From the paesi d’Italia to the village of Larimer: A Study of Pittsburgh’s Forgotten Little Italy, 1920-1950
In the wee hours of the morning on August 14, 1945, the residents of Larimer, anxiously awaiting the Japanese surrender, dashed outside their houses when the surrender finally became official and congregated along Larimer Avenue. Jean Creo, a former resident, vividly remembers the entire neighborhood celebrated the end of World War Two together on Larimer Avenue. Out of nowhere Nick Isuash and his band, the local musicians, came marching down the avenue._ This one event reveals how Pittsburgh’s Little Italy was a united Italian village brought together by their beloved Larimer Avenue. They didn’t celebrate in the sanctuary of their own homes or among close neighbors, instead they celebrated in the one locale which brought this “village” together. Whether it was a joyous occasion or a funeral procession, Pittsburgh’s largest Italian community always focused its actions and attention around Larimer Avenue. This via was the piazza of a neighborhood that in many ways resembled an Italian village. Only fifty years earlier, this immigrant Italian community was just beginning to develop, and through this one event the transformation from an immigrant to an ethnic community is evident because the “village” celebrated an American victory. Italians embraced their new country and at the same time, they continued to reside among fellow compatriots from the Old World.
Compared to other Little Italies around the country, Larimer never gained a national reputation to earn a comprehensive analysis. This lack of study has diminshed the awareness of Pittsburgh’s largest Italian community. However, there does exist a few local studies that cover only certain aspects of Larimer. For example, over the years several University of Pittsburgh graduate students conducted research about the area. The only published book truly focusing on Larimer, titled Raised in Paradise: A Saga of Little Italy by Anthony Halterlein, only covered the first two decades of the twentieth century.
First settled by Italians in the 1890s, Larimer was a vital Italian neighborhood between 1920 and1950, when it finally began to decline. Once, firmly established, Little Italy’s settlers and their offspring strived to preserve Italian culture and heritage in Pittsburgh. Italians continued to employ Old World skills such as stonecutting and cobbling. They banded together and formed mutual aid societies to support themselves and maintain a connection with their past. Le feste or Italian saints’ days created an aura reminiscent of village life in Italy. And just like the picturesque medieval town in the Tuscan countryside, a bell tower and church towered above this close knit, urban Italian paese or village in Pittsburgh. This recreation of a village served as a way for Italians to ease the assimilation process into American society, while continuing to preserve their heritage in a foreign country.
Large urban Italian communities throughout the country are relatively similiar in their histories and social structure. Larimer resembles other major Italian neighborhoods in New York and Chicago. Much literature covering Little Italies note that most Italian neighborhoods were established by affluent Northern Italians. This holds true for Larimer. Humbert Nelli, who wrote The Italians in Chicago, mentions how Northeners and later Southerners moved away from the city core to the periphery._ Again this holds true for Larimer because most of the Italians migrated from downtown Pittsburgh and the lower Hill District. According to Anthony LaRuffa’s research about Monte Carmelo, the in-migration of other Italians from different areas also occurred in the Bronx. Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the Bronx served as the focal point of italianita’, the sense of being Italian, for the community as did Our Lady Help of Christians in Larimer._ The presence of mutual aid societies and businesses also helped maintain Italian spirit in every Italian neighborhood. However, the only item which can distinguish Larimer is the village skyline. Larimer possessed both a campanile or belltower and a church, which represent the two symbols of every Italian village. They may only be two simple structures, but for villagers from the Alps to the island of Sicily they come to signify “home.”
From 1880 to 1924 over 5 million Italians arrived in the United States for various reasons. Many intended to work for only a few months or years and immediately return to Italy, while others came to permanently escape poverty and reep the benefits of the New World. Fifteen thousand Italians settled in Pittsburgh and another fifteen thousand scattered throughout Allegheny County Their arrival coincided with the arrival of other immigrants from Eastern Europe during the same period. Both groups, however, did immigrate according to a series of push and pull factors. The push factors that cause Italian emigration stemmed from three problems. Agricultural difficulties associated with natural disasters such as drought and poor harvests led many to leave the agricultural life behind. Southern Italy was still dominated by a feudalistic system where the peasants or contadini worked on land owned by a lord. Everyday peasants walked from their villages to their own individual plots of land in the countryside. This situation signified the fact that peasants could not control their lives, income, or even their own destiny. They were at the mercy of an oppressive medieval way of life. Population growth was another push factor for emigration. Italy is only two-thirds the size of California and ,therefore, space is limited. In order to gain property and more money to feed their children, many families opted for the long journey to the New World.
The pull factors that caused immigration to the United States were associated with the industrialization of the country. The rise of industry led to the demand for unskilled laborers to work in the mills, mines, and factories. Countless others were needed to build roadways, railroads, and buildings in the ever-expanding American cities. Chain migration played another role in attracting Italian immigrants. A job recruiter would travel through the rural areas hiring peasants to work in the United States. Over a period of time, many family members and residents of the same village would also immigrate. They wrote back home to encourage family members and friends to follow.
