Italy and The Bronx, a beautiful love affair: Interview with John Calvelli

Post Reprinted from Italian culture project “We The Italians”

JCalvelli-250x166resizeThe Bronx has been home of many Italians during the XX century. It is impossible, for those who are interested in knowing the history of the Italian American community, to ignore this New York borough; as it is impossible not to feel Italy in Arthur Avenue, that somebody calls “the real Little Italy”.

It is here that we’ve met John Calvelli, now Executive Vice President for the Public Affairs Division of the Wildlife Conservation Society and for sure the best person to ask something about the relationship between Italy and The Bronx. We thank him for his time, and the excellent lunch we had in one of the best restaurant in Arthur Avenue!

John, we have been lucky enough to interview many Italian Americans, but you’re the first in our column that went back and forth to and from Italy. This makes your story quite unique. Please tell us something about it

My parents were both immigrants from Calabria, from a little town called Vico Aprigliano in the Cosenza province. My father was here in the US during the war, my mother was in Italy: she didn’t come to America until 1947, after the war. My mother knew my father here, they came back to Italy in 1955 and then back to the US in 1958. My older brother was born in Italy, while I was born in the US in 1963: and I remember my dad always having the idea to come back to Italy. So we went back in 1967 because my dad was promised a job in Calabria, but it didn’t get through: and when he was offered a job in Milan, he said “you know what? If I have to move from Calabria to Milan, then I prefer to get back to New York”. So in 1969 we permanently came back here, by boat, on the Michelangelo. It was an incredible experience because I was 6 and I can clearly remember the moment when we passed the Statue of Liberty.

I went to a school here in the United States, to catholic school and then later to Fordham University: but I wanted to come back to Italy. So in junior college I went to study in an exchange program in Florence, and after a few months I felt in love so much with the city and its history that I ended up being there a guide for English speaking tourists groups!

I came back from that experience with the sense that I wanted to do more, and so I helped creating the group called FIERI, an organization for young Italian professionals. By the time I left we had maybe 15 chapters around the country, and this is before internet, the old fashioned fax and phone call days: it really helped to create a new generation of leaders within our community. And this is just the beginning of my life as an Italian American!

We are doing this interview in Arthur Avenue, The Bronx, which some call “the real Little Italy”. Please tell our readers something more about this fascinating, magical place, and its wonderful markets.

I think this is probably one of the last fully functioning Little Italy left in the United States. Why is that? Because we moved as a community, like with the other Little Italies when Italians started to have success and to be able to buy new, bigger houses: but we moved relatively close, so therefore you have “il ritorno”. I live 6 miles away, so I regularly come here to shop. Little Italy here in Arthur Avenue maintained the essence of authenticity in the products. So people come here because they know there’s going to be a genuine value: they don’t have to deal with the traffic or the problems of parking that you have elsewhere, and most of all here they find the real deal. Look at Borgatti, Madonia, or Teitel Bros … in the next five years here in Arthur Avenue there will probably be 3 to 5 stores that will celebrate 100 years of activity. That’s an amazing statement in a country this young as ours: to have stores that have been here for 100 years, providing quality service.

The joke on our family is Vincent’s Meat Market. My grandfather used to bring me to Vincent’s. His son now is the guy that serves me meat, so he’s called Pete the meat. So, to me Vincent’s is family: they served us for four generations: my grandfather, my father, us and now I bring there my son. Four generations going to the same place to buy meat. So the point is the essence of quality and genuineness.

Another important factor is that the whole neighborhood that involves Fordham University, the Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo was built with the work of Italian immigrants that came here. So here you have the microcosm of how Little Italy could survive everywhere: a major cultural attraction, a major education institution, relatively wealthy population at driving distance, and restaurants and stores that offer high quality product. You then add to that the Italian “saper fare”: we are marketing geniuses in some aspects, we probably invented marketing without even knowing it, and in Arthur Avenue you have some example of this. There are only 2 or 3 other markets left in New York City: but the Arthur Avenue market was a project from Fiorello La Guardia ty take the push carts off of the streets. To do that he created a cooperative of various small stores that’s been going on for 74 years now, and it surely adds its own vitality to this community.

