Thursday, November 6, 2008

Thursday Night at the Park Slope Barnes & Noble: Vicenza Scarpaci & "The Journey of the Italians in America"

After being sidelined for ten days with illness, election work and work work, tonight we managed to make time to mosey over to the Park Slope Barnes & Noble, where Vincenza Scarpaci gave a fascinating talk about her sumptuous new book of photos and history, The Journey of the Italians in America.

There was a small crowd of 20-25 people there and we were unaccustomedly one of the younger people in the audience (for the first time in our lives, come January - happily - even the President of the United States will be younger than us), though there was at least one child there (who later asked the author how long it took her to write the book).

Dr. Scarpaci, a 68yo native of Bensonhurst, was back in Brooklyn from her home in Eugene, Oregon. As Barnes & Noble's Peaches, who always gives good introductions, noted, the author received her Ph.D. in U.S. history from Rutgers University with a specialty in immigration history.

A recipient of the prestigious Ameritan Award from the Maryland Order of the Sons of Italy for her philanthropic efforts, Dr. Scarpaci has been teaching courses on American and immigration history at the University of Oregon, Seton Hall University, Towson State University and other schools.

She's also published many articles and essays in various Italian and American magazines, scholarly journals, and encyclopedias. Dr. Scarpaci was accompanied on her book tour by her husband Peter, who gave us in the audience handouts with photos and text from the book. (Note: except for the wedding photo from the book's cover, none of the pics here are from the book.)

Dr. Scarpaci began by saying that her book is the story of multiple journeys - her literal journey as a scholar of the Italian-American experience, which has taken her around the U.S. in search of immigrant history as seen in the lives of families; the journeys of Italians in corners of this nation where we wouldn't necessarily think of them as numerous; and her life's journey making Italian-Americans her field of scholarly study.

Families hold the key to immigrant history, she said, and she was aided by amateur family historians in collecting the material for this book. The captions to the historic photographs are more detailed than ones you'd see in most collections of immigrant photographs, since she could include fascinating information on the lives of individuals in the pictures that she'd gotten from their relatives.

"What is it that makes us Italian-Americans?" Dr. Scarpaci asked. After all, many of us are now four, five or even six generations removed from our immigrant ancestors, and many are now - as members of the audience revealed during the Q&A - only partly descended in one branch of our family from those who came over from Italy. It cannot just be a love of Italian cooking and cuisine or the once-a-year feast observances. Italian heritage is far more complex than that.

Many of the original immigrants came from Italy under great duress and financial hardship as they were unable to provide for their families in Europe, but Italians, Dr. Scarpaci said, kept their love of the land. Unlike the Irish immigrants, whose largest immigration occurred due to the potato famine and who felt that there the land had betrayed them, even those Italians unable to make a living off the land back in Italy retained their firm interest in farming, even if it had to be confined to growing vegetables and fruits in urban backyards and city plots.

More importantly, Italian-American farmers - some as close as upstate New York and Hammonton and Vineland, New Jersey - turned their cultivation of vegetables and fruits into a more general vertical dominance of the food industry in various parts of the country as they became distributors, door-to-door and street peddlers, grocery store owners and restaurant owners in California, Florida and other states.

Italian farmers introduced such vegetables as zucchini, broccoli and asparagus, of course; they also influenced those of non-Italian backgrounds, like the Italian food peddlers in Portland, Oregon, who taught the mother of James Beard how to make polenta and other Italian foods.

Dr. Scarpaci's grandfather had a backyard plot in Bensonhurst and she talked about his fig trees and how Italian-Americans have fig trees in backyards all over the nation. (In our backyard in Williamsburg, we have a munificent fig tree which supplies the owner's family - and us - with a bounty of incredibly delicious figs in late summer. We've also got some pretty good grapevines.)

Italian-Americans, the author said, are family-oriented. Their large families of second generation kids - like our beloved landlord and his friends - made World War II soldiers of Italian descent more numerous than any other single ethnic group.

Italian stonemasons built the Croton Reservoir that still supplies New York City with much of its drinking water from what is the world's second-largest structure of hand-hewn stones (the pyramids of Egypt are first).

Italians' love of art, decorative as well as fine art, influenced much of the ornamental sculpture, such as the gargoyles, on 19th century buildings, and Italian architecture and design is represented on both the exterior and interior of monumental public works such as the Library of Congress.

Dr. Scarpaci then said there is a "shadow side" of all immigration, including Italian-American immigration. Many never prospered in America, not all found a better life here, some never learned the language and could not adapt, and some returned to Italy embittered rather than prosperous from the New World.