Italians arrived in Pittsburgh because of those same reasons. As they did in other American cities, Italians settled in several areas of Pittsburgh. Besides Larimer, Italians resided in the Hill District, Bloomfield, the Strip District and even the North Side. In their book on blacks, Italians, and Poles, John Bodnar, Roger Simon, and Michael P. Weber write that “The great majority of the city’s Italians and their children, however, crowded into three Italian districts, the Lower Hill, Bloomfield, and the East Liberty-Larimer Avenue area.”_ According to the 1920 U.S. census, there were five wards that contained significant numbers of Italian-born residents. Both ward three (Hill District) and two (Strip District) had well over one thousand foreign-born residents. Homewood-Brushton, ward thirteen, also housed over a thousand foreign-born Italians. Homewood was not considered an Italian colony because Italians accounted for only a small fraction compared to the total population. Ward eight, Bloomfield, numbered only nine hundred foreign-born residents. The largest Italian neighborhood in 1920 was ward twelve, Larimer. Pittsburgh’s Little Italy housed over 2,755 foreign-born residents. When the children of these foreign-born residents are added, the number of Italians increases. Therefore, including children and others born in the United States, the total population of Larimer in 1920 was 6,061._ (See TABLE 1 on page 31)
Larimer is a neighborhood within East Liberty, which lies six miles east of downtown Pittsburgh. Only a mile from the Allegheny River, the neighborhood, sits atop a plateau that resembles a peninsula jutting out into the sea. The topography of the area creates this scene because two valleys provide natural boundaries. The valleys divide Larimer from Highland Park on the northwest and Lincoln-Lemington on the northeast. Larimer is connected to these communities by way of three bridges: the Larimer Avenue Bridge, Meadow Street Bridge, and the Lincoln Avenue Bridge. Lincoln-Lemington and Homewood, a neighborhood to the east, were both middle class neighborhoods with a German and Irish population. Highland Park was dominated by upper middle class Anglo-Saxon Protestants and Scottish Presbyterians. To the south, a railroad track separates Larimer from another upper middle class neighborhood, Shadyside. In view of these boundaries, they contributed to the coherence of the area. Anthony “Herb” Amen, a co-founder of the Larimer Avenue Social Club, describes the neighborhood best when he writes, “From the rooftop of Sebastian’s gas station to the pinnacle of the no longer existing White Tower restaurant, once existed a beautiful close-knit Italian village.” _ (See MAPS on pg 32 & 33)
Below the Meadow Street Bridge, a dirt road was named Chianti Way because of its Italian residents. This street was the main thoroughfare for the community called Basso La Vallone, or down in the hollow. Steps from Larimer Avenue led down to this small community of twenty-nine wooden structures._ In some ways, it was a rural community because residents cultivated vegetables and fruits and even raised livestock. A few Italians developed vineyards along the hills below Larimer, hence the name Chianti for the area. (See PHOTO on pg.34)
Long before Italians settled the area, William Larimer, for whom the area was named, called it home. Larimer, a man of French-Scottish descent, owned a house and a Conestoga wagon business for hauling goods between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia during the 1830’s. Originally, Larimer Avenue was named Larimer Lane. Located near Larimer Lane, a horse race track attracted spectators from the city. By the 1850’s, William Larimer and the race track had departed from the area. Established in 1851, the new railroad and station in East Liberty lured large numbers of German immigrants. They formed Saints’ Peter and Paul Church and School in 1859 along Larimer Avenue. A significant number of African-Americans also settled in Larimer along Frankstown and Lincoln Avenues._
Italians began to arrive in the early 1890’s from other parts of the city. These first Italians came from downtown, along Virgin Alley and Strawberry Way, and from Webster Avenue in the Hill District. Larimer’s new residents consisted mostly of skilled workmen, clerks, and merchants who largely hailed from Northern Italy. A growing demand for an Italian Catholic church became apparent by 1894 when the community asked for Bishop Phelan’s permission to establish a parish. He refused to grant them permission. In the meantime, a group of Italian Franciscans at St. Peter the Apostle, which was located in the Hill District, aided the Italians in conducting the first Italian mass in Larimer. Fr. Louis Foppiano gave the mass at St. Joseph’s Hall inside SS. Peter and Paul’s school in February of 1895. With the help of Fr. Sixtus Lagorio, the residents organized a petition and submitted it to Bishop Phelan. They were finally granted permission, and on April 12, 1896 a committee was formed to finance the construction of a building. Two years later, Our Lady, Help of Christians was dedicated on April 17, 1898 on Meadow Street in the heart of Larimer._ It was the first Italian Catholic Church in Pittsburgh._ The parishioners chose Meadow Street because it and Larimer Avenue were the most important thouroughfares in Larimer. The intersection of these two streets represented the heart of the community. The establishment of Our Lady, Help of Christians on Meadow Street solidified the Italian presence in the neighborhood and served as a catalyst for further growth.
Seven years later, in 1905, the City of Pittsburgh constructed a water treatment facility across the Allegheny River from Larimer. Its construction attracted large numbers of Italians to move into the area. Bodnar, Simon and Weber write, “Other Italians, many of them independent artisans or truck farmers, settled even further out of the city in the 11th and 12th wards, where land was abundant. They were followed in 1905 by a group of construction laborers employed by the city to build its new filtration plant. This East Liberty community eventually became the largest Italian settlement in the city.”_
Ella Burns Meyer, who wrote about Italians in Pittburgh, discussed Larimer’s size and wrote, “In possessing both a large business district and a still larger residence district, almost entirely Italian, the neighborhood is more distinctly an Italian colony than any other settlement in the city. It is a unit in itself.” _ Unlike Pittsburgh’s other Italian neighborhoods, Larimer contained a diverse Italian population, the largest Italian business district, the highest percent of Italians in one area, and a substantial number of home owners. She also examined the physical differences such as housing and property lots between Larimer and Bloomfield._ Housing in Bloomfield was cramped because there were no front yards or even front porches. Also, most houses were butted up against each other. While in Larimer, front yards and porches abounded in the area. The housing arrangement sort of resembled a suburban community, not a city neighborhood. When one thinks of an urban Italian community, one imagines a neighborhood in New York or Chicago, where the majority of residents live in tenements. Larimer shatters this Italian neighborhood stereotype.
