Dom as a child
Dom, a bit older
Dom as a grown man
A view of South Brooklyn at the beginning of the 1900's
Columbia Street today, close to where Dom spent his childhood
President Street, between Columbia and Hicks Streets, where Dom grew up
In April 1982, at the urging of his daughter, Dom, who had grown up on President Street near Columbia Street, put down on paper his childhood memories. The result is a charming and touching tale of what life was like in this Italian immigrant neighborhood from mid-1910's to 1935. Dominick recounts in vivid details the pleasures of a much simpler life, where children played with home-made kites and old broomsticks, families cooked and ate together and South Brooklyn was the center of the universe.
Though Dom has passed, he is still very much present in this wonderful document.
My sincerest thanks go out to Dom's daughter D. who graciously allowed me to post her father's recollections on Pardon Me For Asking so that they could be shared with everyone else in the neighborhood, and to my friend M. who thought of connecting me to D.
The Truly Wonderful South Brooklyn Childhood Memories Of Dom
What was South Brooklyn like 50 or 60 years ago? How was growing up in those years in the neighborhood? What memories does one still have after so many years? This is Dominick, and I have been asked by my beloved daughter D. to remember what I can and record it for her family and friends. It is now April 1982.
I think the best way to go about this is to take up different topics, not related to each other, and reminisce about each. It would be too much to try to compose a carefully connected account. Also, although these memories are meant to be about the neighborhood, they can't help but be about me and my experience, too.
First of all, the boundaries of the neighborhood. Since I grew on President Street [near Columbia Street] for 12 years until 1925, my immediate world was from Hamilton Avenue to Court Street, and from Hamilton Avenue to Harrison Street (now Kane Street). Later, still based on Hamilton Avenue, it expanded to Smith Street and to Atlantic Avenue. To this day, I still think of the old neighborhood that way, going up to perhaps the Gowanus Canal. This was our territory, our home base, the place by which we judged all other neighborhoods we got to know. We always called it South Brooklyn. Outsiders sometimes called it Red Hook, but strictly speaking, Red Hook was on the other side of Hamilton Avenue. By the way, I think the name South Brooklyn, for an area that is in the western part of Brooklyn now, goes back to the very early days when Brooklyn was little more than a village, where Brooklyn Heights is now. South of that, naturally, would be South Brooklyn, as though it would never go further.
What were the landmark places in those days? What comes to mind now are the old Carroll Park; the pushcart district on Union Street between Columbia and Van Brunt Streets, the Hamilton Avenue Ferry at the foot of Hamilton Avenue where it met Union and Sackett Streets; the Carroll Park branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Union and Clinton streets; Public School 46 on Union Street between Hicks and Henry Streets; Sacred Hearts Church (the full name was Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary) on DeGraw Street between Columbia and Hicks Streets; the Sacred Hearts Parochial School on Hicks Street near the Church; St. Charles Church on President Street between Van Brunt and Columbia Streets (said to be the oldest Italian Catholic church in New York; maybe the U.S.); and the three local movie houses. Yes, we had movies in those days, and they were very popular, at least with us kids. The three theaters were the Happy Hour, on Columbia between President and Union; the Luna, on Columbia between Sackett and DeGraw; and the Oriole, at the corner of Henry and deGraw. Of course, for the big time, as we grew older, our movie options expanded to the Borough Hall area, to the Metropolitan, the Melba the Duffielld, the the Albee and the Fox and the Paramount. All these theaters had stage shows as well as movies (except the Duffield). Actually, they originally had vaudeville along with movies, and I used to love the various acts: singers, acrobats, comedians, magicians, orchestras. I would try to sit as far front as I could, to see their faces up close, to see their expressions, their makeup, sometimes their sweat.
To return to the landmarks. One that I can never forget was the India Wharf Brewing Co. building, probably a warehouse, at the foot of President Street on Hamilton Avenue. It was a huge grayish building (perhaps 9 or 10 stories high) that seemed to plug up the bottom of President Street and dominated the view in that direction. Oddly enough, for such a teeming neighborhood, I can only recall two banks. One (I can't remember its original name) became a Bank of America branch on Columbia Street. The other was Sessa Bank on Union Street between Columbia and Hicks Street.
