Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Marc on the City

“There was always something of interest going on in the streets, but rarely anything of special importance except life itself.”  
                                            Michael Parenti                                                                                              
Speaking from the House well on Aug. 3, 1939, Rep. Vito Marcantonio identified himself as: “one who was born in the slums, who was raised in the slums, and who still lives in the slums…”

Alan Schaffer wrote in “Vito Marcantonio: Radical in Congress” that, “Few men in public life have been so intimately linked with a particular urban neighborhood.”

Born and reared in East Harlem," Schaffer noted, “Marcantonio’s permanent home was never more than four city blocks from his place of birth, and for 14 years he represented the district and its people in Congress. 

“In many ways the man was the product and personification of the neighborhood.” 

Salvatore LaGumina, in “Vito Marcantonio: The People’s Politician,” envisioned Marc, “either as a three-year old riding his tricycle on the crowded sidewalks, or as a young teenage boy swimming in the garbage-polluted East River.” 

All images from "In the Street," 
by Levitt, Agee and Loeb.
“The streets of a poor quarter of great cities are above all a theater and battleground. There, unaware and unnoticed, every human being is a poet, a masker, a warrior, a dancer and in his innocent artistry he projects against the turmoil of the street, an image of human existence.”

So reads the inter-title of “In the Street," a short film by Helen Levitt, James Agee and Janice Loeb, which captures the sidewalks of Marcantonio’s East Harlem, his boyhood turf, his congressional district. 

Filmed in 1948, when Marc was still in office, the landscape of “In the Street” is, “haunting because it is at once part of the banned city as well as intensely used by the residents,” wrote urban planner Vojislava Filipcevic. (“In the Streets of Harlem: Race and Textures of Space in Helen Levitt’s New York Photographs and the Levitt-Agee Documentary Films,” Columbia Journal of American Studies). 

Said Filipcevic, “The East Harlem block is anagitated social space’ and an ‘immobile physical space’ of abandonment left to decompose as an area of urban blight.” 

The Abandoned City

The film, she said, is set in what could be termed “an abandoned city,” defined by political theorist Herbert Marcuse as, “the ‘place for the very poor, the excluded, the never employed and permanently unemployed, the homeless and the shelter residents where crumbling infrastructure, deteriorating housing, the domination of outside impersonal forces, direct street-level exploitation, racial and ethnic discrimination and segregation, the stereotyping of women, are everyday reality.'” 

Yet Marcantonio’s biographers note how East Harlem was humming with humanity and buzzing with small scale commerce; not all ghetto darkness. 

“In the Street,” is a roving, secret camera that captures peddlers’ carts, meaty armed Italian “mamas,” toddlers in rough-hewn gowns, roving cool-dude dogs, mean and gamboling boys, gossiping grandmas, fedora-sporting gangster types, disconcerting Halloween masks, and children and children and still more children. 

From "In the Street." 
“In the Street,” stated Filipcevic, reveals the slum as, “a place of camaraderie and a space of creativity — a set of neighborhoods in which children felt impelled to make various marks upon a given world…”

This claim upon the streets —  the same claim Marcantonio made with his tricycle —  results from, “a lack of space — for playing, growing up, and learning; the activities of children are displaced on the street as a form of appropriation of space,” said Filipcevic. 

Michael Parenti recalled his East Harlem childhood in "Waiting for Yesterday": 

“In whatever way we could, we tried to accommodate ourselves to an unaccommodating environment… We kids lived in the neighborhood’s interstices, constantly inventing and reinventing spaces of our own: empty lots, stoops, cellars, backyards, street corners, and the fronts of abandoned stores.” 

Visualizing the street as “theater” and also a “battleground,” the film showed the East Harlem dwellers’ assertion of urban existence through everyday expressions of uniqueness, said Filipcevic.  

East Harlem was a cheap labor reservoir from which people issued forth, each day in the manner depicted in this passage from Thomas McGrath’s, This Coffin Has No Handles”: 

“A million workers charge down the dusty shutes of the cold water apartment houses, are siphoned off and sucked away into the subways. The bottom has fallen out of the barometer of sleep. Adjustments are made: in the fur district the pressure of industry is rising; and through the fog of bricks and stone, the steel bones of the skyscrapers downtown, you see the thin red line of humanity and profit rise in exact ratio to the falling line on sleep’s soiled glass. Up and down.” 

Marcantonio slid those dusty shoots, was as much a part of larger Gotham as he was of East Harlem. As Schaffer observed, “Each school day for four years, young Marcantonio made his way across the city to DeWitt Clinton Hight School at 59th and Tenth Avenue." 

