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Collection Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting

Italian Identities and Relationships

Although the Italian community along the avenue is diverse, it can be defined in terms of the three regional affiliations just mentioned: Basilicata, Sicily, and Campania. The people from Basilicata (from the town of Montescaglioso) seem to be the dominant force. Italian solidarity on the avenue is probably enhanced by the fact that most members of that community use Italian as their primary means of communication and English as a second language; some Italian shopkeepers are learning to speak Spanish because of a growing customer base of Spanish-speaking people.

A close-up of a soccer clock celebrating the Italian team.

Many Montesi (people with ties to Montescaglioso) work or have worked at a particular dye shop — Perennial Print Company — in the Riverside section of the city. In fact, a discussion with a foreman at Perennial Print confirmed that the shop is dominated by people from "Monte." Other dye houses employ concentrations of Italians from other parts of Italy. An informant listed Montescaglioso, Benevento, and Sicily — the same mix of Italians in business or residence along the avenue. The association with a particular workplace may serve to enhance, strengthen, and perhaps renew cultural ties between Montesi on the avenue and the larger group of Montesi who live and work in the Paterson area. For all these people, the 21st Avenue area may function as a center of their culture.

A view of 21st Avenue. The Italian flag is hung over the entrance to one of the many Italian-owned and -operated cafes on the avenue.

On the avenue itself, the situation among the Italian community of merchants is interesting and complex. As noted, there is a backbone of Montese-owned and -operated businesses on the avenue, alongside businesses owned by people from Sicily and Campania. The Montese-owned businesses cluster around E. 19th Street, where Sanremo Italian Imports, P & S Variety Center, John and Joe's Meats, Peoples' Park Hardware, Ditaranto's Market, and RC's Deli (all owned by Montese) are located.

Rocco Ditaranto with a customer who stopped by to talk and spend time with Rocco.

Four or five of these Montese business owners worked at Perennial Print at one time or another, and all their businesses are located in close proximity to one another now. These historical and geographical ties are further enhanced by everyday social relationships on the avenue. Though it is necessary for business owners to remain in their own shops much of the time, there are occasions when they visit others' shops, or when a third party — a customer or friend — may visit one shop to bring a message from another. These occasions are social, a time when men (and infrequently women) linger and talk, run out and return with espresso, order a sandwich and eat it on the spot while chatting with the owner. Italians meet each other on the street and stop to talk. Some sit just inside or stand just outside their open shop doors on days when the weather permits or encourages this behavior, which puts them in a position to greet passersby, call people over to talk, and generally observe the goings-on along the avenue.

Joe Miraglia, Rocco Mazzacolli, and Vince Miraglia, working at John and Joe's Meat Market. Joe Miraglia butchering a piece of veal.

The commercial establishments on the avenue provide a context, and numerous occasions daily, for social interaction among members of the Italian-American community. Sometimes social interaction intersects with commercial activity at particular sites, as when a friend of Rocco Ditaranto's stopped by his shop (Ditaranto's Market) at lunch hour, ordered a sandwich, then stayed to eat and talk with Rocco. This type of interaction also occurs regularly at the Italian cafes on the avenue.

Rocco prepares a piece of cod for frying while his mother continues to prepare scaccie at RC's deli.

Where shops do not provide items for immediate consumption, other sorts of interaction take place. I witnessed a striking example when I stopped in say hello to Joe Miraglia at the butcher shop. Joe was behind the counter, and greeted me as I walked in. He introduced me to his son, Vince, who works full time as a butcher at the Foodtown supermarket on Chamberlain Avenue, but who sometimes helps out in his father's shop, especially on Wednesdays, which are his day off. Joe's wife was also in the shop, helping, it turned out, to make fresh sausages. A friend (Rocco Mazzacolli, also from Montescaglioso) was also in the back, grinding meat for the sausages. And a while later, Rocco's son, Pasquale, who works full time as a chef in a Paterson restaurant, showed up and set to work carving veal. During this abundance of activity, Rocco Ditaranto (the produce store owner) arrived, and spent time kidding and talking with Vince Miraglia, Joe's son. Everyone worked together during the course of the afternoon. When a customer arrived, that person was usually known to someone, and a conversation in Italian ensued. The afternoon's events at the butcher shop illustrate and convey, in microcosm, the larger pattern of activity on the avenue among members of its Italian community.

The "work" of Italian shop owners in the 21st Avenue area may be broadly described as commercial. They stock and sell a variety of items in their shops and stores, emphasize service or skill in delivering their products to customers, and sometimes produce goods to be sold in their shops that express Italian ethnicity (as, for example, at RC's Deli, which offers a variety of prepared foods made in a kitchen at the rear of the store). This is the productive dimension of the avenue. But there is another dimension that should be noted. As Italians on the avenue are providing goods and services to the general community of consumers through their businesses, they also appear to be reproducing Italian ethnicity and community through their activity. This is perhaps the fundamental "work" or "business" of the 21st Avenue (Italian) commercial district, though each shop or store owner is certainly also focused on his own (and by extension his family's) economic survival and well-being. Italian-owned shops and stores on the avenue are vehicles of this more engaging and fundamental work: the social construction of cultural identity through economic activity.

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