ELLISON STREET: AN ITALIAN-AMERICAN MEMOIR
THE CITY, THE HOUSE, THE SCHOOL THE CHURCH (EXCERPT)
The three foundational pillars of my youth ended in fire, demolition, and dislocation. These events marked the end of my childhood innocence and ushered me into adulthood. The house where I lived, the elementary school where I was educated, and the church where I worshiped were these sacrificial pillars.
My story is not unique. It has been replicated countless times by families that emigrated to America from distant countries with children learning to live in new and different surroundings. What is unique in my story are the people, places, customs, and history of events to which I alone claim ownership and meaning.
I was born and raised in Rochester, New York, a child of southern Italian immigrants in a city largely affected by those immigrants. Rochester and its Italian/American population played a major role in shaping both my character and future path in life.
In Rochester, in the 1830s, long before the city was home to modern manufacturers as Bausch and Lomb (1853), Eastman Kodak (1888), and the Xerox Corporation (1906) the city was the largest flour milling center in the nation (today Rochester is known as the Flower City). By the 1920s, Rochester was famous for the garment trades and shoe manufacturing. Important German Jewish immigrant tailors started arriving as early as 1812, the year of the city’s permanent settlement. By 1834, at least twenty tailor shops were operating in Rochester, employing immigrants from Germany, Italy, and Poland. Eventually, the clothing industry and shoe manufacturing were the two largest sources of employment in the city.
Italian immigrants were drawn to the opportunities for work in Rochester, not just in the garment and shoe industries, but as skilled tradesmen and day laborers. The number of Italians in the city grew rapidly in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century. From 1880 to 1960, according to U.S. Census figures, the numbers of Italian immigrants coming to Rochester rose from 89, 336 in 1880, to 318, 611 in 1960.
By the time of the First World War, colonies of Italian immigrants expanded into neighborhoods and enclaves throughout the city. Students in public elementary schools No. 5, 6, 14, 17, and 18 were predominantly Italian. City schools No. 9, 10, and 11 followed with equally strong populations of young Italian children. Italian neighborhoods expanded in several directions, from original locations in the 1st, 2nd, and 5th Wards; into the 11th to the west, 10th and 15th to the north and northwest; into the 19th Ward in the southwest, but especially to the northeast into the 18th, 20th, and 22nd Wards, across the city line into the suburb of Irondequoit.
Amidst these shifting and growing settlements of Italians, two locations in the city were particularly dense with Italian-owned shops of all kinds: markets, delicatessens, bakeries, small businesses, social clubs, and the Italians they served. One such enclave was on the Westside, along Lyell Avenue and Jay Street near the former Erie Canal. The other was on the Eastside, along Clifford Avenue and Bay Street near Goodman Street.
I was born on Ellison Street located on the Eastside of Rochester in the 18th Ward between Clifford Avenue and Bay Street. I attended public school No. 11 on Webster Avenue. My parish church, St. Philip Neri, was located on Clifford Avenue. These three buildings: my house, church, and school, and their surrounding neighborhoods, were the centers of my young Italian/American world growing up in the city.
Ellison Street is a long street cut into three equal parts by Bay Street and Rocket Street that intersect it at right angles. When I knew it, Ellison Street was lined with tall, healthy, Dutch elms (years before the blight) that created a protective canopy of shade during the hot summer months, and a stark, solemn pattern of movement in the winter. It was a street of sturdy, well- built houses and of good neighbors. It was a street where children’s games changed with the seasons, where a milkman still delivered door to door, and where the mailman often stopped to play basketball with us before continuing his route.
For many years, my entire world was defined by the strategic houses on Ellison Street. In one direction I could go as far as Mr. Frati’s, in the other as far as the Arenas’ (both on my side of the street). Later, when I was allowed to cross the street, I could traverse a parallel distance bounded now by the Montemaros’ house and the Adantes’.
The real center of my world, however, was my own house: a large, brick structure with a long, open wooden porch that ran across the entire length of the façade. It was one of the oldest houses on the street and was, in fact, a double house. On one side I lived with my parents and my older brother and younger sister. On the other side (on the ground floor) lived my grandfather and grandmother (my mother’s parents) and they in turn rented their upstairs portion of the house to a boarder who had always been known to me simply as Mr. Mestler.