She showed a 1916 photograph from Bridgeport, Connecticut of a little girl, Francesca Cirillo, in a rocking chair The child died soon after, on Christmas Eve, from tubercular meningitis, and another sister and brother died in 1918 in the Spanish flu epidemic and were buried in a mass grave with other victims. As Dr. Scarpaci writes,
this left their mother, Cesaria, from Melito di Napoli, with one surviving child, Angelina. Cesaria had lost her own mother at an early age and was raised by an aunt before going into a convent for four years.

Cesaria married Antonio Cirillo, from Succivo, Caserta, an experienced chef (many of the marriages in this generation were arranged) who opened a restaurant, Vittorio, in Bridgeport. Even though the family lived above it, Antonio never let his wife go into the restaurant. He was a gambler, an alcoholic and a womanizer who lost most of his money due to his vices, and when he died at 50, Cesaria was left penniless. She spent the remaining years of her life eking out a meager living making artificial flowers by hand and selling them on the street.

Tragic stories like that, Dr. Scarpaci said, are a part of the immigrant experience, too, and we should not turn our faces from its shadow side. We liked that Dr. Scarpaci, while celebrating her heritage, is no sentimentalizer. Her book, publishing by Pelican, is well-designed with a treasure trove of photographs with fascinating stories behind each one.

During the Q&A period, we asked Dr. Scarpaci about the decline of distinctively Italian neighborhoods - her native Bensonhurst, for example - and she said that many Little Italy neighborhoods in cities were destroyed by urban renewal projects or the aspirations of later generations to find more comfortable lives in suburbs. (Block Magazine, by the way, recently had a great article on the shifting boundaries of our Italian Williamsburg.)

The foremost historian on the subject of Baltimore's Little Italy, Dr. Scarpaci noted that the Italian-Americans moved out in "spokes" and that some Italian-American communities, if not quite neighborhoods, reformed in various suburban clusters. (We've noted this phenomenon in places in Long Island and New Jersey.)

There were lots of other fascinating tidbits, both in Dr. Scarpaci's talk, and elicited from her in the Q & A period. A recent immigrant from Italy, for example, asked how post-World War II and contemporary immigrants compare to the vast wave of Italian immigrants in the nineteenth and early twentieth century; most newcomers, Dr. Scarpaci said, are professionals like physicians and executives who have less interest in interacting with others from their native land and find it more comfortable being around those of similar educational and professional backgrounds.

The wedding photo of the cover of Dr. Scarpaci's is that of her grandparents Antonina Gerardi and Francesco Scarpaci on April 15, 1928, at Our Lady of Loreto Church at 124 Sackman Street at Pacific Street. (The church's website has some wonderful photos of old Brooklyn, and not just the church environs.)

The couple met on a blind date and their courtship was allowed to continue only with family supervision. Dr. Scarpaci noted that sitting in the audience was her mother's first cousin, Georgette Girardi, who was one of the little flower girls at the wedding and sitting just behind us was the brother of another flower girl, a cousin from another side of the family. (After the talk, the two unrelated cousins of Dr. Scarpaci introduced themselves to each other.)

Anyway, we had a wonderful time both at Dr. Scarpaci's talk and in looking at her book afterwards. We recommend The Journey of Italians in America if you or an older relative or friend is, like us, fascinated by this immigrant history. As Bobby Tanzilo wrote a couple of weeks ago in On Milwaukee:
the book's 300 pages -- cut from something like 800! -- aim to create something more compelling and engaging than a "family album" of Italian-Americans. Sure, there's the de rigeur photo of Lee Iacocca and a shot of the Italian Carabinieri Band playing in front of the Statue of Liberty. But, Scarpaci isn't afraid to air our "dirty laundry" and admit that the road to America wasn't always paved with gold and with dreamy thoughts of paradise on earth. . .

[The book] not only includes photos from the Little Italys of San Francisco, New York, Boston and Philadelphia, but also have photos of Madison's Greenbush and Milwaukee's Bay View neighborhoods, as well as from small cities and tiny towns across America. . .Because Scarpaci knows that despite the stereotypes of the Italian city kid, immigrants went anywhere there was work. That's why you'll find great bakeries, sausage shops, mutual aid societies, restaurants and more - all bearing Italian names in small-town Western Pennsylvania, in the UP of Michigan and in Northern Wisconsin, in the iron ranges of Minnesota and Ohio, in the mining towns of Colorado and in dust bowl Texas and Oklahoma, too.

Vincenza put her heart and soul and her sweat into. . . her book. But, it's mine, too, and as Americans - of Italian heritage or not - it's also yours, since it cuts to the heart of how nearly all of us got here: through determination, hard work and by surviving the downs and celebrating the ups.

Grazie mille to the Park Slope Barnes & Noble for this event.

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