Four blocks on the city’s west side were once home to thousands of Italians. Today, only ghosts — and delicious food — remain.
Though the weather shuffles between overcast rain and swarthy heat, it’s no deterrent for the thousands who attended this year’s Feast in Cleveland’s Little Italy. For one weekend in August, red-bricked Mayfield Road in the Italian-American mecca sees its highest foot traffic of the year. Police block off roads and the streets are packed with stands selling hot stromboli, squared tiramisu, and sautéed escarole, merchants hawking “Little Italy” T-shirts and wristbands. At night, rock bands cover Prince and “Uptown Funk” and sidewalk trios perform Sicilian folk songs for tips. On Monday, the holy day, a religious procession spearheaded by priests in purple marches around the block, the statue of Mother Mary overseeing a mass of onlookers as she guides hundreds around the area.
Among the the spectators, sitting with her family outside of a brownstone on Murray Hill, a woman in her seventies comments on the Feast’s legacy as the float meanders by. “It’s definitely the most important procession of its kind,” she says. “All the priests here speak Italian. It’s the one mass the Archbishop comes to. There’s nothing else like it.”
Not quite. Two weeks before Little Italy’s Feast launched, a small but resilient neighborhood on the west side had its own — its 90th, in fact. In the basement of the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, a block away from the Gordon Square arts district, a handful of families hosted a hearty dinner, with $11 plates of cavatelli and carnival games run by visor-wearing teenagers. Nuns in navy garb sold sausage sandwiches; seven-year-olds hawked Feast raffle tickets. Two blocks north of the church — West 70th to West 65th — the streets were serene, as most days here are, save for renters’ moving vans, roaming mailmen, free-range chickens and roaring landscaping crews. Yet, here there are no Italian restaurants, shops or bakeries. There are no art galleries or commemorative banners. The only marks that suggests this neighborhood is Italian are fire hydrants, telephone poles, sewer grates painted in red, white, and green.
Cleveland’s east side Little Italy gets the publicity. Not only does Little Italy — like most such neighborhoods across the U.S. — have its own marketing branch and Redevelopment Corporation, but also its own Facebook and Wikipedia pages. It’s a travel stop for celebrity chefs (Mario Batali and Chef Boiardi, to name two), and was at one time a local jewel for the Rockefellers. It also has its own history museum, tourist bureau, library, newspaper, bank, movie theater, marching band, and high school.
Though impossible to tell at first glance, West Side Little Italy, as it’s unofficially known, was at one time as lively and culturally-relevant as its east side sibling. And that brief but significant era, recalled only by a few still alive, is at threat of being forever lost.
On a Thursday afternoon, 70-year-old Frank D’Onofrio and I drove up West 67th, a homey passageway that would lead us into Lake Erie if we didn’t brake at the train tracks. We passed red-brick three-story houses with boarded-up windows and patched roofs, reconverted storefronts, “de-churched” halls, and freshly-designed flats. This here was once a bakery. That over there was a barber. There, a shoemaker. Earlier that day, inside the Vet’s Club corner bar D’Onofrio has helped run since the 1970s, the lifelong resident of West Side Little Italy recalled the beloved golden age of a place where he’s lived the majority of his life.
“You could walk down any street at any time of the night,” he says from behind the bar, occasionally dragging on a Marlboro, “and you knew everybody that sat on every porch. You could stop and have a glass of wine with anybody. There were guys with squeeze boxes, ukuleles, mandolins. You had Mazzarella’s, the supermarket. Isabella’s bakery. If you came along Herman Ave, you had Marrietta’s, a confectionary. Then Joe Perenni’s, Corenesse’s Social Room, Biley’s Bakery. Nobody locked their doors. People slept on the porches. That’s what marked the neighborhood, that people here felt safe and comfortable. You never had to leave the neighborhood for anything.”
Though nearly no local historical records, save for those put out by the Mt. Carmel church, document its past in detail, the sources that do tend to back up D’Onofrio’s recollection. Though thousands of Italian immigrants from 1908 and 1916 settled in east side neighborhoods like Collinwood and Murray Hill-Mayfield (according to Italian Americans and Their Communities, a 1976 study on assimilation by historian Gene Veronesi, Murray Hill’s Little Italy housed, at one time, nearly one-quarter of all the Italian-Americans roosted in and around Cleveland) a lot of them opted for the west-side alternative. Those that did chose professions they could learn quickly: suit-making, steel work, butchery, baking. As Irish families slowly left, West Side Little Italy grew to 95 percent Italian by the 1940s, and at one time, in 1960, almost matched the population of the east side Italian hotspot. Outsiders flocked for Fiocca’s bread, others for sweet liqueurs. The Hill-throned Mafia put out orders to the west side, and vice versa. Steel mills, battery and garment factories operated next to home wineries of grapes maturing in basement vats (“Wine Alley” locals called it). People were born, married and buried all in a matter of blocks. “It was a microcosm of the world,” D’Onofrio says. “All self-contained.” According to a 1974 survey done by Karl Bonutti and George Prpic, the West Side Little Italy area had, in 1930, 180 businesses, including 42 butchers and grocers, 12 barbers (three being D’Onofrios) and even three costume shops. By the 1970s, as rent skyrocketed and school desegregation nudged 2,000 to outlying suburbs, nearly all business had evaporated entirely. “The neighborhood” went with them.
