the City had proposed to raze, but so was Mike’s business. It should come as no small surprise about who wins the battle between the City of New York and a new immigrant family. And so the Cuomo’s home and business were both condemned by the City and pulverized to a pulp. They were offered a place to live in the Fort Greene Houses and reluctantly they moved into 160 Navy Walk, which fronted Myrtle Avenue. Their apartment was on the third floor.
While Mike and Jennie tried to get used to their new home, the Fort Greene Projects almost immediately began their own deleterious plummet into the same shape the buildings they had just replaced.
After the war, production in the Navy Yard waned, and families continued to move out or fell upon hard times. By the early 1950s, a mere ten years after their construction, the Fort Greene Houses were rapidly losing their luster. Despite the enthusiasm in building brand new housing projects, there were issues from the beginning that foreshadowed the problems that reared up in the 1950s. Because they were built during World War II, the war effort was of primary concern. This meant that attention to building quality was not top priority. Shoddily built from second-rate war materials like wooden sinks, apartments were equipped with used refrigerators and stoves. Other key parts of the houses such as community centers were never built even though they were standard fare in other post-war projects.
By the mid-1950s, cracked ceilings and garbage thrown out of windows were becoming a hallmark of the projects. Many windows were broken and garbage was strewn on the floors of hallways. Elevators jammed and made creaking noises like they were burping or about to be cut loose from the cables. Sometimes elevators served as urinals. The rank stench of urine in the elevators drove visitors and residents to use stairwells, but even that could be a sordid affair. A resident I corresponded with in researching Brooklyn Rumble, who lived in an apartment at 56 North Oxford Walk, recalled that one day while playing in his building, he came across “the most enormous turd I ever saw on a stairwell.”
Even after all these years, Mike – who can still picture his Grandma leaning out of the third floor window in the projects whenever they came to visit – felt the sting of their loss through other surviving relatives:
Growing up I never saw this place, as my Grandparents, by then, lived in those projects… That home on North Oxford was in the middle of one of the wonderful Italian neighborhood’s that filled Brooklyn. I’ve been told the backyard was right out of Italy, with Grape arbors, wine making equipment and a beautiful garden. My Grandfathers coffee shop was a local meeting place and community center. They lived a wonderful Italian life in the “new country”. It was all lost. A shame.
Mike and Jennie only spoke Italian and weren’t close to their grandkids, but when Mike talked to his only surviving aunt, she was able to tell him how his grandparents really felt about the Fort Greene Houses.
They never recovered. The word devastated was and should be used to convey their feelings. It wasn’t just the fact they lost their home, which would be enough to sadden the toughest of people. Owning a home in the New World was the culmination of years of hard work and savings that began with their immigration. It was the symbol of their success in America. Italians in the early years settled in neighborhoods that, except for the differences in architecture, were identical to the home they had left in Europe, with Italian food stores, social clubs, street vendors etc…. just like Italy. In fact, when their home and neighborhood was torn down they cried. While the projects were being built, Mike and Jennie and all six of their children lived in a crowded apartment at 748 Myrtle Ave. Two of their sons went off to war, so while two brave Cuomo boys put their lives on the line for their country, in a way their country let them down by tearing their home down.
The worse part of it all was that when the Cuomo’s moved into the projects, they were no longer surrounded by the culture and institutions they shared with their former neighbors. The buildings quickly became a slum and were populated by people of all nationalities.
One of the big cultural features that would have been lost for Italian men like Mike who moved into the projects was bocce ball.
Bocce ball is an Italian male social event. You would never see women at a bocce ball game, ever. For those who don’t play bocce ball, Mike explained how it was played the Italian way:
The thing about bocce is that it is a slow, lazy game with two teams of 3-4 men each. Every roll of the ball is like a freaking debate!!! The team comes together and discusses how to roll it, how hard, what kind of spin, etc etc…and they argue and yell at each other like… “No you stupid A-hole…roll it this way”…in Italian with cursing and gesticulating arm movements. It’s a sight to see, and a Bocce game can take literally hours!!!
Grandpa Mike had a bocce court in his backyard, and it is doubtful that he would have had as many – if any – chances to play bocce ball when his home was torn down for the Fort Greene Houses.
So did the Italian men gather together in their fratellanzas and bocce ball games after the Fort Greene neighborhood was destroyed by the city? Probably somewhere for a while, but Mike has no idea where. And once Italians started moving away instead of moving into the projects, their traditions began to fade away. Thus, their Italian culture was no longer actively practiced and instead became inertly passive – only alive through their memories.