In “Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician,” Gerald Meyer stated that Marc, and the only other kid from East Harlem going to high school, generally walked the four miles to save a nickel trolley fare.
From "In the Street." 

Marc’s first foray into active politics was a tenants’ rent strike in 1920. Perusal of his collected speeches in I Vote My Conscience, or the “New York Times” of his day, reveal a consistent concern for housing and the urban environment. 

Housing Links

The “New York Times,” for March 12, 1936, headlined a piece with “Tenants’ Strike Urged,” in which Marc asks members of the City-Wide Tenants League to show their sympathy with the striking building service employees by going on a rent strike.” 

Marc called for action against “the Bourbons and Tories,” linking the issue of housing with wages; the people who lived in buildings with those that cleaned them.  

The “New York Times,” for December 4, 1948 ran the headline: “Harlem Dirt Laid to Many Causes” above an article covering a conference addressing the garbage patch that East Harlem could be in places.  

“Mr. Marcantonio,” the article reads, “declared that the overcrowded tenements in the neighborhood fundamentally were at fault. 'Nothing more can be expected… while people are compelled to live in these tenements.’” 

The “New York Times,” for Nov. 30. 1950, trumpeted, “18 Families Shiver in Mass Evictions,” and recorded the congressman’s response to the sudden, and forced displacement of his constituents.  

“Three of the families,” the article said, “went last night to the office of Rep. Vito Marcantonio at 1455 First Avenue. They brought with them a total of 18 children. There they were told that might remain until they could arrange for more permanent shelter and food was prepared for them.” 

From "In the Street."
On March 16, 1948, he railed in Congress against a bill reducing rent controls. “Speak about property rights; how about the property rights of the 50,000,000 tenants who are going to lose, as a result of this bill, whatever small protection they have heretofore had?”

And so on. 

East Harlem became the starting point in America for successive waves of immigrants that boosted the population, spiced the ethnic mix, and overwhelmed existing housing stock. Modern block towers in park settings were considered the solution and the wholesale wiping out of what many considered “perfectly good housing” was unleashed under the rubric of slum clearance. 

Wrote Nathan Glazer in “City Journal"(Autumn 1991), “A speech from New York City’s greatest mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, in 1944, captures the enthusiasm of a whole generation of urban reformers:

“‘Tear down the old,’ he said. ‘Build up the new. Down with the rotten, antiquated rat holes. Down with hovels. Down with disease. Down with crime! Down with firecraft. Let in the sun. Let in the sky. A new day is dawning. A new life. A new America!’” 

On March 3, 1940, “The Times” ran the headline “Housing Project In 1st Avenue Started,” about the groundbreaking for the East River Housing Projects, secured by Marcantonio and the Harlem Leadership Council, with an assist from his mentor, La Guardia. 

Marc, it was reported, described the occasion as significant not only as an extension of low-cost housing in Harlem, but as “a victory of the citizens of East Harlem in their fight to preserve their riverfront,” thereby linking housing and the communal right to stability. 
 Marc at the dedication of
Benjamin Franklin High School.

There is a foreshadowing of things to come in the critical voices quoted in the article, raising questions about the wisdom of placing such projects in “outlying areas” and potential pitfalls associated with crowding too many people into block towers. 

Dramatic Urbanism

The renewal of East Harlem has been deemed as, Glazer noted, “one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of postwar American urbanism.” 

The myriad empty lots documented by “In the Street,” Filipcevic wrote “recall the cinematic city ruins of the bombed European cities [after World War Two].” 

Indeed, urban activist Jane Jacobs observed that, “The war brought with it a tabula rasa that was an essential exercise of modern planning.” 

According to Glazer, East Harlem has been a competing ground for schools of urban planning and subjected to waves of fashion in that field. “For years,” he said, “public housing was not just another social program but part of a utopian vision — the embodiment, in stone and mortar, of the good society.” 

In the 1930s and ’40s, the tight grid of streets typical of New York City was replaced by the “superblock,” and the houses were set at an angle to that grid, in a form of protest.

“The reasons for this unusual site placement were partly ideological,” opined Glazer. “[architectural critic] Lewis Mumford had denounced the uniform grid, indifferent to features of topography and landscape, as the soulless invention of commercial capitalism, interested only in creating fungible plots to buy and sell.” 

Soon enough, Le Corbusier’s vision of towers nestled in green parkland fell out of favor. 

