Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Vito Marcantonio Lucky Corner

Marc's Lucky Corner Legions. 
New York City now has its long-overdue “Vito Marcantonio Lucky Corner” and Professor Gerald Meyer has a new job to do.

In his biography of Marc, Meyer concluded with a strong lament: “No plaque commemorates the place of his birth, his political headquarters, his adult residence, or the spot where he fell dead.

“Nevertheless, his story deserves to be known, because it contradicts so many of the platitudes which pass for American history and therefore suggests new ways of thinking about the present.”

Offended by the forgetfulness, driven by his belief in the need for Marc's revival, Meyer convened the Vito Marcantonio Forum (VMF)in October of 2011.

Among those present on that night, as the Occupy movement took root in downtown Manhattan, were current members: Rita (Pura) Barakos; Charles Bayor; Gil Fagiani; Dave Gigliano; Maria Lisella; Meyer; Robert Ragone and Stephen Siciliano.

Among the goals set at the founding meeting was the naming of a street after the radical congressman.

On Dec. 17, the milestone was realized. The VMF's persistence in making Marcantonio part of the intellectual and cultural conversation, coupled with the commitment of city council president Melissa Mark-Viverito, made it happen.

The outgoing councilwoman's district overlaps much of what was Marc's old 18th, and then 20th, congressional districts. Throughout her term Mark-Viverito's office kept the ends out for ties that bound it to the VMF.

In March of 2017, the group honored her with the Vito Marcantonio Award. 

The fruitful relationship finally resulted in a most-poignant day for Marc and those who have endeavored to keep his flame burning.

“I have remembered,” Mark-Viverito told those gathered on a chilly Sunday afternoon at the corner of Lexington and E. 116th Street, “those who came before me and guided me as I moved forward representing East Harlem and the South Bronx: Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Evelina López Antonetty and Vito Marcantonio – all champions of the working class.”

Artwork by Adam Milat-Meyer.
“The naming of the street could not come at a more appropriate time in the country's history,” said VMF co-chair Lisella in a joint press release with the New York City Council. “As the rights of the immigrants, the poor, and social services are being challenged, we hope the reminder of Congressman Vito Marcantonio will inspire people and politicians to model themselves on his example.”

The event was attended by Manhattan Borough President Gayle Brewer. Chris Bell recited Fagiani's “Litany of San Vito” in English, Lisella did so in Italian, and community activist Gloria Quiñones performed the Spanish rendering.

VMF Co-chair Ragone reenacted a speech given by Marcantonio on the hallowed spot during his 1949 campaign, as well as passages from others on Puerto Rican independence and the discrimination of Italian immigrants. 

Meyer spoke on the significance of the Lucky Corner and pledged the group's continued effort to erect memorials at other sites of importance to the East Harlemite's career.

"The Lucky Corner," one of Ralph
Fasanella's masterworks.
In “La Guardia: A Fighter Against His Times,” author Arthur Mann traces the landmark to “The Little Flower's” 1924 congressional run:

“Fiorello closed his campaign on the night before election with a parade featuring fireworks, torches, and music, which wound up on 116th Street and Lexington Avenue – to be known thereafter as the Lucky Corner. Once again the streets rang to the tune of 'On the Road to Mandalay' as The Major's tenors, sopranos, and bassos sang out: 'Fi-or-el-lo H. La Guar-di-a; Harlem needs a man like you in Congress.'”

Marcantonio assumed La Guardia's mantle in Congress – and at the Lucky Corner – when The Major became The Mayor.

There were adjustments. The song became “The Hymn of Garibaldi,” but the party still ended with an appearance by the man-of-the-hour, Marc.

L-to-R: Frank Marcantonio, Gale Brewer, Melissa Mark-Viverito,
Christopher Bell, LuLu Lolo Pascale, Gerald Meyer, Gloria

Quiñones and Roberto Ragone.
In “Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician,” Meyer writes, “The Lucky Corner, by its very name, evoked the huge reservoir of folk beliefs equality prevalent in Italian Harlem and El Barrio. It also created the sense of the festa/fiesta, which, organized around an icon, celebrates a community and its deepest, often unarticulated beliefs and longings. Like the festa/fiesta, this pre-election rally had a major ritualistic, ceremonial function, which among other things stated that the streets and the public places belonged to the community residents, that their narrow, often dead-end lives had a wider meaning.”