Believe it or not, there was also a marionette theatre in the neighborhood once. It was on the second floor of the building on the north side of (I think) De Graw Street, between Columbia and Van Brunt Streets. My father took me there once when I was very little, and I was enchanted. Actually, they weren't marionettes, but more like puppets, which I believe are larger. Anyway, the action consisted of knights in armor, beating at each other with swords. The dialogue was loud and furious, but of course I didn't understand a word. Years later, I realized that these were traditional and stylized performances of ancient stories (Orlando in Italy, Roland in France, etc.).
Speaking of landmarks, the outstanding street of my young boyhood was Columbia Street. It was the shopping street of the neighborhood. Oddly enough, I can recall only the part from President Street (we lived only about 4 or 5 houses from Columbia ) to about DeGraw and a little beyond. But these three or four blocks on Columbia were teeming with life and action. Among the stores I remember was a men's hat store (hats then were an important, even necessary part of men's wear), a hardware store (it was called, by the Gaetani, a "gliu wizzo" or something phonetically like that), a paint store, a notion store, a combined newsstand and candy store at the corner of President and Columbia, and a saloon across the street from it at the corner about 100 feet from the building we lived in. Most of these small stores were operated by Jewish merchants.
I don't remember, and maybe I never knew, who ran the saloon, but the owner's son was a non-Italian, blond-haired boy named Walter, a playmate. It was good theta we knew him, because the saloon had a fairly long and uninterrupted wall on the President Street side, against which we used to play handball. because Walter was one of the players, we were never chased away. Another thing about that wall. It was during World War 1, and a popular pastime of kids was drawing exaggerated and ugly chalk drawings of the big villain of those days, the Kaiser. these were done on sidewalks--and on the wall. I canned also remember, on hot summer evenings, being entrusted with the job of going down to the corner saloon with a tin pail that had a cover, and buying beer to bring gone for my parents (and perhaps visitors).
When I was very little (perhaps before even going to school) I can remember my father would go out on Sunday mornings, visit the Gaetani's social club on President Street between Van Brunt and Columbia), talk and play cards, then return home with the Italian Sunday paper, Il Progresso. I would wait for the paper eagerly, for one reason only. It had four pages of colored comics, like all the Sunday papers did, but these had Italian words in the speech balloons, and my father would read them to me. A few years later, when I had learned to read English and used to get an allowance of 5¢ a week, I would agonize between using the nickel to buy a Sunday paper with American comics, or going to the movies on Saturday afternoon.
Oh, those Saturday afternoons in the movies! It was one of the few ways we kids learned about the outside world (the other being the school and the library and the stories told by parents and relatives).
We would sit more or less patiently through the features, which were to us, either "love" or "society" pictures (and therefore worthless), or adventure or mystery stories, to which we would pay attention. But the real screams (and I do mean Screams) would come with the beginning of the latest weekly episode of serials starting Pearl White, Ruth Roland, Tom Mix, and other movie serial heroes and heroines of the day.
Years later, as long as movie serials lasted, other kids did the same thing. But with us, there was a difference. An important part of play consisted of reenacting the stories ourselves, whether cowboy (most popular), adventure, mystery, war, or cops and robbers (second most popular.)
Play. What did it consist of? Besides the movies we re-enacted, there were card games; collecting and trading movie or baseball hero picture cards; roller skating on the sidewalks (and later, in the streets) "Follow The Leader;" caddy and sticks; the flying of small, home-made kites; the popping of small home-made "poppers" of folded paper; plus skiing, snow fights, sliding ponds, and running up and down snow mountains in winter. there was also pitching of slightly flattened bottle caps.
