Historic Preservation: La Dolce Vita

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By Ashley Hardison, Historic Preservation M.A. Candidate

In a neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland you can find a pocket of history and heritage linking the Italian culture to America, and they call it Little Italy. It’s a small neighborhood but they hold strong to tradition. The architecture shows Italian influence it the buildings, the color choices, and the decorations of the neighborhood. Populations and buildings have grown and adapted over time, but if you pay attention you can still see the true ethnic wonder that was and is Little Italy.

The influence of Italian architecture can be seen throughout Little Italy but most prominently in the construction of the Holy Rosary Church. Holy Rosary Church was built in 1892,[1] and Italian architecture can be seen in the use of brick as well as keystone arches over the windows and doors. The Church is the tallest and most prominent building as well as being centered in the neighborhood. Italians hold strongly to religion with local saints and feast days a very important part of village life.[2]

When Italians first came to America they lacked national identity preferring instead to pull their cultural identity regionally from the village whence they came.[3] They set up communities with hometown societies, mutual aid organizations, parish, and family owned businesses.[4] In Little Italy you can see the heart of activities surrounding the Holy Rosary Church and the Alta house. The largest event of the year is centered around the Holy Rosary Church with the Feast of the Assumption Festival to celebrate the town’s patron saint, and crowds are drawn from all over the greater Cleveland area. Alta House Social Settlement has been the center of daily life since John D. Rockefeller funded it in 1895 as a support organization. [5] Alta House has been the center of social, educational, recreational, supportive and developmental services in the community for over a century.[6]

As our group walked around little Italy it was obvious that the place to be for the community was the very active Bocce ball courts located in front of the Alta House. This was also where you could see the changes in populations most prominently. By the 1990’s only half of the population of Little Italy was of Italian descent with large populations of students from Case Western Reserve moving into the trendy artsy neighborhood.[7] On the Bocce courts there was mostly young African Americans playing along side the few mature Italian men. There was a great mix of heritage and cultures laughing and playing the traditional Italian game together, which was the perfect representation of what Little Italy is today.

HiPLittleItaly1

Charles Ferroni has stated that the “Italianess” of Little Italy has become more of a tourist attraction[8] than historical heritage but I believe that the community has adapted with the times and embraced the American experience. America is a melting pot, a fusion of people who celebrate their personal heritage while embracing the mix of people around them. Societies no longer exclusively settle an area based upon ethnic heritage. This does not mean that history and heritage are forgotten. The physical structures in and around Little Italy most certainly celebrate Italian history and heritage in a variety of ways. Most obviously is the block long mural depicting the Italian voyage by boat to America, their initial struggle, showcasing Joseph Carabelli who found work for so many, and the importance of family life while passing on traditions. Great pride is shown in the mural as evident by the complete lack of any graffiti defacing the artwork. Local history and pride is also highlighted in the park and play area that is named after the Little Italy born and raised boxer and councilman Tony Brush. The play set is also painted brightly in the red, green and white of the Italian Flag. A store across the street from the park that used to be a kitschy fun store is now vacated and being remolded as a visitor center that has also been painted in muted red, white and green. This shows that they not only celebrate the unique local history themselves but also recognize its draw on other people and wish to share their cultural historical heritage through more than macaroni.

Little Italy is a unique pocket neighborhood that celebrates their Italian foundations. The feel of village life is embraced annually with the Feast of the Assumption, which opens the village to the greater surrounding area and draws attention to local heritage. Italian heritage can be seen daily through local architecture as well as the traditions and values broadcast from the Alta House. Some have argued that the “Italiness” of Little Italy is no more than a tourist attraction now but I say the village has evolved with the times and held to their heritage in a very American fashion. Know your background but embrace the future with all that is available around you.

[1] Charles Ferroni, “Italians” (1998) accessed September 23, 2013 at: http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=I7

[2] Diane C. Vecchio. “Italians” in American Immigrant Cultures: Builders of a Nation. David Levinson and Melvin Ember, eds. 478.

[3] Ferroni, “Italians” (1998)

[4] Charles Ferroni, “Cleveland” in Italian American Experience: An Enclopedia. (NY, NY: Garland Publishing, 2000) 118.

[5] “Our History” accessed September 23, 2013 at: http://www.altahouse.org

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ferroni, “Italians” (1998)

[8] Ferroni, “Cleveland” (2000) 119

About Bari Oyler Stith, Ph.D.

Director, Historic Preservation Program, Ursuline College

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