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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

ITALIANS - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

ITALIANS. Although Italian names can be found in Cleveland city directories from the late 1850s, not until the Civil War did an Italian community begin forming in the city. The 1870 census listed 35 Italians in Cleveland; during the following 50 years, more than 20,000 Italian immigrants came to the city. Most immigrants were contadini (peasants) from the Mezzogiorno (southern Italy), where extreme poverty and government negligence brought unbearable hardship. The history of Cleveland's Italians comprises 3 separate stages: formation (1870-1929); transformation (1930-45); and realization (1945 to the present).

By the late 1920s, the formative period was complete; 6 Italian neighborhoods had been established. The largest was BIG ITALY, located along Woodland and Orange avenues from E. 9th St. to E. 40th St. LITTLE ITALY, centered at Mayfield and Murray Hill roads, proved the most enduring of the settlements. Nearby, at E. 107th St. and Cedar Ave., a community grew around St. Marian Church. Also on the city's east side was a substantial Italian settlement in COLLINWOOD. Two settlements were on the west side, one near Clark and Fulton avenues and one on Detroit near W. 65th St., the latter an offshoot of the former. Eventually, by the late 1920s, a 7th community was established by people moving out of Big Italy to the Woodland and E. 116th St. region. In each community, the Italians transplanted their institutions, including nationality parishes, hometown societies, mutual-aid organizations, and a multiplicity of family-owned businesses. Cleveland's Italians lacked any sense of national identity. Italy for them was the village from which they came. What the Italians brought to Cleveland were the traditions, values, patron saints, and dialects from the villages they represented. Their affinities and affiliations were largely with their paesani (fellow villagers).

Most of Cleveland's Italian immigrants came after the turn of the century, when the city was expanding its streets and city services. Many worked on BRIDGES, sewers, and streetcar tracks, while also providing cheap labor for factories and railroads. Skilled in embroidering and needlework, Italian women and men worked in large numbers in the clothing and garment industries, employed by PRINTZ-BIEDERMAN CO., JOSEPH & FEISS CO., H. Black, M. T. Silver, and other clothing factories. The immigrant settlements often differed according to occupation. Big Italy, the oldest colony, located close to the city's markets, became the center of the city's fruit industry because many of the immigrants came from Sicily, where fruits were grown. Frank Catalano, a pioneer settler, introduced to Cleveland such tastes as oranges, olive oil, figs, anchovies, garlic, bananas, nuts, and other delicacies. Catalano, with his Italian competitors, made Cleveland the center of Ohio's produce industry. In, Little Italy, the chief occupations included tailoring, monument work, and gardening. While Italian landscapers tended the estates on the heights above Little Italy, stonecutters applied their skills to cemeteries, churches, and private homes. The pioneer stonecutters were Jas. Broggini, coming to Cleveland in 1870 and establishing a monument work on Woodland Ave., and JOSEPH CARABELLI†, immigrating in 1880, seeing the opportunity for monument work in LAKE VIEW CEMETERY, and establishing what became the city's leading marble and granite works. Most fresco and mosaic work in Cleveland was accomplished by Italian artist immigrants.

Cleveland's Italians were also active in manufacturing. Ohio Macaroni Co., established in 1910 by Joseph Russo & Sons, became Ohio's largest macaroni company by 1920. Roma Cigar Co., started in 1913 by Albert Pucciani, produced 20,000 cigars weekly by 1920. GRASSELLI CHEMICAL CO. was also prominent. By the end of the formative period, Cleveland's Italians made up 80% of its barbers and 70% of its cooks. Although only 4 of the city's restaurants were owned by Italians in 1920, one of these, New Roma, was reputedly the largest and most attractive in Ohio. Italian chefs prepared meals at the Cleveland hotels and at SHAKER HEIGHTS COUNTRY CLUB.

Twenty Italian medical doctors and dentists served the community by 1920; one of the most prominent was GIOVANNI A. BARRICELLI†. These Italian-trained professionals followed the contadini to Cleveland to serve their needs. BENEDETTO D. NICOLA† was the first and most prominent of Cleveland's 12 Italian attorneys during the formative period. Italian-born attorneys did not follow immigrants to Cleveland, so the community had to wait for the children of immigrants to fill this void. Politically, as long as the Italian community, family, and "old ways" were not threatened, Italians were not seriously active, with only 1,423 "naturalized Italians voting" out of a foreign-born population of 13,570 in 1915. Not until the late 1920s did Cleveland's Italians take a more active interest in politics. Political leadership was dependent on the small nucleus of Italian-American attorneys who had established their reputations by the end of the formative period.

The Italian-American press was one of the most effective means of ethnic expression. In 1903 the first Italian newspaper in Ohio, LA VOCE DEL POPOLO ITALIANO, was founded; by 1920 it claimed a circulation of 15,000 in Cleveland and another 30,000 throughout Ohio and other states. La Stampa also emerged during the formative period. These papers interpreted American law, made clear economic and social rights, emphasized the advantages of citizenship, and became an incentive for literacy, offering news from the homeland. By 1915 La Voce became the first Italian newspaper in the, U.S. to publish articles in both Italian and English. Later, other newspapers, such as L'ARALDO, appeared, enjoying limited success; eventually, as the reading skills of the second generation were lost, radio broadcasts with the "Italian Hour" became popular. By the 1990s a renewed interest in Italian heritage made possible the successful publication of a new "Italian" newspaper, La Gazzetta Italiana. Written largely in English the paper garnered a large readership among 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation Italian-Americans.