Mr. Mestler was an elderly man with a kind, gentle face. He wore small circular wire rim eyeglasses. His wife had died many years earlier and he had never remarried. He worked in a dentist’s office and often brought me some of the small toys that were given out to the dentist’s younger patients. Mr. Mestler had lived amongst us for as long as I could remember. I always said hello to him whenever I saw him enter or leave the house and he always smiled at me and said hello back, calling me by my first name. There was never a holiday or special family celebration that passed in my house without my mother preparing a large plate of food and telling me to take it next door and upstairs to Mr. Mestler. I always looked forward to doing it.
In this house my mother, my brother, my sister and I had all been born and, except for my family, it stood as the most tangible and real thing in my young life. Many times I rubbed my hands along the rough surface of the brick, as if only by touching it could I assure myself that indeed, the house did exist. I bounced balls off its thick back walls, I used its many nooks to hide and to protect my most valuable and secret possessions, and from my bedroom window high above all the other houses on Ellison Street I peered down at an expanding world before me.
There was only one other person in our house who understood exactly what it represented, who was aware of its deeper significance: that was my grandfather. In fact, it was through him, by watching him and by working with him, that I was initiated into the magical series of rites over which our house silently presided. Many of these rituals came to take on a mystical quality for me and most seemed inextricably tied to the changing of the seasons. In some non-verbal way, with my grandfather acting as the humble impresario and the house with its small yard as our arena, I first came to suspect that I was part of a much bigger world than that which I could explore on Ellison Street.
When I think of my grandfather now, certain images still rush into my mind: the coarse stubble of his beard, so uncomfortable to touch or to kiss, his briarwood and corncob pipes that remained in all-weather outside on the back-window ledge of the house, his stiff denim jacket with its worn corduroy collar, his weather-beaten, grey felt fedora with a hole in its crown, the smell of stale tobacco and of the homemade red wine that we often drank together despite my mother’s objections.
My grandfather spoke no English. He was a small man but robust and strong – an immigrant from southern Italy living on a street of southern Italian immigrants. During the long, lazy, humid days of summer, the backyard of our house became the meeting place for all the old Italians in the neighborhood. In a ceremony stretching back centuries to the small, parched and impoverished villages of Sicily, Calabria, Abruzzo, Campania, and Puglia, men and women gathered to argue, laugh, cry, moan, and grieve over the fortunes of their lives and the lives of their families and friends.
The scene was always the same: seated in a semi-circle of stout wooden chairs with wide, deep seats and slatted backs would be the big-breasted women dressed in black (regardless of the summer heat), their stockings rolled low around their ankles, fanning themselves with cheaply made paper fans. They alternated with the smaller but no less powerful looking men wearing wide-brimmed straw hats pushed low over their eyes, smoking pipes, cigars, or hand-rolled cigarettes and gesticulating wildly to punctuate the endless flow of the several different Italian dialects they spoke.
Sometimes the talking paused to better hear the music that emanated from inside my grandparents’ house. Most often it was music of the human voice. My grandfather had an old phonograph that he placed inside the house near the back window. Enrico Caruso was, of course, a favorite. But those primitive 78-rpm recordings made in the 1920s sounded weak as they tried to carry beyond the thick walls of our house. Caruso was southern Italian, born in Naples, however, so respect had to be paid. More to my liking, even as a novice, was another revered southern Italian, this time from Sicily, Giuseppe Di Stefano. Regardless of the singer, the repertoire consisted of opera arias and popular Italian songs, especially those by Francesco Paolo Tosti. La Serenata was a particular favorite of all.
It was impossible for me to exit by the back door of my house without first being called over to the group by my grandfather and made to sit in the lap of one of these foreboding-looking ladies in black. Thus situated, I would be lovingly spoken to in a language I had yet to master while at the same time being pinched, pulled, and kneaded like bread dough. Somehow my head always ended up for a moment between the two massive breasts of the woman (through no fault of my own) and only then would I be liberated and sent on my way, temporarily disoriented and disheveled.
And yet there was always something quietly reassuring and comforting to me about these people – about the way they dressed and talked and looked and felt and smelled. I never thought intensely about it at the time, but I was aware that the feeling existed. It was, I guess, a feeling of belonging, of being rooted to a place and to a people and to a way of life. When I would return to my house in the evening from having been on the streets with my friends, the old Italians would still be together laughing and talking in my backyard. And it was thus that the slow-moving days of my summers unfolded.