The Italians of East Harlem initially welcomed the projects, then became violently opposed, claiming they drew Puerto Ricans and African-Americans. Many blamed Marcantonio for destroying the old neighborhoods. 

The critique of public housing was that, as planned “community units,” the projects were built as large as possible and divorced from the neighborhood surroundings, dramatizing the segregation of charity-case families. 

Formulaic “minimum standards” for decent, safe and sanitary housing didn’t necessarily generate homey abodes. Shunting the poor into towers condemned them to a beehive-like existence of which few were enamored. 

As urbanists moved on to other planning models, each wave has left a layer of fabric over the East Harlem that eventually emerged, rife with projects, but healthy in other forms of city living. 

“Perhaps,” concluded Glazer, “there is room, along with the bustling tenement row, for the well-run housing project, for the verdant expanse and sparkling tower as well as the crowded, row-house grid.”

Marcantonio’s life was cut short, denying him a chance to see what the mid-century notion of community confection finally produced, and of another chance to continue developing policies that might improve the lot of his people. 

Marcantonio might have made the new mix work for him. If the buildings were his, as many concluded, so then, might the people living in them be his, too. 

Living on into his 50s and 60s’ and ’70s, he might have worked to make things right with the early projects, rather than leaving them to the devices of minds different than his own. 

He might have spent his old age, stooped and gray, reading a book on a bench in one of the green spaces he'd created, that he'd thought so important, looking up for a moment, contemplating his own Marc on the City. 

Fourth Installment of Stone's "The Untold History of United States"

Artwork by Adam Milat-Meyer.
The Vito Marcantonio Forum (VMF) will resume its screening of Oliver Stone’s “The Untold History of the United States” on Saturday Nov. 3 at the Mulberry Street Library, 10 Jersey Street (between Mulberry and Lafayette streets), New York City. 

The VMF has screened three prior installments of the ten, one-hour episodes that make up Stone’s documentary. Each was followed by an open discussion and drew large, engaged audiences. 

The fourth installment is entitled, “The Cold War,” a period which saw U.S. foreign policy make a 180 degree turn from cooperation with its recent ally, the Soviet Union. 

At home, the federal government and much of civil society turned on the Left, which was largely extirpated through ruthless persecution. Stone’s interpretation of this period proposes that the United States, in an alliance with Great Britain, was largely responsible for the hostilities that ensued. He also shows how the accompanying havoc at home wrecked the New Deal coalition. 

Stone’s interpretation eerily mirrors the positions Rep. Vito Marcantonio presented from the floor of the House of Representatives, on radio, in Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium, and at countless street-corner rallies throughout New York City. 

The VMF's website can be found at http://vitomarcantonioforum.com

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Marcantonio and the Wartime Italians

Enemy Aliens. 
As Italy turned from enemy to ostensible ally of the U.S. in World War II, Italian Americans endured anxious whiplash in the changing of their stateside status along with that of their home country.

In “Unto the Sons,” author Gay Talese bookends his family's Italian history with the antagonisms suffered by his immigrant father Joseph, as the allies swept northward from Sicily toward his hometown of Maida.

Joseph worked at being a good American, but was wracked with concern for his homeland.

Writes Talese: “On this flag-waving island where my father wished to be publicly perceived as a patriotic citizen, I instinctively understood and sympathized with his plight as a kind of emotional double agent.”

Talese's father owned a tailor shop in a Methodist town on the Jersey Shore and from his 1922 arrival at Ocean City, lived in relative isolation from which he, “comported himself with formality and caution, always concerned that one injudicious act, be it social or professional, consciously intended or inadvertent, could ostracize him from the community and perhaps even lead to his deportation.”

In the same way Rep. Vito Marcantonio became intimately involved with political affairs in Puerto Rico through his Puerto Rican constituency in Manhattan, he was necessarily engaged with the fast-evolving affairs of wartime Italy because of their impact on the large number of Italian-Americans he represented.

In a July 1942 radio address Marcantonio said he felt it necessary to address “the persistent activities of certain groups in our country who malign the loyalty and dispute the patriotism of Americans of Italian descent, by discriminating against them in industry, by denying them equal opportunity with other loyal Americans, and by regarding them with suspicion because of the sound of their names.”

Those “self-styled superpatriots” indulging in alien-bating, said Marcantonio, were “playing Hitler's game in America.

“The contributions of Americans of Italian extraction in blood, toil, and wealth is the devastating answer to those who seek to discriminate against them,” the East Harlemite proclaimed.