One thing comes through clear: Except for the roller skates, and some little lead toy soldiers, and maybe a rubber ball or two, everything my kid friends and I played with was home mead. Far from feeling deprived because of this, we got even more fun and pleasure out of making our playthings ourselves. It became a form of competition among us, like the games themselves. the materials were always available: old broomsticks, paper, wooden boards (for carving out boats or whittling with the pocket knives that all boys carried), bottle caps, etc. And don' forget the simple clappers (two small flat boards whittled to shape and sanded smooth by rubbing on a rough sidewalk) which were held on either side of the big finger, loosely, and "clapped" by a quick wrist motion. Discarded clothes lines were precious. They served as cowboy lassoes, tying up "prisoners" in games, etc.
Christmas gifts? nonsense, for the most part. The usual gift was apparel or something to at, like traditional Christmas cakes, pasticcieri, and the like. But the excitement of Christmas anticipated was in helping to plan Christmas delicacies and giving a hand to the more routine meal preparation jobs, like rolling out dough, cutting out squares for ravioli, etc. Also in seeing relatives, sometimes from Boston or Philadelphia.
Mention of 'home made' and clothes line reminds me of a memory. My father smoked a pipe in addition to the DeNobili and Parodi that were the universal stogies of the neighborhood Italians. To save on the cost of pipe tobacco, he would make his own, literally. He would buy tobacco leaves somewhere, bunch them up about the thickness of the thick end of a baseball bat, and wind a clothes line spirally around each "bat" by fastening one end to something and winding tightly toward it. What else he did with it, in the way of curing or treating, I don't know, but after a period of time, he would unwrap the tobacco. It would look like a thick salami, from which he would then cut off slices and crumple them up to put in his pipe. In addition, of course, he (and all other South Brooklyn Italians) would make their own wine and liqueurs (even before Prohibition, I believe). The liqueurs (brandy, anisette,strega, etc. were made by mixing a bought flavoring "extract" with alcohol.
Wine making, that was another story. Every Italian worth his salt who had a cellar or other suitable space would buy barrels, a grape crusher, a wine press, sulphur, and dozens of boxes of assorted grapes. the choice of the right mix of grapes was all-important: Concord, Alicante, Malaga, Muscatel, and Zinfadel are some that come to mind. Taking care of it during the fermentation process was also important, to prevent an off-taste in the wine. My job consisted in carrying the grape boxes from the areaway where the grape delivery wagon people would leave them to the nearby cellar opening, where I would hand them down to my father. Later, I would help open them. Still later, I would do the crushing. I don't think I did the pressing, my father probably figuring he had bigger muscles (and he did) than I had. When the wine making was over, usually in October as I remember, the wine would be put into gallon containers and some distributed to relatives and close friends. The latter would do the same, of course. At the sessions where the wine makers tasted each other's wine, great tact was shown. Unless one's wine came out really bad and that person couldn't help but admit it, everyone praised the other person's wine publicly, but secretly thought his own was better. Grape mix formulas wre also exchanged and discussed an, in some cases, noted so they could be followed next year. Needless to say, the standard drink at dinner was my father's wine, however it turned out, and I was encouraged to start drinking it at a very early age. I definitely remember drinking it while going to elementary school (which I left at age 12)
On festive occasions and when we had company, the men drank cognac (Three Star Hennessy and another well-known brand whose name I can't remember now) while the women (and children like me) drank Strega or anisette. For nibbling, there were "ladyfingers" (soft white kidney-shaped cookies), biscotti, etc. Not sfogliatellé, canolli coppola alla sgherra, and similar pastries, which were usually reserved for dessert at the end of Sunday or holiday dinners.
Although telephones were in use, nobody we knew had one while I was going to elementary and most of high school. Even had we been able to afford one, it would have sat there useless. All the relatives and friends my family knew in the neighborhood lived no more than maybe 5 or 6 blocks away, and the customary thing to do--either to bring something, ask for something, or chat and gossip--- was to walk over and knock on the door. In fact, all the family's shopping needs could also be filled within a range of 5 or 6 blocks.