Samuel A. Lattimore, Public School No. 11 was located at 500 Webster Avenue. It was close enough to my house for me to walk to school in the morning, home for lunch and back, and home again at the end of the day.
As one approached the crosswalk directly in front of the school, one encountered Rose, our crossing guard. Rose wore a blue uniform including a white brimmed cap much like that of a police officer. On rainy and snowy days, she added a yellow slicker with a cowl to cover her cap. She wore white gloves and carried a whistle which she blew to stop the traffic when enough students had assembled waiting to cross.
Rose stood in the middle of the street. A student crossing guard wearing a dayglow orange belt that extended diagonally across one shoulder with arms extended kept the students at curbside until Rose blew her whistle signaling that it was safe to cross. Eventually in my career at No. 11 school, I was selected to be the captain of the crossing guard. My job was to patrol the various locations away from Rose where we had single student guards stationed.
As a building, No. 11 school was my first exposure to architecture — a building that aspired to a sense of beauty beyond its mere function and structure. Set back on a sloping grassy site with a wide sidewalk leading to the main entrance, the central facade projected from two recessed wings. An arcade of five white classical columns extended across the upper story of the central tier. Similar entrance portals were located on each side of the structure.
As with most of the public schools built in Rochester during the 1930s, the materials were red brick alternating with white granite archways at the entrances and short horizontally stacked stripes of granite closing off the design at each end. A white belfry crowned the roof.
The windows that punctuated the two stories were tall with two facing panes of glass. To open them from the inside the teacher had to use a long pole with a small projecting tip that fit into a circular depression in the top of the window frame. The window was then pulled down and the pole returned to its holder on the wall.
Inside, the school had large areas of wooden floor, plaster walls painted a dull brown at the bottom and light yellow at the top, separated halfway up by a thin blue horizontal stripe. Suspended from the ceiling by black chains were glass globe lamps that cast a soft yellow glow. If one entered by the main entrance walking past the principal’s office, one encountered an impressive wooden staircase leading to the second floor.
Our school auditorium, where assemblies were held, also doubled as our gymnasium. The floor was made of cork. Attached to one wall was a vertical measuring stick. Once each year all students were weighed and measured, and the results recorded by our gym instructor, Mr.Farnum.
As I reflect upon my eight years at No. 11 school (K-7), I first recall my teachers: a varied collection of men, women, spinsters, widows, widowers, and young student teachers just out of college. Today I can still remember the names and faces of each one of them. Many, but not all, were Italian/American. Some lived close to my house on Ellison Street.
Having an older brother who preceded me, at first my school identity was based upon his reputation. My brother and I had the same kindergarten teacher, Miss Saydak. She would also be my younger sister’s kindergarten teacher. This singular woman set all three of us on the path to learning and education. She used to refer to us as her “100% Family.” She became a valued friend to our family up until her death many years after my brother, sister, and I had become adults with separate lives of our own.
I remember many specific incidents and events from my time at No. 11 school: my math difficulties in Mr. Nicoletti’s class; a play that I wrote, cast, and directed for Miss Carmody’s fifth-grade class based on Sherlock Holmes; the exploding volcano I made from oatmeal for Miss Holohan’s fourth-grade class; everyone’s favorite teacher (and the coolest) Mr. Alaimo, who played saxophone in a Rochester jazz quartet, and the time that a substitute teacher, Miss Brooks, took over from our regular teacher in third grade and read Charlotte’s Web to us with her southern accent. I had never heard a southern accent before. Field trips to the George Eastman House, the Eastman School of Music to hear a student production of Mozart’s Così fan Tutte, my first live opera; and a tour of the Memorial Art Gallery, all in the first and second grades, were also memorable school experiences and influenced my interests and career choices many years later.
Once a year in the widest and longest hallway on the second floor, dental students from the Eastman Dental Dispensary set up a long line of exam chairs and we would all get our teeth cleaned for free. Those wooden floors had a life of their own. They would warp, bend, and swell during changes in the seasons based on the temperature and humidity levels in this breathing, living building.
During most of my young life growing up in Rochester I traversed a geographic area that ran north to south from Clifford Avenue to Ellison Street to Webster Avenue, and west to east from Goodman Street to Culver Road. My house was on Ellison Street, my elementary school on Webster Avenue, my church on Clifford Avenue, and later, my high school was on Culver Road. If my elementary school possessed some distinctive architectural elements, my neighborhood Catholic church, St. Philip Neri, did not.