During the war, Joseph was compelled – as were many small business owners – to support the war effort. The tailor shop, Talese recalled, became overrun with military men needing chevrons and new military stripes sewn and that the work was done free of charge. As Italy warred with the U.S., Joseph's “sensitivity to his Italian accent” forced him to repress his emotions. 

Making matters worse, Italian immigrants were classified by the U.S. government as “enemy aliens” and required to register as such. 

“In the store,” wrote Talese, “even I at times perceived him as a citizen of questionable status, an alien surrounded by soldiers of occupation.”
Gaetano "Gay" Talese.

Once the Allies had chased the Nazis from their most significant Italian redoubts, Marcantonio sought to close the breach opened with the U.S. during the war.

As did Joseph Talese, Marc's primarily southern Italian constituents found their wartime communication with home villages and towns cut off.

A “New York Times” article of Feb. 15, 1944, with the headline, “Restoring Mail to Retaken Italy: Stimson Expects Personal Service This Week – Reply is Given to Marcantonio,” discussed his successful effort to remedy the situation.

The article reported on a letter from one Maj. Gen. Edwin M. Watson in reply to a plea, addressed to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, by Representative Vito Marcantonio of New York.

“Mr. Marcantonio,” the article reads, “had cited the anxiety in this country endured by friends and relatives of Italians in the occupied areas and had asked for mail privileges subject to limitations of censorship for security.”

Marc's letter to FDR worked and soon mail between the U.S. and locales such as Bari, Brindisi, Catanzaro, Cosensa, Lecca, Matera, Potenza, Reggio di Calabria, Salerno and Taranto was renewed. 

The anxieties of Italian-Americans may have actually increased with the reestablishment of communications between Old World and New.

Talese remembered his father being short-tempered with him at the tailor shop: “[M]y mother later explained to me that my father had just received word from someone overseas who had connections with the Italian army that his youngest brother, Domenico, assigned to the Italian infantry, was listed as missing somewhere in the Balkans or Russia.

“Almost every night after I went to bed, I could overhear my father's whispered prayers as he knelt before the portrait of Saint Francis [de Paola], begging the monk to save his brothers from death or the fate that had befallen his brother, and pleading also for the protection of his mother and other family members who were now trapped in the war.”

“Unto the Sons,” concludes with Joseph destroying his young son's painstakingly built collection of model American bombers after the Allied bombardment of the Abbey of Monte Cassino – a sacred hilltop seminary occupied by the Nazis.

The pent-up anger, fueled by his father's fear for Italy in wartime, sparks a landmark episode in his son's life, marks a moment forever in red rage; an occurrence vivid enough for literary recounting 40 years later.

Complicating this conflicted relationship with the outside world was a schism over the war inside the Italian-American community itself.

In Talese's memoir, a relation of Joseph's from Maida, Nicolas Pileggi, was an anarchist and follower of the radical Carlo Tresca. Joseph the tailor rather approved of the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini's modernizing impact upon Italy and his effusive cultural pride. Family gatherings reflected the split:

“Here until dawn,” Talese writes, “over bottles of wine and bowls filled with cracked walnut shells, the merits and demerits of Mussolini were debated by these native sons of southern Italy and their kinsmen and friends just as happened around tables all around the United States. Mussolini had divided these Italian immigrants as their craggy villages and towns overseas had been divided for centuries, finding common ground only during earthquakes and other disasters.”

Marc found himself on one side of the divide and supporters of Mussolini, such as publisher Generoso Pope, on the other.

Gerald Meyer, author of “Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician,” writes that, in the 1930s, Marcantonio's was a full-throated anti-Fascism, when Italian-Americans tended to equate anti-Fascism with anti-Italianism. Pope's influential “Il Progresso del Popolo” newspaper promoted Marc's 1936 congressional opponent and treated the Congressman “as a non person,” Meyer said.

“After his 1936 defeat,” writes Meyer, “until Italy's capitulation in 1943, he rarely publicly attacked Mussolini or Italian Fascism.”

But the silence was not total, according to Meyer's book. “At the launching of 'L'Unita del Popolo' Marcantonio denounced the “Fascist policies of Mr. Pope's papers,” which he claimed had “moved 600,000 Italian voters in this city into the camp of fascism.”

Post-war Italy's administration fell to the Allied Control Commission (ACC), which was set up by the American and British governments.

Luigi Antonini.

Marc was among those who felt the commission had ignored the needs of Italy's war-ravaged people and denied the country status an an ally. In a Sept. 21, 1944, speech from the House Well he said, “As an American, it is with a sense of shame that I must say promises to the people of Italy made in the Italian Armistice have not been kept.”