A large number of Italians owned homes in Larimer. According to the 1900 census, fifty-six percent owned their own homes. These data prove that a professional class existed at the turn of the century. Over the course of the next twenty years with the arrival of new immigrants this percent went down. Both the 1910 and 1920 census showed that the percent of home owners hovered around thirty percent. Several decades later Italians achieved home ownership because as Simon, Bodnar, and Weber reported, “…Italians succeeded by 1940. Nearly 50 percent owned their own home in the Italian sections of Bloomfield and East Liberty.”_ The number of home owners grew as immigrants and their relatives moved up the socioeconomic ladder by earning money both inside and outside of the neighborhood. (See TABLE 2 on pg.31)
The Village from 1920 to 1950
The zenith of most ethnic communities in American cities occurred roughly from the turn of the century to the end of the Second World War. Larimer’s heyday was from 1920 to the early 1950’s. The community became solidified and more ethnic by the 1920’s. Immigration waned because of the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the John Reed Act of 1924. Large numbers of Italians ceased to arrive in Larimer, but they still continued to trickle in over the course of the community’s history. Southern Italians made up the largest contingency from one region in Italy, specifically Naples and Calabria. Northern Italians were in the minority, but they still influenced the neighborhood because of their wealth. The village of Larimer resonated with the aspirations of Italians who were determined to create a new life in the New World. Larimer became their village away from paese in Italy. They would build a community, which would resemble in numerous ways the country they left behind.
The most highly valued aspect of any Italian’s life is work. Italians immigrated to the United States because of the lack of solid employment in their homeland. The majority of Italian immigrants were labeled unskilled laborers by the United States government, but before emigrating from Italy, many of these unskilled laborers had already learned a specific trade . An Italian proverb states: Impara l’arte e mettila da parte. This literally means, “learn a trade and put it aside.” When many immigrants arrived in America, they were able to apply certain skills they had learned. The Southern peasants applied their skills and became bricklayers, stonecutters, and barbers. Many Northern Italians in Larimer also utilized their Old World skills in such trades as construction and tile setting. Simon, Bodnar and Weber noticed the continuation of traditional crafts by writing, “An early historian of Pittsubugh’s Italians, Salvatore Migliore, noticed in a 1928 study that ‘a good percentage of the peasants knew some kind of trade.’ He estimated at least one-third were stonecutters, mechanics, mariners, masons, barbers, seamstresses and shoemakers. Italians were frequently able to implement this Old World familiarity with skills in the ‘steel city.’”_ They also specifically examined East Liberty’s Italians: “Italian-born workers, particularly those living in the East Liberty section of the city, also clustered in four other industrial industrial classifications. Approximately one-fourth of all Italian workers held jobs in construction, apparel, commerce, or transportation by 1900.” _ Other Italians in East Liberty found employment in steel mills where they dominated carpentry, repair, and rail shops. Construction gangs of Italians worked for the Equitable Gas Company. Since the Pennsylvania Railroad had a train station in East Liberty, many Italians worked for the railroad._ (See TABLE 3 on pg.31)
Day-laborers mostly consisted of people employed in such positions as landscaping or construction . Many Italians in East Liberty became landscapers. Armand Castelli’s father and uncles started a family landscaping business in the 1920’s and worked in areas such as Highland Park and Shadyside. Mr. Castelli discusses their ingenuity: “When they came over, they didn’t know the difference between an evergreen and a shade tree. But as they went along they used their ideas and know how. They could speak the language, they learned to speak the language, but they could see they had a sense of understanding about planting this plant here, buying this bush.” _ This example shows how Italians employed whatever skills they possessed to earn a living.
East Liberty was described as the mecca of Italian artisans. Stone cutters, marble setters, cabinet makers, and bricklayers all used theirs skills in Pittsburgh. The vast majority of these artisans worked for Italian owned businesses. Italian contractors were so numerous that according to a 1928 tally, there were thirty-eight building contractors, fourteen cement contractors, twenty-two concrete construction contractors, and six marble-cutting businesses in East Liberty._ Several examples of construction contractors are Massaro, Graziano, Navarro, Zambrano, Ionadi, and Dozzi. Marble cutters included Modena, Fornaser, Battista, and Rampa. These companies not only provided jobs for fellow countrymen, but also contributed to the community. One such company, Navarro Construction, helped build Our Lady, Help of Christians School and provided free labor. The church, however, did have to cover the cost of materials. This one example shows how such companies donated their time and energy to improve their community._ Other skilled workers such as barbers, cobblers, and tailors added variety to the commercial district. Unlike the construction companies, these businesses were located along Larimer Avenue. The 1950 Pittsburgh City Directory listed seven barbers shops, two beauty salons, four cleaners, and two cobblers on Larimer Avenue.
Businesses on the Avenue
White collar workers owned many stores and businesses along the Avenue, which gave the area its Italian atmosphere. They sold goods and services specifically for Italians. The most important element of the Italian diet is bread. A number of bakeries served the community over the course of its history. In Larimer, there existed such bakeries as Stagno, Lutz, Rimini, Sabatasso, Pirollo, Gigante, Castellano, and Gunzel’s. One bakery in particular stood out along the Avenue. That bakery was the Italian Pastry. Owned by Ralph Moio, everyone went there to satisfy their sweet tooth. What made the pastries so desirable was the fact that they were based on Old World recipes. The cannoli, pastaciotti, and lemon ice mirrored those in Italy.
Italian grocery stores also provided Old World foods. They enabled Italians to continue their traditional foodways. They sold olive oil, pasta, cheeses, meats not readily available at regular stores. Not only did they import goods, but they also made them on site. The array of grocery stores included Bigante’s, Gigante’s, Pompa’s, DeSena’s, Costa’s, two Labriolas, and Nick’s. The two Labriola stores were owned by cousins. Several meat markets, DeLeca’s, Fiore’s, and Grasso’s, made fresh Italian sausage and sold a variety of meats. During the holidays, these stores would overflow with food and people. When one walked down Larimer Avenue at Christmas time, every store had crates of baccala, calamare, and smeltz along the sidewalks. Angie Shiring, a former resident recalls that the smell of fish would permeate the whole avenue._ It was reminiscent of the Old Country’s fresh air markets in the piazza. This time, however, the piazza was Larimer Avenue.