In addition to the fratellanza, gardens were extremely important to Italians, and living in the Fort Greene projects did not allow Mike and Jennie to work their patch of earth like they could at 81 North Oxford Street. Understanding the importance of the garden to Italians allows us to understand a sense of their loss.
The garden was a part of their souls, a way they connected to the earth and lived within their fading traditions. If they had some dirt, they could NOT have a garden. The sacred importance of the garden was true of Italians everywhere – people in Bensonhurst even grew tomatoes in a little 4×4 patch in the front of their house. In reality though, Italians grew fruits and vegetables not because of any health concerns, but because it was less expensive than buying them (though they did take pride in particularly good crops).
The anchor of every good Italian garden is the fig tree and Mike and Jennie were no exception to that rule. Moving into a third story apartment building in the Fort Greene projects must have been tormenting for both Mike and Jennie not having a garden and a pair of lovely fig trees to tend to.
One particular aspect that interests me (David) is not just the stories that people tell, but also their characters. Not only what they looked like, but what their hopes and dreams were, what kind of hobbies they had and what their idiosyncrasies were. When I asked Mike what “Grandpa Mike” and “Grandma Jennie” were like, his memories of them were when he was a teen in the 1950s.
Grandma “Jennie” was tiny, short and round and always wore house dresses and aprons. Frizzy, silver-grey hair. Maybe at a wedding she would wear a proper dress. She was not Mike’s favorite. She had this way of pinching his cheeks when he walked into the apartment. It was downright painful, but she paid no attention to his cries. She was not very hands on with her grandchildren and she yelled a lot.
Grandpa Mike was a big man, about 6’1” tall and a solid 180 pounds from working in foundries and iron works. He had a square jaw with a full head of pure white hair. Grandpa Mike was also taciturn: Italian men just didn’t bother with kids. It was women’s work to attend to children. Mike never had any real conversations with either his Grandpa Mike or Grandma Jennie. It didn’t help matters they only spoke Italian and Mike did not.
Grandpa Mike was outgoing and personable. Not only did he run coffee shop “fratellanzas” he also had a perpetual bocce game or feast in his back yard. Later, when they lived in the Fort Greene Projects, the family would go over to their apartment for a Sunday dinner. Mike’s dad had three brothers and two sisters and they would all be there yapping away in Italian as they ate. Grandpa Mike would hold court at the head of the table.
It is here that the story of Mike and Jennie comes to an end. The ending begins with Mike, when in 1958, at the age of 73, he died of spinal meningitis.
Jennie lasted longer than her husband. Even though the family feared for her safety living as an elderly widow in the projects, she refused to move in with any of her kids, two of whom owned nice homes in great neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Ft Lee, NJ. She made one move – to a smaller apartment in the projects a few years before she died suddenly of a heart attack. She was alone, in her bathroom preparing a bath when her time came. She died on January 28, 1973.
I’m (David) reluctant to end off on that fashion, although that’s how everyone’s story ends in one way or another. I would like to conclude this write-up with an excerpt from an email I received from Mike about a beautiful memory he had of his grandparents. This is the way Mike and Jennie should be remembered, 61 and 46 years after their passing:
One of the few memories I have of my Grandpa Mike that shows how they clinged to whatever they could of their culture, other than speaking and eating Italian, was this very strange thing he did. Across from their apartment on Myrtle avenue (remember at the time there was an EL, an elevated subway line that ran down Myrtle Ave) were stores and tenements. Behind those buildings was a path that led into some woods and dirt roads that hadn’t been developed yet. He would grab this stick, like a walking stick, and throw this burlap sack over his shoulder and he would go back there hunting for wild mushrooms. I remember how my uncles and my dad used to comment about his expertise in distinguishing between poisonous and edible mushrooms. When he returned he and Grandma would painstakingly sort thru the days catch and meticulously clean the mushrooms and use them to make mushroom dishes or add to the tomato sauce cooking on the stove for hours. It seemed like the only time I saw them as a couple, sharing this little cultural ritual that no doubt originated in the old country. Hmmm…brings tears to my eyes actually.
If you have read and enjoyed this and anything resonates with you, feel free to email David at [email protected]. I would love to hear from you even if you or your families’ NYC immigrant story isn’t of an Italian background.