We did a study here three years ago: the economic activity of this community is 250 million dollars a year, with 1400 employees. Customers coming from the whole New York State but also from New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, because they want the genuine experience: so frequently what they do is they come to the zoo for half day, and then come here for dinner.

Usually in the Little Italies there are particularly significant places for the Italians who gathered – or still gather – there: a church, a park, a monument. Are there symbolic places like these in the Bronx, too?

Well, as I told before, this whole neighborhood has been important for the Italians. At the zoo we have so many memories of that: the largest collection of Beaux-Arts buildings in New York City is at the Bronx zoo. In our campus we actually have the only Italian fountain on public display, from Como, Italy.

The most important Italian church here in The Bronx, the one where I was baptized, is Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Before 1946 the Catholic Church in New York had basically a policy of segregating the Italians. We brought a different kind of ritual, and so many Italian parishes were created. So the churches, and in The Bronx particularly Mount Carmel, played a key role in maintaining the essence of the identity for the Italian community.

Another important place for the Bronx Italian community is the Columbus statue by the Piccirilli Brothers; and talking about them, another important place is the Piccirilli Studios in the South Bronx, even if there isn’t an Italian community there anymore.

The Bronx has been, in the previous decades, home to a huge number of Italian emigrants. Who were they, where did they come from, and how did they end up here?

The interest thing about the Italian community here in The Bronx, which is fascinating, is that we have representation from all over Italy, even if clearly the majority was from southern Italy: Calabria, Naples and Sicily. This real pride of being Italian brought a strong feeling of being a community here. The first immigrants were those who built the neighborhood, and then kept coming in waves, following the construction of the subway to get out of the city in search for space, a fresh start and clean air. In 1880 The Bronx had a population of about 200,000 people; in 1920 there were 1.2 million people living here.

The Bronx is made for 20% by parkland: Pelham Bay is the largest park in New York City, and when I was a child, my friends and I used to go to Orchard Beach, which is inside the park; or to see the opera at the Botanical Garden; or to the zoo, which was like our backyard, on a regular basis. The Bronx Zoo is the largest urban zoo in the world, over 265 acres. So the Italians came here for all of these things.

And when did the restaurant business start?

First they were masons, they came here as workers to build the area, in construction. There was a community from Bari, and they were specifically very active in selling coal, and ice, and then oil. So, as next waves came, there were people with different skills: and Arthur Avenue was usually a first stop. This was the place where you could still find immigrants from Italy here on the 60s/70s. So when the restaurant business and generally the food industry became important here, that was a blast. And food became huge here because we have Hunts Point, which is the place where all food comes to New York City by train, and is also where the New Fulton Fish Market is now. If you go there you can see plenty of Italian companies very successful in food distribution.

Do you know how many Italians live here?

I’d have to guess, I would probably say something around 150,000, because there’s still large communities of Italian Americans in Morris Park, Pelham Parkway, Bedford Park, Throggs Neck, the East Bronx, City Island. So it’s still a relatively robust community, although is also an aging community: even if we’re starting to see “un ritorno”, people who come back living here. The Bronx is many things: you have parkland, but it is also the borough of Universities, because you have Fordham University, Manhattan College, Monroe College, Bronx Community College, Lehman College, Hostos Community College, Boricua College. And then healthcare: one of the largest medical institution in the country, the Montefiore Hospital, founded by an Italian Jew.

New York is also attracting the new, recent Italian immigration. Do these young Italians who just recently moved to NYC live in The Bronx, too?

Because of its history, The Bronx has been overlooked by the new Italians of today, who probably prefer to go to Brooklyn. But I also think that this is the moment when things are going to change, simply because it has become too expensive to live anywhere else while here we still have space, and in 20/30 minutes you can be in Manhattan. So I’m guessing that in the next 10 years new Italians are coming to The Bronx, too.

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