No institution better reflects the uniqueness of Cleveland's Italian community than the hometown society, enabling the paesani to transplant the solidarity of their native villages, strengthening an identity they already possessed, and helping to keep them from being absorbed by Cleveland's greater Italian community. Meeting weekly, they reminisced in their village dialect, maintained family acquaintances, continued ties with their Italian village, buried their dead, cared for widows and children, and found employment for the unemployed and housing for those without shelter. The exploitation of the padroni so evident in New York City never became part of Cleveland because of these societies. Cleveland societies included the Ripalimosani Social Union, Fraterna Sant'Agata, Matrice Club, TRENTINA CLUB, and Noicattarese Club. By the end of the formative period, most of the hometown societies became affiliated with the Sons of Italy, which organized its first Cleveland chapter in 1913. By 1920 Cleveland's Italians had 9 lodges. One of their attractions was the mutual-aid or insurance benefits they provided. Cleveland's Italians established many organizations during the formative period; 80% of all the Italian males held membership in 1 or more of these societies.

The church was, perhaps, the major nonfamilial institution. Fr. Pacifico Capitani arrived from Rome in 1886, and on 8 May 1887 the first Italian nationality church in Ohio was dedicated to St. Anthony, serving Big Italy. By the late 1920s, Cleveland's Italian-born exceeded 32,000 and the nationality churches increased: St. Marian (1905), HOLY ROSARY (1892) serving Little Italy, ST. ROCCO PARISH (1922), Holy Redeemer (1924) serving Collinwood, and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel West (1926). By 1937 enough Italians had moved to the Woodland-E. 116th area to establish of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel East. Despite the overwhelming association of Italians with Roman Catholicism, several Protestant Italian churches were established, including ST. JOHN'S BECKWITH MEMORIAL CHURCH (1907) in Little Italy. The nationality churches unified the various paesani, as no single village group could build its own church. Still, each group of paesani held a banquet and street parade honoring its patron saint. By the 1980s the Feast of the Assumption, sponsored by Holy Rosary Church, was one of the sole surviving feasts and had grown, into an enormous event.

In the late 1920s, events within the American experience challenged Cleveland's Italian community. The burdens created by Prohibition, the Depression, and passage of restrictive immigration legislation placed the Italians in a defensive position and made the community politically active. The rise of Mussolini, which tended to gain international respect for Italy, had strong symbolic importance for immigrants. Prohibition seems to have provided the impetus for Italian political involvement as the community sought to redress slurs and discriminatory practices. While newspaper stories linked Italians to organized crime, the local police force engaged in questionable practices--at one point stationing officers at all entrances to Little Italy and searching automobiles, without warrants, for illegal liquor. That led to the involvement of men such as ALESSANDRO DEMAIORIBUS† in local politics. Although DeMaioribus was Republican, the majority of Italians became Democrats, where FRANK CELEBREZZE† and Anthony J. Celebrezze, mayor, cabinet officer in the Kennedy administration, and federal judge, made their political careers.

Cleveland's Italians took great pride in revitalized Italy. In 1935 Augusto Rosso, Italian ambassador to the U.S., came to Cleveland to help dedicate the new Sons of Italy temple, proof to Cleveland's Italian press that the Fascist regime followed the activities of Italian-Americans. On 3 Oct. 1935, Mussolini ordered the invasion of Ethiopia;
by Sept. 1936 Cleveland Italians had donated $12,404.21 to the Italian Red Cross. The local community's links to Italy were abruptly upset in 1940 when Italy declared war on France and England. Between then and the entry of the U.S. into the conflict, almost all local support for Mussolini melted. Perhaps the greatest benefit of the situation was the ethnic maturity resulting from the identity crisis experienced when Italians found themselves classified as "enemy aliens." Ethnicity transformed as Italians redirected their energy toward the war effort. Lodges named after Italian royalty were renamed Abraham Lincoln, Betsy Ross, etc. Membership declined. The junior lodges were closed, and in 1945 the temple Ambassador Rosso had dedicated was for sale.

World War II was a watershed for Cleveland's Italians. Many had relatives fighting on both sides. Cleveland's Italians led the city in scrap and bond drives. By 1942 2,500 served in the U.S. armed forces; Pfc. FRANK PETRARCA† was the first Ohioan awarded the Medal of Honor. Italians' ethnic identity survived the war but was transformed; postwar Italians realized they were Americans of Italian descent. Impetus for change after 1945 came from the returning veterans who sought advanced educational opportunities, more space, higher incomes, and contact with non-Italians. Intermarriage and a movement to the SUBURBS ensued. Italians on the east side moved out, along Mayfield Rd. to MAYFIELD HEIGHTS and LYNDHURST. West side Italians moved along W. 25th St. to PARMA. Still, many of the old settlements, except Big Italy, remained viable into the 1970s, partly because of the continuing migration of Italians into Cleveland. By 1960 there were still 19,317 foreign-born Italians in the city. However, within 30 years deaths among the older generation and continued out-migration reduced Cleveland's Italian-born population to 1,429; though depleted, the Italian community was the second largest European immigrant group in the city.

By the mid-1990s, although the two west side settlements around St. Rocco and Mt. Carmel parish remained marginally viable, all that remained on the east side was Little Italy. However, by this time only half of its population could be considered of Italian descent. Its back streets housed an increasing number of students from CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY, and professionals. A plethora of Italian restaurants catering to a wide clientele and a growing number of artists' shops made it one of the city's tourist destinations--its "Italianess" seemed to become more symbolic than real. As was the case with other immigrant groups, the suburbs were more attractive to both the descendants of immigrants and new immigrants, and the future of Cleveland's Italians was more firmly linked to regions outside of the city's boundaries.

Charles Ferroni

Ashland College

Coulter, Charles. The Italians of Cleveland (1919).

Ferroni, Charles. "The Italians in Cleveland: A Study in Assimilation" (Ph.D. diss., Kent State Univ., 1969).

Veronesi, Gene. Italian Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland (1979).

Last Modified: 04 Mar 1998 04:35:15 PM

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