That's why I remember the neighborhood as a pretty self-contained little world in itself, needing practically nothing that could not be gotten right there. And only that: Everyone spoke one Italian dialect or another, there was the Italian-language Il Progresso,all the storekeepers spoke Italian (even the Jewish merchants who had learned most of the phrases they would need for business). Just as the ancient Chinese, and later the Romans, considered themselves to be at the center of the world, and all others lesser people, we kids growing up thought South Brooklyn as THE CENTER, and everything else as the outlying arid, something vaguely "out there" of a residential nature. Exceptions were the Borough Hall area and Manhattan business districts, plus the Italian Lower East Side and Little Italy in East Harlem.
Along with this voluntarily and happily segregated feeling of the people in the neighborhood--within its absence of mingling with people outside, at least not much--went a slight feeling of assumed superiority. It;s hard to pin down. My father and mother and relatives always spoke of the loveliness of Gaeta and the surrounding countryside and Mediterranean and the beauty of the Italian language and art and music and culture going back hundreds of years. They spoke of the solid, nourishing foods that were traditional with them and that bred strong and healthy men and women. My father would hold up a slice of American white bread and ask how anyone could help being weak on such a diet. They compared the grimy surroundings of Brooklyn unfavorably with Italy, which, they said was missing only the opportunity for people to earn a living, nothing else. Gaeta was--and is- a small seaport with a large deep harbor and surrounded by mountains that come close to the sea (not unlike Southern California). The only occupations open to young men were as tradesmen (carpenters, masons, etc.), fishermen or navel officers (for a select few). Farming was for those whose families had been farmers for generations, and who would come down to the town every morning hawking their wares through the streets (milk, cheeses, fresh fruits and vegetables and other farm products). Others sold fish, a staple of the Gaetano diet.
Compared with that life, they naturally grumbled at the meanness of American life as it was then. They knew that Italians (and other immigrants) were looked down on by native Americans (employers, teachers, hospitals, etc.) and expected to become assimilated to a higher form f life as Americans. They felt superior, but were treated as inferiors. meanwhile, the difficulty that many of them, especially some older children recently arrived, had in learning the language, held some of them back. In school. mainly due to the lower capabilities and language disabilities of some of the other students, I usually did well by comparison, and was skipped three times in elementary school. I felt superior. I didn't realize, the, that I was perhaps a big fish in a small pond.
In high school, I received a shock. others were as smart as I was, many of them. In fact, quite a few were smarter and, in addition, socially more or at ease in this bigger world. It was a rude awakening to the realization that, to keep up with them. I would actually have to study, something that I had done very little of while in elementary school.
Enough of myself. Back to the South Brooklyn of 1918 to 1935 or so. We lived in a tenement comprising three floors over two stores, a barber shop and a reel estate, insurance and money exchange office. Each floor had four apartments of two rooms each, with one toilet per tow apartments. Toilets, literally, not bathrooms. We shared a toilet bowl interconnecting two apartments with tow middle-aged men, brothers, I think. From time to time there were relatives in some of the apartments. One was my mother's uncle Angelo, later joined by three children. Another was my mother's brother Antonio, before he moved to Boston. We had the front apartment on the first floor, with a fire escape in front of the window. Back of us I remember a family with several children (at least 5 or 6). The husband was reputed to be a non-working lazy person, and neighbors would help the family with food and cast-offs.
Two doors up the block was a wine and liquor store owned by a man from Naples. Directly in front of our house was a smaller one in which lived Vincent E., a stevedoring foreman. he was the father of Frank and George, also my friends. Up the street on their side was store that imported and sold Italian products (olive oil, cheeses, nuts, etc.), where Joe F. worked as a boy. Just below the E.'s home was Cafiero's, a borough Famous Italian restaurant with a great reputation and frequented by many political figures from the Borough Hall area. On our side, was a small print shop, the Nicholas Press, where I worked part-time during my second term in high school, at $4 per week. My mother got me the job, she said, to keep me off the streets and out of trouble. Under the E.'s was a butcher shop, and next to it a fruit and vegetable store.
Everything, but everything, was handy!
The former Sessa Bank on Union Street between Columbia and Hicks Street
The Carroll Gardens branch of the Brooklyn Public Library
Beer bottle from the India Wharf Brewing Company mentioned by Dom
Tom Mix on Riding Avenger movie poster
Cafiero's on President Street
( photos courtesy of Lost City)