Under allied administration, he noted, Fascists were restored to public positions and famine had begun to grip the populace: “Children are dying in Italy of starvation. Women cannot come out of their homes because they have no clothing. They are in rags. Tuberculosis is in epidemic stage.”

Although the Italians had overthrown Mussolini and some 300,000 partisans were part of the anti-fascist push, Marcantonio noted, “Italy is treated neither as an ally or as a friend. She is considered and called a co-belligerent. This twilight status of co-belligerency has meant what? It has meant starvation, hunger, black market, and the continuance of an ACC and Military Government which has been a complete failure in the field of relief and which has negated every promise in the Moscow declaration.”

Marc said he had proposed a resolution declaring Italy an ally that was, in that moment, “buried somewhere in the Foreign Affairs Committee.” The solution, he concluded was simple: “[W]ithdraw the military from Italy, and give to Italy the right to live as a free nation and as democratic nation.”

On Feb. 10, 1945, “The Times” reported, “Bill Plans Aid to Italy: Marcantonio Calls for Full Recognition as an Ally.”

Marcantonio told the House that the ACC had blocked United States efforts to increase the food supply to that country. “In Italy children are dying for want of food,” he charged once more.

After the war, Marcantonio's interest in Italy remained acute. The war was now one over policy fought on the home front.

For example, in 1941, Italian-American labor leaders formed the Italian-American Labor Council (IALC) and set winning the war against the Axis, including Italy, as a top priority.

In 1943, a rift developed within the council between those who refused to work with communists politically and those who accepted them. The first group broke off and became the American Committee for Italian Democracy within the IALC and the latter group formed the Free Italy Labor Council.

An April 14, 1948, “New York Times” article trumpeted the headline, “Labor Here Calls for a Free Italy: Anti-Communists Appeal to Voters Abroad – Rival Group Gets Marcantonio's Aid.”

Some 200 labor leaders of Italian origin asked for defeat of the communists in the upcoming Italian elections and vigilance against neo-Fascism. The resulting communique was shared with newspapers throughout southern Italy.

The press conference was presided by Luigi Antonini, an important leader of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and president of the anti-communist IALC. Antonini was a one-time ally of Marcantonio's. The two men split over the very same issue of communist collaboration.

The article reports that the IALC provided a $50,000 cash infusion to anti-communist parties in the first election after the war, which offered clear-cut capitalist and communist options.

Marcantonio, it further noted, was slated to be main speaker at a rally convened by the Committee for a Free Election Italy against “the interference in Italian elections.”

That interference was raised in a March 25, 1948 speech to the House: “Speak about interference and free elections! The state Department informs the Italian people that unless they vote the De Gasperi [conservative] ticket they are not going to get any aid. It was an official statement. Then our own Department of Justice informs the Italian people that if any of them ever hope to migrate here they can never come to the United States if they voted for the Popular Democratic Front [Fronte Popolare: a coalition of communist and socialist parties].”

As to exactly who in Italy was benefiting from U.S. aid, Marcantonio had an opinion.

The recipients were the Pirelli rubber company, the Moncatini chemical company, Fiat, “the automobile crowd that sustained Mussolini with their money and influence... Yet you stand up here and you tell the American people: 'This is a defense of America, this is a crusade against communism.' Yes, you now stand here and would make the Italian worker and peasant believe that you are helping them.”

The driving force behind Italy's reconstruction, Marc said, was international capital which, through the ACC, was delivering Italy to the very people that had ruined it.

Marc addressed his opposition to the Marshall Plan for rebuilding Italy, saying it would establish a satellite to the Wall Street economy and wrest control of the Italian people's economic destiny from their own hands.

Marcantonio said the European Recovery Program, as the plan was dubbed, “means the freedom of the big trusts to exploit, to gather more and more and more profit from the backs of these people who are today striving to continue their march toward a better world...”

"Growing Up Italian in a Wonderbread World" by LuLu LoLo

LuLu Lolo Pascale's family.
LuLu LoLo is a founding member of the Vito Marcantonio Forum (VMF) and a multifaceted artist of considerable depth. She fuses art with activism such as her campaign to get more statues of women put up around New York City, "Where are the Women?" 

She is an actress and a playwright whose marvelous
one-person interpretation of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire tragedy has been covered in these pages as well. 

Her father Pete Pascale, together with his equally committed wife Rose, dedicated his life to the poor of East Harlem and, by virtue of said dedication, has a street in the neighborhood named after him.

