The boho-beatnik, boutique, food and folk music scenes of Greenwich Village have made indelible marks in the imagination of people everywhere. Less reknowned are the Italian-American immigrants who lived in the area around Washington Square and the stories about their lives, love, and rabbletrousing.
Carol Bonomo Albright, granddaughter of Italian immigrants, had an inside view on all of the going ons. She grew up in an apartment building on West Broadway between Prince and Spring. The building housed not only her family and grandmother but also 28 other families, all Italian except for a few Jewish couples and a gay couple. As a young girl Albright played hopscotch in the shadow of Garabldi’s statue, ran errands on Houston Street, and walked past the Little Red School House.
In the memoir she not only describes the going onat the school–the nuns, the dancing lessons–but also fills the readers in on the Ciano family who owned the buildings which housed the school. The elder Ciano was a barber who put two sons through medical school.
As a youngster, Albright rubbed crossed paths with the great abstract expressionist Joseph Stella. His doctor brother sponsored the first exhibit of his works in the Tiro A Segno Club on MacDougal Street. Ralph Fasanella, who lived around the block on Thompson Street, rose up from beginnings more humble than Stella’s. His father was an iceman and his mother a button-hole maker. Today Ralph’s works celebrating workers hang in important museums around the world.
Today the major vestages left of Italian life in the Village are the aromas of bread, espresso, pizza, garlicky salami, and cigars. Albright takes us with her, down Cornelia and Bleeker Streets, as she steps back in time and inside the wood floored stores that flourished during her childhood–Virginia’s delicatessen next door to St. Anthony’s Church, Joe’s cheese store with its supurb cacciocavallo and the candy shop that sold Charlotte Russe.
Along the way, while telling her story about all thing Italians, Abright takes readers on a brisk tour of Village architecture, giving details about the facades of Fifth Avenue churches and the stained glass window above the entrance to Parrazzo Funeral Home.
And what a twist on subway art–no spray paint! With a nod to Jacob Astor’s fortune made in beaver fur, Albright notes the tiled representation of a beaver on the IRT’s Astor Place subway stop. The Bleecker Street stop sports tulips on its nameplate in honor of the Dutch who initially settled the area.
Give it a read. Long-time Village residents can stroll down memory lane and the new ones might delight in discovering an older Village, right under their feet, during its heyday as the center of Italian immigrants’ lives, when the liberal thinking population’s ethos was, as it continues to be today, a live-and-let-live attitude.
Publish America, 199 pages; $24.95