A History of Franklin Avenue

When Italy won the World Cup Soccer Championship in 2006, Italians from
Hartford’s suburbs rushed to their old home to celebrate.Young and old
waved Italian flags, screamed mightily for their team, Gli Azzuri, and
paraded through the street for hours on end
as if Expresso Latino,
Colombian Cuisine, Bosnia Market, and other non-Italian establishments
did not exist. Franklin Avenue again had become a vibrant Italian
community, albeit for just one day.  The jubilation seemed
anachronistic, reminiscent of bygone days when Italian residents and
vendors dominated Franklin Avenue neighborhoods.
 
A similar
celebration occurred in 1982, the last time Italy was crowned soccer
king. Then, however, the street’s residents crowded bars, pastry shops,
restaurants, social clubs, and markets not momentarily, but every day.
Their ubiquity conferred upon the community a sense of permanence.
 
ahistoyoffranklinavefront st bulkley bridge-thumb-320x196-388.jpgIt
wasn’t always thus, however. Front Street, Hartford’s first Italian
enclave, preceded Franklin Avenue. Pushcarts carrying meats, vegetables,
and fruit inundated a four block long and two block wide stretch of
Hartford’s eastside beginning around 1910. One observer affectionately
remembered that Front Street “was a lusty, zestful place. Wine flowed
and the air was filled with music.”
 
This first Italian
settlement wasn’t permanent either. A few wealthy Italians–Nicholas
Pallottti and Pasquale D’Esopo the most noteworthy–and Irish families
owned multi-family tenements, precluding others from purchasing property
there. The 1920’s economic boom enabled Italian land acquisition
elsewhere, particularly Franklin Avenue further south.
 
Two major
floods, one in 1936 and another the 1938 Great Hurricane caused,
“brought much destruction to the Eastside.” D&D grocers, Livecchi’s
Pastry Shop, DiPasquale’s, and others left and found new homes on
Franklin Avenue, remaining there for two generations. Only 21 percent of
Hartford Italians lived on the Eastside by 1940, while an impressive 23
percent had moved to the Southend.
 
Hartford politicians and
area business leaders decided to redevelop downtown Hartford two decades
later, completing the proud but poor Italian neighborhood’s demise.
Constitution Plaza went up in 1962; Italians moved out. Redevelopment
may have “provided Hartford with an all-American showplace,” according
to one writer, but also “robbed the city of a valuable enclave of ethnic
heritage.” Front Street’s final misfortune was Franklin Avenue’s
ultimate gain.
 
Yet the Southend had the makings of an Italian
enclave even without the calamity that befell Front Street. Before 1920,
Italians had already moved to Franklin Avenue. Bartender Carmine
D’Elia, Front Street market owner John Vallerio, and mason Luigi
Lettieri were but three who migrated from Front Street or immigrated
directly from southern Italy.
 
They lived alongside a hodgepodge
of other ethnic groups including Armenians, Germans, Irish, Jews, Poles,
and Swedes. The 1932 Hartford Directory lists 200 Italian names on
Franklin Avenue out of a total of 700 others; they resided with people
named Leibowitz, Richmond, Smith, and Maloney.
 
ahistoyoffranklinave044710t-thumb-320x221-439.jpgThis emerging
“Little Italy” had many one and two-family dwellings and more space for
commerce. Restaurants were bigger, grocery aisles were wider, and civic
associations filled larger establishments. No wonder the 1960 Hartford
Directory indicated an increase to 370 Italian names. Italian residents
flocked to Franklin Avenue and more businesses followed, which, in turn,
brought even more residents. The Hartford Italian Club, Falcetta
Italian Pastry Shop, and Dichele Pharmacy were symbols of Italian
ascendancy by the end of the sixties.
 
Franklin Avenue Italians
eventually pushed out other groups, sometimes creating ethnic tension.
One resident said “the Irish were garlic haters, while the Italians were
Gaelic haters.” Italians also compelled the Germans and Swedes to leave
the neighborhood. By 1982, the year that Italy won the World Cup,
several hundred Italians made the avenue their residence or place of
business. This time they flanked a small contingency of people whose
names included Hernandez, Vega, and Torres, all of whom lived in the
northern portion of Franklin Avenue. Given existing prejudices, Italians
moved inexorably southward.
 
Italian immigration in the 1970s
and 1980s produced a reinvigoration of ethnic pride that the reaction
against Latino immigrants reinforced. Mangiafico Importers, Flora
Italian Pastry, and Mozzicato’s Bakery were a few of dozens of
attractions. The modern Italian festa came to Franklin Avenue in this
climate.
 
Every September civic associations including the
Italian American Star and Floridian Society would sponsor La Festa
Italiana. The yellow line dividing the street would be repainted in the
traditional colors of green, white, and red. The festa attracted
thousands of people throughout the Greater Hartford area during Franklin
Avenue’s glory years as the hub of Italian culture.
 
Italians
continued organizing the festa in the early 1990s, but, truncated by the
advance of Latino ethnic groups to the north, it no longer encompassed
the length of Franklin Avenue. Like “the ave” itself, it lost its luster
entirely as gang violence flooded the neighborhood during the early
nineties’ recession. This accelerated the migration of Italian
businesses to surrounding suburbs, and the flight of those Italian
residents to Wethersfield, Newington, and Rocky Hill who for one day in
2006 returned to celebrate.
 
Rino Mozzicato of Mozzicato’s Bakery
explained another reason for the festival’s downfall and Franklin
Avenue’s transformation: “The festival became dominated by outside
businesses. It lost that personal touch and that was it.” Leone Padula,
owner of Padula’s Produce, agreed, when he said, “small businesses can’t
compete with the big ones, and that’s why Franklin Avenue has changed.”
He, Mozzicato, and the remaining Italian vendors now cater to a variety
of non-Italians, while still promoting Franklin Avenue as “Little
Italy.”
 
The Old Bridge Restaurant now stands as a curious sight
on the corner of Franklin Avenue and Brown Street. Its owner, Sudo
Custovic, arrived from Bosnia in 1994 during the Bosnian War. The
restaurant, named after a bridge in the owner’s hometown of Mostar,
symbolizes the newest Franklin Avenue. What seemed an everlasting
Italian community has proven to be ephemeral much like Front Street
before it. Patterns of ethnic history–the newest cycle belonging to
Puerto Ricans, Ukrainians, Albanians, and Bosnians–reveal the fleeting
nature of immigrant culture.
 
Rafaele Fierro
August 2008
 
 
“Little Italy” photo courtesy of Karen O’Maxfield @ http://hartford.omaxfield.com/

Read Supplemental Remarks about the Old Bridge

Go the “About the Author”

Return to the Wethersfield Historical Society home page.

Sources:
 
Bruce
Clouette, “Getting Their Share”: Irish and Italian Immigrants in
Hartford, Connecticut, 1850-1940 (Connecticut State Library1992)
 
Pawlowski,
Robert E., How the Other Half Lived: an Ethnic History of the Old East
Side and South End of Hartford (Connecticut State Library, 1973)
 
Hartford City Directory, 1932, 1960, 170, 1982
 
Interview with Rino Mozzicato, 5 August 2008
 
Interview with Leone Padula, 5 August 2008


 
 

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