Before the Italian restaurant craze hit America, Larimer was the only place to go for real Italian cuisine in Pittsburgh. Owned by the DelPizzo family, the Meadow Street Grill was the most famous Italian restaurant in Larimer. Known throughout the city, many residents remember that wealthy people from Squirrel Hill and Shadyside frequently ate at the Meadow Street Grille on weekends. In fact, many prominent politicians such as Mayor David Lawrence would stop in. Turp’s Pizza Shop made Old World-style pizza. This one restaurant for a time was the only place one could get pizza in the entire city of Pittsburgh. Amadeo Brancati, a former resident, remembers that Turp’s even delivered their pizza._ Al Vento, owner of Vento’s Pizza presently in East Liberty along Highland Avenue, started his business on Auburn Street. Another prominent restaurant along the avenue was Kreur’s Cafe. The owner was German and the cafe’s specialties were fish sandwiches and homemade beer._ Everybody mentions how a twenty-five cent fish sandwich and a glass of beer was a Friday night treat._ Besides these three, numerous other eateries existed such as the Red Eagle Club, Ardolino’s Cafe, the Larimer Cafe and Dutch Sander’s Cafe. There were even two fast food restaurants along Larimer Avenue, White Tower Hamburgers and the Original Hot Dog shop, though no relation to the one in Oakland.
Other businesses served the community as well. Two hardware stores, Larimer Hardware and Ruffing’s Hardware, helped support the upkeep of local households. Allen’s Five and Dime, Sadie Kaboshanick Dry Goods, and Arro Furniture represented the community’s variety of shopping destinations.
Larimer Avenue’s stores brought the entire community together. Again, the avenue served as the uniting factor. Anthonly Halterlein writes about the avenue’s atmosphere during the first part of the twentieth century, “Shopping was an experience of pleasure. Acquaintances between customers and merchants were personal and friendly.” _ During the Great Depression, the relationship between owner and customer became solidified. Armand Castelli and Amadeo Brancati, two men who experienced the Great Depression, remember how their parents would buy groceries by using a credit system._ The grocery store would record a family’s purchase in a “black book.” When a family had enough money, they would pay so much at a time. Both parties were able to keep track. This system represented the cooperation between the community and businesses, in order to survive the difficulties brought on by the Great Depression. Jean Creo mentioned that the store owners would give her family free cakes and pastries._ Giving to others was a top priority in Larimer. The sense of being Italian greatly enhanced the need to look after one another. Everyone was a compaesano, a fellow compatriot. Plus, the customers and owners knew one another. When you walked into a store, the owners would know your name and family. Shopping along Larimer Avenue signified a warm, personal experience because of the close relationship between the community and businesses.
Larimer was primarily a residential neighborhood of East Liberty. East Liberty proper centered along Penn Avenue, the main thoroughfare for the entire eastern section of Pittsburgh. Only downtown Pittsburgh surpassed this commercial district in terms of size and number of businesses. Several blocks away from Penn Avenue was Larimer Avenue. For the Italian community, East Liberty was only an area to shop if it wasn’t available along Larimer Avenue. East Liberty served as the recreational spot for Italians. There were two rolling skating rinks, five bowling alleys, and countless movie theaters in East Liberty. Italians had the best of both worlds, they could easily shop for Italians goods along Larimer Avenue or walk up street to East Liberty to catch a movie at the Regent Theater or shop at Sears for clothes. Again, the Larimer community benefited because of its location.
Like the grocers, the doctors and other professional people helped the community survive. Many Italian doctors carried on their practices in Larimer. Doctors Ignelsi, Coscia, Bianco, Vecchio, Alvino, Abbate, and Monaco, the neighborhood dentist, all healed and cared for the sick. Dr. Alvino founded his own hospital, a three story building, along Paulson Avenue. Belvedere Hospital specifically served the Italian community. During the Great Depression, many doctors provided service, even though, most families couldn’t afford it. Armand Castelli said that Dr. Bianco would allow his father to pay him over time until the debt was paid.
These doctors kept close ties to their patients because of their Italian heritage. American society during the 30’s and 40’s simply refused to allow Italian doctors into the mainstream. Therefore, they decided to help the people who most needed their services. Again, italianita’, the sense of being Italian, united all paesani without regard to social, economic, or regional backgrounds.
Frank Conte cured the sick just like the doctors. He owned the local pharmacy along Larimer Avenue. Many folks refer to his drug store as the “Mayo Clinic.” No matter what you ailed from, he always had the cure.
Unfortunately, neither Frank Conte nor the local doctors could cure and heal everyone. When the time came for families to bury their dead, the DeRosa and Febbraro funeral homes both handled the final farewell. Death for Italians symbolizes not only a time to remember the life of a loved one, but to openly express one’s grief. A community gathering best describes the atmosphere surrounding one’s death. To respect the solemn gathering, the parades during le feste or Saints’ days, would silently march pass the funeral home. Herb Amen, who worked at the DeRosa funeral home, recalls visitations to the funeral home would last several days. Michael DeRosa, the owner and funeral director, helped many families by reducing the cost. His generosity created a loyal clientele because the majority of Italians would hire his services. Giving back to the community was not uncommon for the DeRosa family. Michael’s father served as ward chairman during the Great Depression. His efforts ensured the availability of food for many needy families. Loyalty and compassion toward your fellow man best describe the characteristics held dear to the hearts of Larimer Avenue Italians.