In 1994, Pete Pascale recieved the Vito Marcantonio Award. 

LuLu has regaled many with remembrances of Marcantonio and her father talking on the street corner in East Harlem as a child. 

Because she is an "item" from the life and times of Vito Marcantonio, and because of its powerful sense of historical place, we share, here, her recent poem-prose publication in "Ovunque Siamo" entitled, "Growing Up Italian in a Wonderbread World." We do so thanks to the courtesy of that review's managing editor, Michelle Messina

Come back to our apartment.
To our building filled with love!
Gumma Millie lived across from us,
Gumma Minnie lived above.
All our doors were kept wide open
Sharing laughter day by day,
And also sharing the many heartaches
That were sure to come our way.
One Hundred and Sixteenth Street,
It casts a magic spell!
Building three-twenty-six,
Where memories dwell!

When I was growing up in East Harlem's Little Italy, my grandparents' apartments were my second home. My grandparents immigrated in the 1900s from Basilicata, the towns of Santa Fele and Melfi, to East Harlem, but the traditions of Italy were evident in my every day life. Grandma Lizzie or Grandma 116 (which is what I called her) and Grandpa Louie, my mother's parents, lived in a tenement apartment at
326 East 116th Street

ross the street from "326" were the brownstone homes of the doctors and lawyers of East Harlem, and also Haarlem House – the settlement house to which my parents devoted their lives. It was also the sunny side of the street, and my mother's family would often cross the street to take photos in front of the building directly across from them: 331 East 116th Street

It was a tradition to visit Grandma 116 after church on Sunday. On her kitchen table would be a silver tray with cordial glasses, bottles of whiskey for the men, sweet cordials for the women, and all the children would get a taste of vermouth "because it was cold outside." Homemade cookies would be piled high on a tray, including round sugar glazed Janette cookies, which we also called "hard rocks" because when they got stale they were like rocks. My favorites were "the bows," light crispy deep-fried cakes shaped like bows for a birthday gift and dusted with powdered sugar. 

Every Sunday all over East Harlem you would wake up to the smell of gravy cooking and the gravy meat frying. In our family we don't say "tomato sauce" we say "gravy." It always fascinated me how different everyone's gravy would taste – my grandmothers', my aunts', and my mother's. I can still smell and taste the differences in my memory. In that tenement building, I would be greeted by the different aromas coming from each apartment as I walked up the stairs. There were four apartments on a floor, the doors were always kept open, maybe it was due to the heat, but it was like a small town in Italy. We were part of a community. Neighbors would pop in and out of each other's apartments sharing food. Sometimes my grandmother would say they were nosy and just came by to see what we were cooking. Neighbors would borrow from each other. And you always gave them more than they asked. You knew people who were down on their luck – so you would knock on the door and say – "Oh, we made too much today – here this is for you." Saving face was important when you shared food. When someone came to your house you put everything you had out for them. Having something to offer was very important. When there were guests, the children were taught never to take any food from the table. You had to wait for a signal that you could. You had to make sure there was enough for the guest. My mother would say, "You don't ask a guest what they want because a guest would always so, 'No, I don't want anything.'" – for they didn't want to embarrass you in case you didn't have enough. 

My father always told the story of a social worker who went to a family's house to evaluate them to qualify for some public assistance. My father knew this family was in a desperate situation. When the social worker came back from her visit, she said to my father, "I went to her house – the table had a lovely lace tablecloth and there were all these beautiful dishes filled with food, cakes, and cookies. This woman doesn't need any money!" My father had to explain to her that the woman had borrowed everything from her neighbors to save face – as a guest was coming into her home – and God forbid she didn't have anything to offer her. 
Pete Pascale.

The shopping of food was a part of daily life - the special shops in the neighborhood, the smells, the community interactions and the neighbors asking, "What are you cooking today?" First Avenue, which was once a large street full of pushcarts where my grandparents had shopped, had given way to storefronts: Madonna's vegetable market where we bought arugula before it was fashionable; Tacco's fish market with the beautiful mosaic walls of sea life, and baskets outside with crabs that often escaped onto the sidewalk; the butcher and pork stores where my mother would watch carefully as they cut the meat; the Lattacini where they made homemade mozzarella (It's floor was covered in sawdust. I would love to get the sawdust all over my shoes much to my mother's annoyance.); Lombardi's Grocery Store where my mother bought Ronzini macaroni (I remember cutting off the special coupons for an electric fry pan.); the bakery on First Avenue where all the Italian men would sit having their café, smoking their smelly cigars; Saratella's bakery downstairs from Grandma 116 filling our street with the aroma of bread baking in the coal oven; Cincotti's bakery on the corner of Second Avenue filled with all kinds of pastries, including my favorite the Charlotte Russe, the little sponge cake in a fluted cardboard container with whipped cream and a cherry on top; and the smell of roasting coffee beans that filled the neighborhood coming from a store that sold demitasse cups and also fixed your wrist watch. I would walk home holding that brown bag of coffee to my nose. 