Miriam Sanders may have fallen in love with her future husband after being “electrified by his incisive and compelling oratory” during a 1924 speech at the Lucky Corner, according to Meyer. Ralph Fasanella turned a Marcantonio rally at the locale into one of his masterworks. 

The story of the new sign at the Lucky Corner is as much about the marker as it is about the Vito Marcantonio Forum.

A long time in coming: Gerald Meyer. 
“The VMF,” says Meyer, “is a cross-generational, multi-racial/ethnic, gay-straight group of folks from varying political proclivities united in our conviction that the life and times of Vito Marcantonio must be written into all the phases of American history to repair the damage of the Cold War and McCarthyism which still haunt our national consciousness and behavior.”

Since its founding, the VMF has elaborated a rigorous program of interventions intellectual, literary, musical, and theatrical, thrusting forth from obscurity the name and work of Vito Marcantonio to those who come to be reminded and those who come to learn.

These have been auto-generated events, symposia in collaboration with like-minded groups, and forums convened by other organizations.

Reenactment, recital, poetry, musical spoken word, street corner speeches, film screenings, videos, guest speakers are all part of the VMF's toolbox.

The group has participated in, or mounted, 40 events since 2011, reviving the name of a man about whom very little was written or uttered.

An assembly of writer-, actor-, poet-, historian-, lawyer- retiree-activists, and such, with no official charge, but persistent and skilled at messaging through text, stage and screen, established a metric for success and pursued the matter to its fruition.

Roberto Ragone and Frank Marcantonio. 
The Lucky Corner's dedication represents Marcantonio's legacy redounding upon itself, his example of a citizen-based, collective activism being put to use in a way that could not have failed to please him. 

The event was written up in “AM/NY,” the Italian-language “i-Italy,” “People's World,” “24 New York,” and what appears to be a German language publication.

Renato Cantore wrote up the event in his Italian-language website as well as in "La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno." 

A member of the VMF, Cantore has visited Avigiano and Potenza, the respective hometowns of the Leonard Covello and Marcantonio families. The city fathers of both locales take pride and seek to make known the connections. 

Frank Marcantonio, a descendant of the East Harlem congressman, wrote VMF members saying, "It was a wonderfully exciting day highlighted by the unveiling of the 'Lucky Corner,' a lasting tribute to the life and legacy of Vito Marcantonio and also a legacy to all those who have persevered over the years to keep his name and accomplishments alive.”

Leading up to the sign ceremony was a Dec. 10 reading of Clifford Odet's “Waiting for Lefty” in conjunction with Work of Art Productions. 

It is Odet's first important play written in "The Red Decade," and stands as a textbook example of a successful, socialist-realist production. 

Four members of the VMF participated in the production. Ragone played the character "Joe," whose wages are insufficient to meet his needs. Bell played "The Villain." Meyer presented a talk on the aesthetics of the politicized theater. Adam Milat-Meyer handled the lighting and sound. 

Following the sign event the VMF held its ninth and final session of a reading circle done in conjunction with the neighborhood activist group Chelsea Rising at Penn South.

The cycle, which featured writings and speeches from “I Vote My Conscience,” ended with a special session focusing on Puerto Rico.

Artwork by Adam Milat-Meyer.
In attendance was Alma Concepción who, aside from the blessing of being Marc's godchild, was the only daughter of Gilberto Concepción
de Gracia, described by Meyer as “a major figure in Puerto Rican history.”

Concepción was, among other things, co-attorney with Marc in defense of Pedro Albizu Campos and other Nationalist Party leaders against sedition charges, and founder of the still-vital Puerto Rican Independence Party.

The hoisting of that green sign over the emblematic East Harlem street corner strengthens the bond between those who dreamed, and then lived, the process of memorializing the Lucky Corner and primes the VMF as it moves beyond its most active year in existence.