Mutual Aid Societies
Campanilismo refers to the Italian sense of regionalism. This word derives from campanile, which means “bell tower” in Italian. Present in every Italian village, the bell tower helps villagers identify with their hometown since it dominates the village skyline. Campanilism is defined as “a view of the world that included reluctance to extend social, cultural, and economic contacts beyond points from which the parish or village bell could still be heard.”_ Italians arrived in Larimer from an array of regions and villages throughout the peninsula. Northerners hailed from the mountains and plains of Piedmont, Lombardy, and Veneto. While Southerners emigrated from the sun drenched villages of Sicily, Calabria, Campania, Latium, and Abbruzzo. (See Map of Italy on pg.35) Many Larimer Italians traced their heritage back to several specific villages in Southern Italy. Alvito, southeast of Rome, and Spigno-Saturnia, near Naples, both represent two such villages. The immigrants and their descendants from these villages continued to maintain close ties by establishing beneficial societies in their new village. Clannish relationships survived the voyage to the new world, thus revealing a continuity between the old and new village.
Northern and Southern Italians maintained good relations even though the groups spoke different dialects, cuisine, and culture. It must be noted that many Northerners moved across the Larimer Avenue bridge. Upward economic mobility allowed Northerners to relocate because many of them owned businesses and were skilled artisans. Even though this area was not within Larimer proper, many Italians still considered it apart of the neighborhood because Larimer Avenue continued to extend beyond the bridge for another quarter of a mile. The notion of being apart of Larimer Avenue without regard to residency, region, or class united all villagers.
Created to preserve Old World identities, mutual aid societies and social organizations brought many Italians together including some from the same region or village. Over twenty-five fraternal organizations existed. More than just serving as an outlet for social recreation, the larger purpose behind these organizations focused on providing financial assistance to members. Since they gave sick and death benefits to members and their families, they resembled an insurance company. Examination of two particular groups creates an understanding of beneficial societies in Larimer. According to Everett Alderman, who wrote a master’s thesis at the University of Pittsburgh in 1932 about fraternal organizations in Larimer, the Caserta, Trento, and Trieste was the most largest and influential group of any local organization he studied._ The name of this group derived from three towns in Northern Italy, which were under Austrian control until the end of World War One. The organization commemorated the return of these irredential lands to la patria or the homeland. Armand Castelli’s father belonged to this particular club._ The lodge required members to pay $1.40 in monthly fees. The money gained from monthly dues ensured the availability of sick and death benefits. An ill member received eight dollars a week plus the services of a doctor. Upon a member’s death, the family received four hundred dollars. If the member’s wife died, the lodge paid the family two hundred dollars. Other beneficial societies also covered the family’s children.
While this club admitted all foreign and American-born Italians, eighteen years and older, other clubs restricted their membership to a specific region or village. One such organization, the Spigno-Saturnia Ital-American Benefcial Society, only admitted new members on the basis of either being born in this village or claiming direct descedancy._ Each member paid monthly dues in return for sick and death benefits for himself and his family. The society even covered the costs for a carriage and flowers. The descendants of Spigno-Saturnia continue to maintain strong clannish ties to this day._ Other clubs adhering to village ancestry included Maierato Italo-American Citizen Club, Santa Maria Del Castello, Beneficial Society of Northern Italy, and the Societa Santa Maria Di Alvito Valla di Cominio or commonly referred to as the Alvito Club. The social aspect of these organizations created a fraternal spirit among the membership. This fraternal spirit derived from the pride of being Italian. Interacting with fellow compatriots and conducting meetings in the Italian language again, created a sense of continuity.
Many society or lodge names originated from notable historic Italian personalities such as King Victor Emanuel II, Christopher Columbus, Armando Dias, an Italian general of the First World War, and Sgt. Basilone, the Italian American Congressional Medal of Honor awardee of the Second World War. The Sons of Columbus, of course, honored the discoverer of America by using his name. Italians felt great pride in knowing that a fellow countrymen discovered the New World. They viewed Columbus as the first Italian immigrant to America. The Sons of Columbus served as a beneficial society, but spirited the cause to educate everyone about Italian history and in particular Columbus’ achievement. Their efforts to commemorate his discovery resulted in the creation of Columbus monument in Schenley Park. Money raised by the club helped cover the expenses. Three Sons of Columbus lodges served the Larimer neighborhood, two for men and one for women. Every Sons of Columbus lodge was associated with the Sons of Columbus of America, Inc. Three-fifteen Larimer Avenue housed the national headquarters of the Sons of Columbus. This prominent Italian fraternal organization called Larimer its home.
Another society originated from Larimer. Founded in 1929 over a dispute with the Sons of Italy, the Italian Sons and Daughters of America held their first meeting at the Kingsley Settlement House on Larimer Avenue. The Pittsburgh members of the Sons of Italy felt discontent toward the financial policies, especially officers’ salaries, with the main branch in Philadelphia._ To prevent bloated salaries, the ISDA incorporated a fixed salary into the by-laws. The two other distinguishing factors dealt with membership. The Sons of Italy prohibited members from belonging to other clubs, while the ISDA freely allowed members to associated with any organization. The most contrasting issue between the two concerned the admittance of women. The Sons of Italy organized lodges separately for both men and women. ISDA lodges admitted both men and women, which was a policy quite advanced for its time. Jean Creo’s parents held membership in the Progressive Lodge of the ISDA._ She remembers her parents would attend ISDA meetings and functions at the Sons of Columbus Hall. Some meetings even occurred at her house. Her father also organized an ISDA bowling league. The ISDA represented an organization where men and women could socialize together, which was uncommon among Italian clubs. The majority of fraternal societies prohibited women from entering clubs and attending meetings. Herb Amen recalls how women would send their kids to the clubs to get their fathers to come home for dinner. _
The creation of the ISDA did not effect the operations of the two Sons of Italy lodges in Larimer. These two lodges, one male and one female, continued to serve as an organization for Italians to maintain their heritage through social engagement. The male lodge’s name honored the King of Italy, Vittorio Emanule II. Here is another example how Italians strived to remember la patria.