St. Philip Neri was located at 1782 Clifford Avenue. The original church dated back to 1929. Alterations were made over the next decade and the church I knew was a 1939 simple wooden mission-style structure devoid of any exterior embellishment.
One entered the front of the church through a small gabled porch. Inside one saw a central nave flanked by wooden pews on either side. Small aisles ran along the walls with painted ceramic plaques depicting the Stations of the Cross spaced accordingly.
The most dramatic adornments inside were the life-size statues in painted wood or plaster depicting the Virgin Mary and other saints. These were dominated by a life-size painted wooden statue of the crucified Christ positioned at front along the altar railing where parishioners knelt to
receive Communion and where one could kiss the blood-stained feet of the suffering Christ looking down at one. This ritual was practiced by the many elderly southern Italian women who belonged to the parish.
When attending Mass, it was almost impossible for me to look away from that suffering figure on the cross. Its scale and realism transfixed and discomforted me. Many years later as an art historian, I was to lecture about a group of similar realistic sculptures, mainly from Spain and much older, that took me right back to that statue in the church of my childhood.
My parents were married in this church, and I and my siblings all received the Catholic sacraments of baptism, Communion, and confirmation there. Our pastor was an elderly priest, Father George Weinmann. He was assisted by a younger, less-severe priest we always sought out to hear our confessions, Father Leo Mans.
Originally there was no school associated with the parish. But eventually one was built with nuns from the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) arriving to take up administrative and teaching duties. When the Catholic school opened some of my friends in public school transferred, following their parents’ wishes. My parents kept me in my public school, and I was relieved by their decision.
Attending public school as a Catholic did not mean I was exempt from religious instruction, however. As I prepared for the solemn rights of Communion and later confirmation, a priest from St. Philip’s (usually Father Mans) walked to No.11 school each week to collect the Catholic children and escort us on foot to the Catholic school for our lessons. The priest appeared as a shepherd leading his flock.
For the most part I was intimidated by the sisters at the Catholic school. At times I felt that those of us whose parents allowed us to remain in public school were singled out for special scrutiny and questioning that always made me uneasy. But somehow, I managed to negotiate the fine line between paganism and the true faith.
In fact, I was so successful that one day there was a knock at our back door and the elderly woman who was responsible for my religious instruction as I prepared for my first Communion was invited into our kitchen by my mother. Her name was Miss Martin. She was a devout lay instructor at the church whose only responsibility was teaching the catechism and helping to prepare children for their first Communion.
Miss Martin was a small woman who walked with a stoop. She carried a thick walking stick with a faceted shaft that came to a point like a giant pencil. I knew little of her history. She had never married, and I could not understand why she wasn’t a nun. Her devotion to the church, the Sacraments, and an austere lifestyle based on prayer and abstinence was total. At times she too intimidated me. It might have been that walking stick that she was adept at using for so many tasks.
She was acquainted with my mother who often volunteered at the church and school, especially during important ceremonies and holidays. I stood frozen behind a kitchen chair as my mother invited Miss Martin to sit down while she made some tea. My mind raced through a litany of possible offences that I might be guilty of, the seriousness of which might demand a house call from Miss Martin. I could think of nothing.
My mother and Miss Martin were comfortably seated at our kitchen table sipping their tea when Miss Martin finally spoke. She looked straight at my mother and abruptly said, “I think that your son should study for the priesthood.”
I can’t remember who was more shocked at those words, my mother or me, My mother turned around to look at me, perhaps expecting some divine light to be emanating from the top of my head.
“The priesthood?” she meekly replied. “My David?
“Yes,” said Miss Martin, rather matter-of-factly. “Please pray on it. You too, David.”
My mother and I both assured Miss Martin that we would indeed pray on it. She thanked
my mother for the tea, wished us both a good day, and departed.
My mother stared at me, “Do you want to be a priest?” she finally asked.
“I don’t think so.” I answered.
“Why would Miss Martin say that?”
“I don’t know. Can I go out and play?”
My mother and I never spoke of Miss Martin’s visit again.
David Gariff is senior lecturer at the National Gallery of Art and adjunct professor of art history at The Catholic University of America. A specialist in modern art and the art of the Italian Renaissance, he has taught art history at the University of Wisconsin, Cleveland State University, Trinity University, and the University of Maryland, College Park. David is Italian American through both his mother (from Calabria) and his father (originally Garifi) from Sicily.