Celebrating Montclair’s Italian-American history
By GWEN OREL
Retired Montclair Police Chief Tom Russo remembers when the roads around Pine Street in the Fourth Ward were filled with the sounds of people speaking Italian.
“Everybody used to hang out on their front stoops and greet each other,” said Russo, who grew up in the area in the 1950s. He and his friends used to play in the streets until the streetlights came on; that was when it was time to go home.
Last week, the Township Council passed a resolution to declare October Italian-American Heritage Month. Deputy Mayor/First Ward Councilman William Hurlock, whose mother’s family came from Italy to Plainfield and Sterling in 1901, says that Italian-Americans in Montclair were instrumental in building the town.
Over 5.4 million Italians immigrated to the United States between 1820 and 1992, the proclamation states, adding: “Our nation was even named after an Italian, the explorer and geographer Americo Vespucci.” Praising the contributions of Italian immigrants and their descendants to American life, the proclamation calls on everyone to learn more about their history.
Donato DiGeronimo, who is on the board of the Montclair History Center, maintains a Facebook group dedicated to Italian-American history in Montclair, Facebook.com/ItaliansOfMontclair. On that page there is a video made by Italian television about the Italians of Montclair, as well as videos made to go with an exhibition at Montclair High School nine years ago.
“Italians of Montclair — 1” opens with a still of a map of the Fourth Ward; viewers can see the intersections of Pine Street, Sherman Street, Grant Street and, a bit lower down, Baldwin Street. DiGeronimo will hold a Zoom talk called “You Must Remember This” through the history center on Nov. 24.
THE HEART OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, on Pine Street, has been the heart of the Italian-American community in Montclair. The church was established in 1907 to serve the needs of the newly arrived immigrants. It was originally a wooden church; the structure now on Pine opened in 1939 with funds raised from the community.
It has been closed since March due to COVID-19, and for renovations. In 2016, it merged with the Church of the Immaculate Conception to form St. Teresa of Calcutta parish.
Immigrants from Cerami, Sicily, founded the Society of St. Sebastian at the church in 1926. It is one of three religious clubs in the parish that held events for the church and social gatherings.
The Club Aquilonese San Vito Society (called the St. Vito Society) was founded in 1917, and the St. Donato Society was founded around 1900.
Danny Arminio, president of the Society of St. Sebastian, which holds a procession for the saint and a yearly carnival in Kaveny Field, said he thinks the church will reopen in February.
Russo remembers that the carnival for the Feast for Our Lady of Mount Carmel (a different carnival than the one for St. Sebastian) used to be held on Pine Street, not in the parking lot of the church as it has been in recent years, when it has been held.
“The lights used to be hung starting on Glenridge Avenue all the way up Pine Street. All the vendors had their own vending stations along Pine Street. And then at night they would have the bandstand set up. And the people used to dance in the street,” he said.
He also recalled playing basketball, pool and ping-pong in the Catholic Youth Organization through Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The priest and the CYO “kept us on the straight-and-narrow,” he said.
Over the years, the neighborhood has changed, as families moved to areas with yards and bought new homes. Rafaelle Marzullo, who grew up in the neighborhood and still lives there, said there was a rough period for a while when the area was in decline, and there were drug issues. Now it’s very much on the mend, with condos and gentrification.
Montclair formed a sister city relationship with Aquilonia, the town Marzullo’s family hails from, in 2017. Members of the council visited the town, and people from Aquilonia have visited Montclair.
He hopes that Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church will reopen. “I know there are several people trying to ensure that they keep it open. That neighborhood has a lot of history,” he said.
He’s spent a lot of time in the neighborhood, and gone to functions at the St. Vito Society, on Pine Street.
BUILDING A COMMUNITY
Marzullo’s great-grandfather emigrated from Aquilonia in the 1880s, when Montclair was still a new town: It was founded in 1868.
His great-grandfather worked in Glen Ridge as a gas lamplighter, before returning to Italy. Marzullo’s grandfather came to Montclair and then also went back again. Marzullo emigrated with his father in the 1960s.
Italians came “as ditch-diggers, carpenters, stoneworkers and everything else,” he said. Their children became doctors and lawyers and teachers. “A lot of times with this garbage of Mafia this and Mafia that, people forget the great contributions of Italians,” Marzullo said. “Bank of America was founded by Italian immigrants. Tropicana orange juice was founded by an Italian.”
Many of the Italian immigrants to Montclair came from a handful of towns: Cerami, Lacedonia, in southern Italy, and Aquilonia, also in southern Italy.
Many of the families who came from the same areas of Italy and Sicily intermarried. “They stayed together,” DiGeronimo said.
People replicated some of their customs from home. “Everybody had gardens,” Russo said. “They grew tomatoes, they grew squash. They had grapevines. You could tell when it was grape season. All the Italian families, the men used to make their own wine. They used to buy the grapes by the cart, and you could see the empty carts piled up, and you knew they were making homemade wine.”
When many of the Italians immigrated, in the 1880s and 1890s, many Irish were immigrating as well, DiGeronimo said. The Fourth Ward was also an area of town where Black people lived.
“We were all struggling, and I think it was safe to say we were all looking for a piece of the American pie,” Russo said. “For ourselves and for our families. And that did come about.
“We struggled, and we looked to better ourselves and our families.” And many families then moved out of the Fourth Ward and bought homes, he said.
“Everybody got along,” Marzullo said. “During those times, back when they built the Holland Tunnel, there was one sign I saw one time in a publication that said, whites, $1.25 an hour, Blacks $1 an hour, Italians 75 cents. You wanted to overcome.”
He remembers an African-American man who worked with his grandfather and would come over to drink his grandfather’s homemade wine and tell him stories, in Italian.
Later he realized that the “gentleman we’re talking about was (former Fourth Ward Councilwoman] Renée Baskerville’s relative,” he said.
That non-Italians spoke Italian was not unusual. The enclave on Pine Street and Glenridge Avenue was almost all Italian, DiGeronimo said, but some other streets were more mixed. People lived side by side, he said. There were Italian bakeries and butcher shops — including Nick Soda’s chicken market that had live chickens slaughtered in the back, which horrified all the children, he said with a laugh.
“The thing I remember probably the most was Mr. Cohen’s Italian-American grocery. It was a Jewish family, and he spoke all the dialects, Mr. Cohen,” he said. “Everybody would go in there, and you would buy stuff on credit, and he would write the bill on a bag, and pin it up. He spoke more Italian than anybody because it was different dialects from different regions.”