South of Rome–West of Ellis Island
South of Rome–West of Ellis Island
"The Italian is so jealous of every foot of land; he will use a hoe in places too small to be worked with a plough”
In the early years of the 20th century, the rich barons owning large tracts of undeveloped land along the Mississippi River decided to import families from Italy to plant crops. Even though the South had a large and under utilized farm labor force; the barons wanted southern Italians because, as one said: “It is always difficult to get local workers to plant and properly cultivate t
he outer edges of the field – the extreme ends of the rows, the ditch banks, etc. The Italian is so jealous of every foot of land; he will use a hoe in places too small to be worked with a plough” (see: “Rising Tide” by John M. Barry). Those land barons realized that the rugged land and climate of southern Italy made southern Italians appreciate the value of every ‘precious patch of dirt’.
At the same time that southern Italians were being brought into Mississippi, thousands more came to the industrial city of Rochester NY to work in the clothing and other factories. They settled in classic ‘little Italy’ urban villages in the vicinity of the various factories. The “Mount Allegro” neighborhood made famous by Jerre Mangione in a book by that name was one such Italian urban village. Just across the river from Mount Allegro was the Brown Square little Italy.
The Brown Square neighborhood was an industrial and railroad complex that included Kodak’s Camera Works factory, scrap iron, coal yards, etc. Also, there was the New York Central twelve boxcar wide freight yard, where goods transferred to and from trucks through a two block long warehouse. Laced in this industrial/transportation zone were the houses of hundreds of southern Italian immigrants clustered together with almost no yard space between them. One such house belonged to an Abruzzi immigrant Pietro Torrelli. The porch of his house was less than three feet from the sidewalk. Nevertheless, he fenced that ‘precious patch of dirt’ between the porch and the sidewalk and planted some of the most beautiful roses one can imagine. He was not unique. Fruits and flowers grew in every ‘nook and cranny’ the Brown Square Italians could find to plant. Indeed, the grapevines in the yard of Mr. Canepa from Sicily wedged between a bakery and a warehouse complex was not the only ‘vineyard’ in the neighborhood. Saratoga Ave. was an intensely used bus, truck and car route running through the center of the Brown Square neighborhood. Yet, all along the avenue, people driving by could view meticulously kept fruit and flower gardens. Like their compatriots in southern Italy and the Mississippi valley, the southern Italians in the Brown Square neighborhood cultivated every ‘precious patch of dirt.’
Today, the descendents of those southern Italian immigrants, living in the suburbs insolated from factories and commercial traffic, have large mostly grass covered yards - a patch of dirt is no longer thought precious because they have so much. And, they have come to think of their Italian ancestry in terms of north Italian Renaissance culture. They love to travel to Rome, Florence, Milan, etc. However, it is important to keep in mind - there was no Renaissance south of Rome! Southern Italian peasants did not express their craft, creativity and diligence in carved marble and painted frescos. To southern Italians, in their homeland, Mississippi or Brown Square, beauty was the fruits and flowers brought forth from a ‘precious patch of dirt.’