In 1932, the Sons of Columbus, Sons of Italy, and the Italian Sons and Daughters of America helped influence the Pittsburgh Public Schools to add Italian as one of the languages offered in evening classes at district high schools such as Westinghouse in Homewood and Peabody in East Liberty. The people that spirited this cause hoped Italian language classes would teach youth about their ancestral tongue, and assist children in communicating with parents who had difficulties with English. _
Many of these fraternal societies conducted their meetings at the Kingsley Settlement House, located at the intersection of Auburn Street and Larimer Avenue. Kingsley Association, a privately funded organization, ran the building and events offered at the settlement house. Founded in1893 during the Social Reform era, the Kingsley House originally supported the immigrants in the Hill District. It relocated to Larimer in 1919 and constructed a permanent facility in 1923. Its function focused on providing a safe haven for children to both learn and play. The employees of the Kingsley House did not reside in Larimer, nor were they Italian. The building contained a gym, swimming pool, and numerous classrooms. A small field and playground adjoined the structure. Many residents fondly remember attending classes, activities, and dances. Angie Shiring learned how to write and work on a newspaper as a member of the Kingsley House’s newspaper club._ Jean Creo recalls attending dances and learning how to sew at the Kingsley House._ Adults also frequented the Kingsley House. Women participated in the sewing and craft classes. They also belonged to the Mother’s Club and Grandma’s Club. English language and citizenship classes encouraged Americanization among immigrants. During the summer, the Kingsley House ran a summer camp, the Lillian Taylor Fresh Air Farm in Valencia, Butler County. Larimer children ,with their mothers, stayed at the camp for a two week rural vacation away from their urban village. The settlement house influenced many young people to escape street life and become productive citizens. Cookie Rizzo, a former resident, mentioned how the Kingsley House saved many young men from going down the wrong road._ The Kingsley House’s role in Larimer allowed Italians both to maintain Old World traditions by opening its doors to Italian fraternal societies and at the same time teaching them how to assimilate into American society.
Played by many organizations, Italian games symbolized another ongoing Old World tradition in America. Bocce, or bowls as it is defined in English, resembles lawn bowling. In most cases, the court does not consist of grass, but of gravel or sand. Early immigrants used the back alleyways of Larimer before they constructed courts._ The Sons of Columbus had the best known bocce court in Larimer. First-generation Italians after they retired spent many of their days playing bocce and smoking Italian cigars at the Sons of Columbus. Another Italian game, morra, was more prevalent on the streets than in the clubs. Morra is a number guessing game between two people using their hands. The goal is to guess what the total number of fingers will be. Loud matches unfolded along Larimer Avenue not out of anger, but because Italians put so much emotion into whatever they were doing.
American sports such as baseball, football, and boxing attracted second generation Italians. These new world sports united the community quite often. Baseball and football teams, varying in age, lured many spectators and participants. Crowds would gather at Larimer playground or wherever the game was being held just to catch a piece of the action. Boxing also aroused much fanfare and matches took place at the Flamingo Roller Palace on Tuesday nights. The community’s influence on sports extended beyond its boundaries. Cowboy DeLuca, a prominent local boxer in the late 1920’s, managed world heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano for a short period of time. Cowboy DeLuca also owned a bowling alley in East Liberty. His establishment represented one of five bowling alleys in the area. Sports united first and second-generation Italians and created camaraderie among them.
Fraternal societies and sports preserved cultural traditions, while religion sustained Italian spiritual values. Our Lady, Help of Christians ensured this by being the community’s largest house of worship. Founded in 1898 solely to serve the Italian community, this church solidified the Italian presence in Larimer. Franciscans operated the church, parochial school, monastery and convent. The Franciscans desired to reach out to residents, and many recall hearing Father Joachim’s beads dangling as he walked down Meadow Street to meet with young men along the avenue._ Sunday, of all the other days, was the most special one for Italians. Attending mass brought families and friends together for worship at Our Lady. Filled to capacity, Italians adhered to their Catholic faith. After mass, families returned home for Sunday dinner. While the women cooked, men attended fraternal society or club meetings. Afterwards, the men would visit each others’ families. When everyone left, the family would celebrate the most important meal of the week for every Italian family. Words could not begin to describe the tastes, the smells, and the enjoyment of being with la famiglia or the family. Sunday not only signified a day of rest, but for Italians it reaffirmed their faith, heritage, and family.
The most important aspects of the Roman Catholic faith involve the sacraments. Prescribed by the Catholic Church, all Catholics received baptism, first holy communion, confirmation, and marriage. They were also considered rites of passage through life. One would gain their social status within the community by completing each sacrament. Larimer Italians gathered at Our Lady, Help of Christians to witness each passing. In essence, the sacraments became a village gathering. Many photographs show the entire church crowded with family and friends witnessing their children being baptized or receiving first holy communion. Marriage truly received the most attention of any sacrament. During the early 20th century, the entire community would witness couples going to and from the church by horse and carriage. The same held true for the last rite of passage, death. Before being interned at Mount Carmel cemetery in Penn Hills, a suburb bordering the city of Pittsburgh near Larimer, the deceased would travel down Larimer Avenue and many would tips their hats in respect._ Each phase of the Catholic faith drew Larimer Italians together to continue traditional Old World customs in respect and love for each other.