At the same time West Side Little Italy began to plateau, Murray Hill shook off its similar slumber after it was named a Historic District by the Cleveland Landmarks Commission in 1986. Artists shuffled into gallery spaces, and soon enough “The Hill” transformed into a trendy ethnic hotspot drawing hundreds of thousands of tourists annually. In 2010, USA Today and Ask Men ranked the east side Little Italy high up on each of their “top ten Little Italies” lists. Around the same time, the park there was awarded a $900,000 renovation grant. Walking through this year’s east side Feast, it’s clear by gazing at the glistening food stands and packed crowds and that this is an unmatched competition, and D’Onofrio, for all his west side pride, agrees. “I don’t think the neighborhood ever wanted to become like that,” D’Onofrio admits. “We could never compete with them anyway.”
As we continue to drive that day, D’Onofrio’s memory kicks into high gear, then lingers in wistful nostalgia. Stories return in waves, and so does a type of foreboding. We turn a corner, pass a upscale bar where people sit for happy hour. As we idle past a vacated factory where Westinghouse workers once gambled craps games on their breaks, the place suddenly seems a lot quieter, lonelier. Like an empty stage after a matinee or a decorated hall after a noisy reunion. There’s something missing, but you can’t put a finger on it.
“Hey, the neighborhood is going to go wherever it’s going to go,” he adds when we drive up to a bustling Gordon Square. “Wherever it was destined to go. And, honestly, I think that’s a good thing.”
For two to three decades, the neighborhood was anything but a West Side Little Italy. The construction of I-90 nearly demolished its homes in the 1970s (it was, luckily, built further south). Around 1985 a re-migration occurred, including D’Onofrio, but it fell short of rekindling a past ethnic bond. Because the neighborhood never had the tight-knit geography and longtime homeowners of its east side counterpart, Murray Hill became “Cleveland’s Little Italy” without contest. Pamela Dorazio, head of the Italian Department at the Cleveland History Center, says she and other historians tend to study the east over the west “simply because the population there was greater.” Also, it’s an official landmark.
“There’s a difference because there are restrictions on what you can and can’t build in [east side] Little Italy,” she says. “And that prevents nearby business, hospitals, and universities from encroaching on the neighborhood. And the residents kept it going. You can’t forget about the Feast.”
But the west-siders are trying. In 1996, a pastor named Father Richard Rasch, the head of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, aimed carry on the mission of a go-getting Father Marino, whose real estate company Nolasco built over 300 grant-funded residential units, as Rasch claims, “to stabilize the neighborhood.” Along with resident John DeLeva, Rasch continued Marino’s aim by branding West Side Little Italy themselves in 2001. He re-energized the annual Feast with fried dough makers and Italian bands. He bought red, white, and green buckets of paint and paid local kids to lather street poles and fire hydrants (and only got one complaint from the city). DeLeva got an even brighter idea in 2013: to christen the blocks with honorary signs plotted on street corners that read “HISTORICAL WEST SIDE LITTLE ITALY,” a simple self-congratulatory marking of over a century of lore.
“Through the years it’s always been referred to that way,” DeLeva says. “It was something we adopted. And I think there’s some accuracy to it. There were a lot of families that had connections between those two neighborhoods. Even the homes, the streets look very similar. I used to say you could get out of a car [in Little Italy] and think that you were in my neighborhood.”
Unlike the east side, those five blocks north of Detroit will never be the thriving district they once had the potential to be. Dedicated members — Rasch, the DeLevas, the D’Onofrios, and the Zitiellos — will trudge on, do what they can muster, but as of now, most of West Side Little Italy’s colorful past is mostly a mental utopia, a hazy epoch of the city. Many are just fine with that. It’s their history to begin with.
To those who’ve lived West Side Little Italy’s past, drank in those bars, married those neighbors, worked in those factories, started families on those streets, that unforgotten history will never lose its value.
“Just because a neighborhood’s history isn’t recorded,” D’Onofrio says, “doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be.”