"The Italian American Table: Food Family, and Community in New York City," by Simone Cinotto

No, the pasta with tomato sauce and a side of sausage and/or meat in more gravy/sauce you eat on Sunday is not a time-honored recipe of your old country forebears.

In “The Italian American Table,” Simone Cinotto proposes that the food we know as “Italian” has roots in the Old Country, but actually flowered in New York City.

Cinotto's academic study of food culture in New York City's Italian immigrant community peels back the layers of accumulated culture to be found in that construct we know so well as “Italian food.”

The book proposes that, “Italian food was the food that reflected the experiences of Italian New York, as it was reinterpreted, transformed, and perpetuated in different reincarnations of many different Italian cuisines.”

What that means is that Italian food is not born of traditional recipes persistently defended by immigrants against modernity, but a creative response to the challenges of life in the new environment that was the New World. 

A Creative Business Class

Much of the credit goes to dynamic Italian American entrepreneurs whom Cinotto has called, “less cultural conservatives and more creative innovators.”  

This business class, he says, provided the community with a self-sufficiency in terms of goods. The goods themselves nurtured the culture and created a powerful link between being Italian and shopping Italian.

They created a culture and a material world that was important for them,” says Cinotto, a member of the Vito Marcantonio Forum. “This mostly symbolic cultural construction would not have survived if it were not very important in economical terms.”

Fortuitously coupled to the business acumen of these merchants was a very large market for goods from Italy or “Italian-made” product. The 1930 census revealed one-in-six New Yorkers were Italian.

Abundance Realized

As for the Italian American diet's progression, he informs that, for the immigrants, pasta, canned tomatoes, olive oil – items now sacrosanct – became part of their diet on this side of the Atlantic. 

“[The immigrants] predilection for fresh food,” Cinotto says, “which they never seemed tired of declaring, may well have been the result of not having much of it in Italy, where, contrary to popular notions, southern peasants rarely ate 'fresh' and 'in season' relying mostly on cereals (bread, soups, pastas or pulses), and poorly preserved cheese fish and sausages.”

Meat in Italy was a sometime thing. Manufactured “dry” pasta was for the upper strata of society.

The immigrants did not consider themselves as coming from Italy, rather as migrants sprung from their piccolo paese, “little country,” or province.

Simone Cinotto. 
Michael Parenti recalls in "Waiting for Yesterday," his memoir of youth in East Harlem, that when he asked his father if So-and-so was a paesan, his father told him, 'No, he's Napolitan,' meaning he was not Barese, like the Parenti clan and not of the same paese.

The food they ate represented what their sending region could yield or trade for. They shopped in local stores trafficking in the imported foodstuffs from the same places. 

But their U.S. status was that of Italians and the second and third generation kids came to view themselves in that way. They went to DeWitt Clinton High School where there were Irish kids, African-American kids, Puerto Rican kids, Jewish kids and themselves... the Italian kids.

A Closed Circle of Consumption

The home was a different story. “Living frugally in ethnically bounded enclaves, they maintained highly distinctive foodways,” says Cinotto. “In their homes, Italian immigrant women, barely exposed to mass marketing and advertising, continued to prepare foods purchased in local, independent stores in the neighborhood.”

This, he calls, a “closed circle of consumption,” which endured in immigrant communities up until the Second World War. It meant that mass-produced foods and chain stores made few inroads into the eating habits of Little Italy.

“Even as the U.S. marketplace allowed migrants to enrich their daily fare with foods (such as white bread, pasta, meat, coffee, and sugar) that had long been out reach in Italy, their isolation and poverty shielded them from most of the lure of mass culture, mass consumption, and mass advertising,” according to Cinotto.

Nonetheless, he observes, “their ethnic food production and distribution network allowed immigrants to have much wider access to more varied food than they had in rural Italy. The industry that brought 'Italian' foods to Italian enclaves was just one part of a complex, global trade system.”

American production techniques meant food was getting to the table cheaper than elsewhere in the world, and certainly cheaper than in Italy. “Hard-pressed immigrants saw some of the abundance promised by America in the availability of products beyond their reach back home,” says Cinotto. 