In Grandma 116's house after Sunday's meal, my cousin Leonilda and I would play store in Uncle Sonny's old bedroom, which was turned into a storeroom of sorts filled with homemade jars of vinegar peppers, pickled eggplant, tomato sauce, and Grandpa Louie's homemade wine. But my favorite of all were the homemade sausages hanging from the ceiling. 

Food was a calendar in our lives too. We always ate macaroni on Sundays and Thursdays, Monday was soup, and Friday was of course fish. Fish also played a part in one of our biggest holidays – Christmas Eve. I can hear my Grandma 116 saying: 

Rosie – fry the eels!
Dolly – fry the calamari!
Everybody will be coming!
We gotta hurry!
We have seven fishes,
That means seven dishes
That we serve on Christmas Eve –
Don't get gravy on your sleeve!
Outside the snow is flying, 
Inside the eels are frying
While we soak the baccala
Finiculì Funiculà
Everybody's getting ready
For the octopus and spaghetti,
Nobody knows the secret really
How grandma fixes the scungilli!
Finiculì Funiculà
Who cares if you get gravy on your sleeve!
Nobody wants to leave!
That's seven fishes
Seven fishes!
Seven dishes!
Christmas Eve!
Buon Natale!

I didn't eat lunch in school – no school lunch for me. My mother was working, so I would walk to Grandma LuLu's house and she would watch me from the window signaling to me when it was safe to cross the street. Grandma LuLu ignored my American name and called me LuLu, and I called her Grandma LuLu. Sadly I was not taught to speak Italian. My parents were born in America and I was an American. I should speak English. Grandma LuLu didn't speak English and I didn't speak Italian - we only communicated through food. And then it would start as soon as I entered her house:

Figlia Mia - Mangia LuLu Mangia-
Mangia minestrone!
Mangia macaroni!
Mangia meatballs!
Mangia a sausage!
Mangia abizz!
LuLu Mangia! Mangia! Mangia!
Mangia cucuzza!
Mangia biscotti!
Mangia torrone!

I would go home and tell my Mother: “Mommy, Mommy, what am I going to do? Grandma LuLu, all she does is say Mangia! Mangia! Mangia! Eat! Eat! Eat!"

She says Mangia!
I say I'm through!
I say I'm finished!
She says mangia di piu
Mangia – I'm through!
Mangia di piu!
This is our lunch every day!
I say I'm too full!
She says mangia minestrone!
I say not another mouthful!
She says mangia macaroni!
Mangia minestrone!
Mangia macaroni!
This is our lunch every day!
She comes from Potenza,
South of Napoli –
I come from East Harlem's
Little Italy
She says mangia!
I say I'm trying!
She says mangia!
I say I'm dying!
Mangia – I'm trying.
Mangia – I'm dying!
This is our lunch every day!
I wouldn't have it any other way!

Grandma LuLu's house made me think of Italy filled with dark strong wooden furniture. She would feed me vegetable soups, all shapes of macaroni she had made, exotic fruits: persimmons and pomegranate. For a treat she offered me chocolate covered cherries and torrone – really hard torrone – once I lost a tooth filling biting on her torrone.

In Grandma LuLu's bedroom there was an altar with saints and a snow globe of the Virgin Mary that when you shook it rose petals would fall – I loved that snow globe. You could never sit on her bed or God forbid put your coat on her bed because there would be a big board with homemade macaroni drying there covered with a tablecloth. We always said macaroni not pasta. We did specify shapes like spaghetti or linguine or perciatelli, but it was always macaroni and not pasta. In our house when the water was boiling and my mother would say, “I am throwing in the macs!” – that meant you had to wash your hands and sit at the table because when the macaroni was ready you had better be sitting at the table.

