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.
It 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.
This 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.
“Little Italy” photo courtesy of Karen O’Maxfield @ http://hartford.omaxfield.com/
Read Supplemental Remarks about the Old Bridge
About the Author: Rafaele Fierro
Return to the Wethersfield Historical Society home page.
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