Old World customs also thrived in the other predominantly Italian church, Trinity Presbyterian Church. Even though its members converted to the Presbyterian faith, sermons were held in Italian. Called to America by the East Liberty Presbyterian Church, the Reverend E.G. Ribetti, an Italian Waldensian Protestant, founded the small congregation. Ribetti began his missionary work on Sheridan Aveune in 1893. His street corner evangelism attracted a number of Italians. By 1905, the church had 136 active members._ Jean Creo’s grandfather was one of those first converts. A second minister was Salvatore Migliore, also an Italian Waldnesian. Reverend DeStasi, the last Italian minister at Trinity, was held in high regard by the entire Italian community. Since the church sat along Larimer Avenue, everyone knew Reverend DeStasi. The church regularly held community events. Jean Creo recalls that Reverend DeStasi and the congregation would organize volleyball tournaments for neighborhood kids. At the Carnegie Library branch on Larimer Avenue, the church raised money by performing theatrical productions. Many performers and volunteers at these plays were not even members of the church. Trinity Presbyterian Church’s presence again signifies the diversity of Larimer.
The most important events of any Italian community are le feste or the Saints’ Days. A true continuity between the Old and New World, le feste unified Italians more than any other community activities. Every village in Italy held a festival on its patron saints day. Villagers honor the saint by carrying a statue of the saint through the streets, while onlookers place money and other valuables upon it. This same procedure occurred in the streets of Larimer, but unlike the villages in Italy, Larimer celebrated more than just one festa. Since many Italians came from specific regions and villages, they celebrated their own saints days. One example was the festa of San Agnello Abate, which Neapolitans celebrated. Others were Saint Anthony, Saint Michael, and the Feast of the Assumption. The most celebrated festa of all was San Rocco. Larimer Calabrians especially held this day in high regard because they obtained the statue of San Rocco in Italy. The parade would commence at Our Lady and proceed down Meadow Street. When it reached Larimer Avenue, the parade then would march down the avenue, visit all the side streets, cross the Larimer Avenue Bridge, and make a loop back to Our Lady on Meadow Street. Nick Isuash and his band would provide music during the entire parade. Residents would either walk the parade route or come outside of their homes to view the saint. As they did in the Old World, Larimer Italians placed money upon the statue as a donation to the church. After the parade ended in the afternoon, the celebration resumed in the early evening at the Larimer Playground located across the street from the Larimer grammar school. Music and food transformed this small parklet into a celebration of italianita’. Nick Isuash and his band, plus other musicians, performed on the bandstand, while food stands served sausage, pizza, gelato and other Italian food favorites that fed everyone’s appetite after a long day of marching. When the sun finally set, fireworks would set ablaze the night sky. Le feste brought everyone together. Jean Creo, a member of Trinity Presbyterian Church, recalls attending the le feste at the playground._ It was a time when first-generation immigrants would gather and reminiscent about the old days in Italy, a time when old friends would get a chance to talk to each other. Le feste solidified more than anything else the notion of ethnic identity. They were something all Italians appreciated as being a part of their ancestry. Writing about the Italian experience in America in general, Frances Malpezzi reflects upon this importance of le feste to all Italians: “In the early twentieth century, when le feste might be associated with the religious traditions of a particular village or region whose emigrants had settled in the same town or urban neighborhood, the occasion helped reinforce ties with the paese. Later, as saints’ festivals began to appeal to entire Italian-American communities regardless of specific points of origin, they became ways of asserting a common ethnicity among people whose ancestors had not recognized their commonality.” _
Besides cultural traditions and Old World occupations, the village of Larimer also had another distinguishing characteristic-its physical characteristics. (See Page 36) Dominating the skyline of every Italian village, the bell tower or campanile and the church give the neighborhood a physical identity of an Italian village. When one looks at the skyline of Venice, two structures tower above the rest of the city. The church of San Marco with its three domes, and the bell tower located near it. Our Lady, Help of Christians resembles the typical Italian church because three domes are incorporated into the structure just like the San Marco in Venice and St. Peters at the Vatican. While the three bronze domes awe the viewer from afar, the golden brick structure impresses the onlooker at street level . Clearly one realizes this structure is not the typical Gothic style American Catholic church. Salvatore Migliore, a minister at Trinity Presbyterian Church, described Our Lady as “a sumptuous brick edifice. The external and internal structure is characteristically Italian. The architecture of it is Romanesque with a touch of Byzantine. It has a large cupola.” _ The cupola refers to the main dome in the center of the church. Italians in Larimer clearly intended to erect a church in reminiscence of the ones in Italy.
The bell tower attached to the Larimer Grammar School was actually a clock tower, resembling an Italian campanile. The four-sided clock with Roman numerals rang every hour and lit up at night. Constructed in 1904, the clock tower was an addition to the already existing school that was built in 1896. Pittsburgh Public School records note the architectural style of the school was Italian Lombard. The school district record states: “Larimer’s tower was added in 1904 and was said to be a replica of one the campanile in Italy. At night when the large clock is illuminated by thirty-two light bulbs, it becomes a beacon of light for the greater part of the East End. The stained glass window was a copy of an 1847 painting by Jalabert now in the Luxembourg Gallery, Paris.” _ The stained glass window mentioned was in the stairwell on the second floor and showed four men dressed in Roman attire. Marble and terrazzo floors dominated the interior and provided an ambiance more similar to a Medici palace in Florence than a neighborhood school. Italians in Larimer cherished the clock tower with such passion that in 1936 they angrily protested the school board’s recommendation to tear the structure down because “it is said to be useless and merely an expense to the school board.” _ A newspaper article in 1936 discussed the tower controversy and stated: “There is some sentiment in the community on Larimer Avenue, in favor of preserving the tower, which extends eight stories above the school building. The neighbors are Italians. Possibly they don’t think the structure is the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but they do like it, because it is Italian style.” _ The villagers of Larimer were as adamant about associating their neighborhood with the clock tower as those in Italy were about associating their village with a campanile.