The Importance of Food

Italian American families of that time, Cinotto's research revealed, spent significantly more on the family food budget than other ethnic groups in the U.S.

Food was important, part of southern Italian hospitality. So was tradition, but the immigrants found that keeping their American-born children in line as to the old ways was a losing battle.

Parenti writes, “The immigrant men drank wine made in their own cellars and smoked stogies. We nasty youngsters called the stogies 'guinea stinkers' in reference to the old Italians who smoked them.”

The “nasty youngsters'” immigrant parents turned to food as the glue that would preserve the family from the corrosive effects of modern American culture.

Cinotto notes that, “Immigrants began to employ food and food rituals in the construction of the Italian American famiglia with its emphasis on solidarity, strong gender roles, a commitment to work, suspicion toward abstract ideas, and an appreciation of the effective limits of happiness."

He observes that,"The ideology of La Famiglia met the needs of working class culture -- itself under development -- that prepared individuals to the life of labor most of them were destined to live." 

For Italian Harlem's immigrants, Cinotto says, a woman's ability to prepare the beloved foods was a sign of successfully transmitted tradition across generations.

"In practice,' he adds, "it meant that the new bride was ready to serve her new husband the food his mother used to cook." 
Marc cared about spaghetti.

Sunday dinner was very important. The foods served were not to be found in the American culinary universe the children encountered at school and in the homes of American friends. It therefore served as a strong symbolic link to the family and to that family's identity as Italian. 

To Be, or Not to Be (Italian)

As Parenti remembered, his grandfather, in the end, expanded his language comprehension of the standard Italian, used in local papers like Il Progresso, until he became less a Barese and something of the Italian he had never been in Italy.

It is Cinotto's proposition that much the same progression affected the Italian American diet.

After World War I, the community's wealth, much of which used to be sent to family in Italy, stayed in New York, and provided Italian American businesses with access to new capital.

A new generation of medium- to large-sized Italian American businesses then, “helped reshape the Italian American market by adding their ethnic social and cultural capital to modernized methods of production and marketing; they managed to create an aura of Italianitá around their products by asserting the Italian identity of their products or inventing one where it did not exist, while at the same time meeting the standards required by modern consumer culture – low price, quality, purity, and ease of preparation.”

Even when the canned tomatoes came from a California company, or the salami from northern New Jersey, branding industrially produced mass products as Italian worked, and these became every day items in the Italian American kitchen, in Cinotto's words, “earning the same trust accorded to 'natural' and 'traditional' non-processed foods." 

Marc frequented Rao's.
You'll never grab a can of whole tomatoes again without reading the label after Cinotto takes you through his survey of U.S.-sourced “Italian” kitchen staples. Just because there's a folkloric drawing of a peasant woman holding a basket in the Italian countryside, doesn't mean the contents comes from the Italian countryside.

A Comprehensive Study

There's much more. The role Italian restaurants served in helping Americans get more comfortable with the people who owned them and vice versa. Mussolini's encouragement of importation to the Italian immigrant community and the move toward Italian-American companies when the trade bonanza ended.

There is a look at the codification of an “Italian cuisine” -- designed more for Americans than Italians -- featuring Neapolitan tomato-based offerings and dishes devised on Mulberry Street or 116th Street, home of Rep. Vito Marcantonio a dedicated marinara man in his own right. 

The progression, or the dialectic, is ongoing.

Mario Batali rooted his haute cuisine in the Old Country proper and would not hire kitchen hands who had not done time in an Italian – as in Italy – restaurant. There was a response, with cookbooks like “We Called It Macaroni” reasserting the virtues of home-cooked New York-style Italian cuisine.

All of which serves to highlight the dramatic levels of out-migration from Italy to the Americas. Cinotto often employs the term “diaspora” to describe the displacement of southern Italians around the world.

The condition was one of uprootedness and the establishment of foodways that drew upon old habits and made concessions to the offerings of a new environment resulted in something newer still: a strong marker of Italian American identity. 

Cinotto teaches history at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. He is the recipient of accolades for his studies of food and the Italian American experience.