"Festa" by Ralph Fasanella. 
When I am asked what is the greatest influence on my art, I always say my grandmothers: Grandma LuLu and Grandma 116. They were a major source of inspiration to me as I watched them take a simple substance like flour – what did they create? – they created sculpture – it was my first introduction to sculpture. My grandmothers would take flour and shape it into a perfect mound and the break eggs into the hollowed center – and these eggs would sit there – never leaking out – and then how carefully they would mold the flour and eggs together. I'd watch them form the mound into macaroni – all kinds of shapes; ravioli, fettuccini, and cavatelli. And Grandma LuLu, she was like a machine – she would roll out strips of dough and then she would cut them – hundreds and hundreds of them. I watched her as she shaped them on her thumb. We called them “the hats.” That was the greatest influence – my grandmothers – they were truly creating art out of nothing – yes, we ate it – we ate it – it was food – but it was great art! One day I had such an artistic revelation, I did. My grandmothers made two different kinds of ravioli – Grandma LuLu – she made round ravioli – she used a glass to cut them – and Grandma 116 – she made square ravioli, using a pastry cutter. This was an artistic breakthrough for me.

And then it happened, my introduction to American dining. Growing up in East Harlem, you didn't really leave the neighborhood, and for years people always said East Ninety-Sixth Street was the invisible dividing line. My introduction to American cuisine happened when I was a little girl. My parents were working at the settlement house Haarlem House, and I was to go downtown with Mrs. Domini and her young son. She was an American, a large woman married to a tiny Italian man. Their size difference fascinated me. We had to go to City Hall and take a photo with Mayor Wagner. It was a publicity photo for Haarlem House. After we left City Hall, Mrs. Domini said we would go to lunch. I am thinking to myself this would be my first American restaurant. The only time I had ever eaten outside our home was at “Ferrara's Pizza Parlor." In those days you always ate pizza in a pizza parlor, they didn't sell slices.

Well, Mrs Domini took me to Howard Johnson's. I can remember being excited that I was in a real restaurant. I was hoping I could pick out whatever I wanted to eat. But Mrs. Domini didn't ask me what I wanted to eat, she ordered for me, and then it was set down in front of me: a glass of milk and a sandwich of white “Wonder Bread” with peanut butter and jelly. This was alien food to me – this fake white stuff that was called “Wonder Bread” – where was the crusty bread like we got from Saratella's bakery? There was nothing “wonderful” about his bread. And this sticky brown peanut butter with jelly? I had never had anything like this before! I knew my mother would get mad at me if I didn't eat it, so I took a bite and it was bland and tasteless in my mouth. And then there was the glass of milk – something we never had with our meals except in the morning with oatmeal or cream of wheat – or a little milk when we had a taste of the grownups' coffee.

All of our meals always had tomato sauces, and for an Italian, milk and tomato sauce don't go together. I remember once my father brought a college student from Ohio to a family Sunday dinner. We were all eating our macaroni with gravy and someone asked the student what did he want to drink? On the table were wine, seltzer (in one of those old squirt bottles), orange soda, and my grandmother's favorite cream soda. He answered, “Oh I'll have a glass of milk.” Everyone's fork just stopped in mid-air and a look of horror came over everyone's face at the thought of someone having milk with tomato sauce.

Ironically, a sandwich played a pivotal part in my father's life too. In the 1930s my father joined the Three Cs (Civilian Conservation Corps). He was working with a group of men building a road upstate. When it came time for lunch, the men were tired and hungry, and they were served a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. This outraged my father, and he said, “How can we build a road when all we are getting to eat is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?!” So my father organized a strike and he got kicked out of the Three Cs for being a troublemaker. He always said, “You know, kid, if it wasn't for that peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I would have been sent to California and you wouldn't have been born.”

My father loved to take me on a stroll through the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, where the lights and stands of the Feast would stretch all over the neighborhood. I would wait for him on the balcony of Haarlem House watching the people walking in the feast, and when my father was finished with the summer Fresh Air Fund registration, he would take me by the hand and we would walk through the feast. The street was filled with the aroma of sausage and peppers frying, the still life tableau of the ocean of clam shells with lemon slices, the dangling strings of ceci beans, mounds of torrone, and the lupuni beans that you would slip out of their case into your mouth, sidestepping the watermelon pits that dotted the street – then we would stop at my favorite stand, the zeppole stand. The zeppole (or as we said, “fried dough.”) was stuffed hot into a little brown paper bag, sprinkled with powdered sugar. You would shake the bag and then bite into that hot dough and the powdered sugar would fall all over your clothes.

The Feast was when the smells of food would fill the air of East Harlem just like it did in the tenement building of my grandparents.

Growing up in Italian East Harlem, food was the center of our family life. It was food that held us together, the preparation, the presentation, and the gathering around the table.

It was what signified: La Familia.