In 1958, the school board finally decided to demolish the Larimer School clock tower because the structure was supported by unsound wooden floors. _ The school district refused to pay for the installment of concrete floors to shore up the clock tower. The Larimer Avenue Social Club noted in one of its newsletter that a resident who lived near the school took a picture of the clock tower each day it was being demolished._ Not only did the skyline of Larimer forever change, but the clock tower’s removal echoed the changing nature of Little Italy.
Decline of Village
Just as the construction of Our Lady, Help of Christians solidified the Italian presence in Larimer, tearing down the bell tower symbolized the twenty-year decline of Pittsburgh’s largest Italian enclave. Three factors unraveled the continuity and solidarity of the village. Though the housing in Larimer did not resemble the crowded tenements of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, many young people desired to own their homes and avoid living with their immediate families in aging dwellings. Returning veterans and their young brides desired to establish new lives outside the neighborhood because of upward economic mobility. The majority of young men worked outside of Larimer, therefore creating an even larger distance between old loyalties and new opportunities. Penn Hills, a suburb adjacent to the city of Pittsburgh and located ten miles from downtown, became the largest recipient of Larimer Italians. According to the 1970 census report, twenty percent of Pittsburgh’s Italians, about 5,000, resided in Penn Hills._ Actually, one could take Lincoln Avenue, which starts in Larimer, all the way to the border of Penn Hills where it becomes Lincoln Road. Moving right across the border was an ideal solution for many who wanted to maintain close relationships with families and businesses, while living a suburban lifestyle. Their attachment with the old neighborhood did not entirely wane. Former residents frequently returned to purchase Italian foodstuffs or get a haircut on Larimer Avenue. Other residents relocated to Plum Borough, a suburb beyond Penn Hills, Verona, a small industrial town northeast of Larimer along the Allegheny River, and Stanton Heights and Morningside in Pittsburgh. The latter two city neighborhoods are northwest of Larimer and thus provided an alternative for those residents who wished to remain within the inner-city.
Another factor involved the in-migration of African-Americans. There had always been a small African-American community within Larimer along Frankstown and Lincoln Avenues. But in the early 1950’s, urban redevelopment swept through the lower Hill District and displaced the African-American community there. The uprooted residents relocated mainly to Homewood-Brushton, which is immediately next to Larimer. Over the course of the 1950’s, African-Americans also began to settle in Larimer itself. The proportion of African-Americans in Larimer increased from 13.7 percent in 1950 to 54 percent in 1960._ Territorial and culturally-minded Italians felt threatened by the dramatic population shift.
Finally, urban redevelopment reached East Liberty in the early 1960’s. Reshaping street patterns and demolishing entire blocks of houses, redevelopment forever destroyed Larimer Italians’ trust in government. Not only did redevelopment effect East Liberty proper along Penn Avenue, but it also touched the outskirts of Larimer. Several blocks surrounding SS. Peter and Paul’s Church were completely eliminated. The redevelopment authority replaced the hundred year-old houses with low-income townhouses. A low-income high rise, Auburn Towers, also took shape during this period. Omega Street, which intersected Larimer Avenue, became a four lane thoroughfare renamed East Liberty Boulevard, thus further isolating the community from the East Liberty commercial district.
The 1968 race riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. was the final straw for the remaining Italian residents. By 1970, fewer than 1,000 Italians continued to reside in Larimer._ The village atmosphere disappeared forever from the streets of Larimer and could never be recaptured in suburbia. Through the 1970s and 1980s a few businesses continued to operate, but in the end they also closed. Little Italy was truly dead, but the final nail in the coffin came in 1992 when the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese decided to close Our Lady, Help of Christians. The church remained open through the years for parishioners who trekked from their suburban homes to attend mass every Sunday. The closing was inevitable because the diocese clearly knew it no longer served the immediate community. After ministering to the Italian community for almost one hundred years, the diocese sold the church and school to an African-American congregation. _
The collapse of the village translated into success. The second-generation fulfilled the American dream of their immigrant parents. They successfully became financially secure and Americanized. Moving away from the village, they purchased homes in America’s new paradise, suburbia. Second-generation and third-generation Italians fully assimilated into American society.
From 1920 to 1950, Larimer, Pittsburgh’s forgotten Little Italy, contained and maintained Old World customs, values, occupations, and architecture. Examining this thirty year period shows how after immigration ceased in the early 1920’s, Italians did not abandon their heritage. Simply, they replicated it in the New World and, therefore, created a new paese which could ease the burden of living in a foreign society. They succeeded in their new surroundings by using Old World skills such as bricklaying, marble cutting, and construction. They created grocery stores, bakeries, butchers, barber shops, funeral homes, and a hospital to serve the Italian community. And when fellow compatriots fell on hard times, fraternal societies provided financial support. These organizations also ensured the vitality of the Italian language and history in Larimer. The church and le feste connected residents with Old World spiritual values and traditions. Celebrating saints’ days was a village event transplanted to the streets of Larimer. Parades marched down Larimer Avenue, la piazza of the neighborhood, and passed underneath the shadows of Larimer School’s campanile and Our Lady’s bronze domes, which symbolized the quintessential Italian village. All this occurred thousands of miles away from l’Italia.
Remembering the legacy of Larimer ensures that we never forget the lives of our immigrant ancestors from the Old World and the communities they built to sustain themselves in the New World. Since the Pittsburgh region has the fifth largest Italian American community in the United States, it is vital to disclose to the nation the village atmosphere of Larimer. Therefore, hopefully, Larimer will never again be overlooked and will secure a noteworthy position among the Little Italys of New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. _