Editor’s Note: Joe Russo is a “Nortsider”, a retired teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside.”
“Pompei is having a reunion this year. Do you want to be on the committee?” asked Joey Nigro. I didn’t respond as I thought about it. “It’s going to be big”, she continued. I shrugged it off and insisted I was too busy. “Keep me posted on the developments”, I replied. It would be interesting to see some of the old timers. It is the part of my life that I am most nostalgic about. But I really didn’t have the time to be on another committee.
Every time a conversation about the old Northside begins the wishful thinking starts. Wouldn’t it be great if we could go back to the 1950’s and 1960’s. A double dip ice cream cone was only 12 cents and Our Lady of Pompei was the cultural center of Syracuse. It wasn’t just a neighborhood church with a neighborhood school, Pompei had the Pompeian Players. Why was that so special, well, you would have to know something about the old Northside to understand that.
In 1949 Father Charles Borgognoi was assigned to Our Lady of Pompei parish. The old Northside, a working class neighborhood, was within walking distance of a manufacturing sector now known as Franklin Square (this is where they made everything from automotive parts and ball bearings to washing machines). The Northside was all about family, big families with lots of children. Father Charles assignment was to give the kids something positive to do, something to keep them off the streets and out of trouble.
How about a Broadway play? Not a stripped down version but a full blown version complete with original costumes and stage props. In 1950 it was just a dream. By 1960 it was the most successful theatrical group in upstate New York. They played to an audience of thousands downtown at the RKO Keith’s Theater. To sell out every evening performance plus the matinees was not unusual. If you were a Pompeian Player you were one of the cool kids.
The reunion could be a chance to capture some the old magic. On October 8, 2016 a combination reunion and fund raiser for Our Lady of Pompei school was held at LeMoyne College. This little school has been around since 1926. To find a way to celebrate 90 years of history is not an easy task. Lucy Paris and the reunion committee did it in a wonderful way. Because not only must they reflect on the past but also give us a vision for the future.
The past was there in full force. Three hundred fifty alumnae paid $100 each to celebrate Pompei. Present were some colorful individuals: Rita Barrone, the Nesci brothers, Joey Ciminio, the Falcone brothers even the President of LeMoyne College, Linda LaMura, is a Pompeian. The past was quickly brushed aside for the future. Bill Salomone our master of ceremonies promised humor, performances by some of the original Pompeian Players and nostalgia.
Our program guide is a reflection of the past. Bill Salomone asked us to flip through the program guide until we found the loose photo that was tucked away in each booklet. Everyone had a photo of a child currently attending Our Lady of Pompei School. The new students at Our Lady of Pompei were also New Americans. The students are from immigrant families but not from Italy or Germany they are from Asia and Africa. A group of Asian and African students quickly assembled on stage to sing songs from one of the Broadway plays performed by the Pompeian players. When they finished Bill Salomone spoke in a quiet reassuring voice. “They are the reason we are here tonight. These students are carrying on a tradition that started in 1926 and we are here to support them.”
For some reason the angelic voices of children brings a tear to my eyes. The singing of the young students aroused a standing ovation and I could see around me many a teary eye. Compared to my story the Northside is writing a very different story, but it is a compelling story.
No one can really foretell the future. Children, especially bright eyed enthusiastic children, give us hope for the future. The Northside is an incubator of ideas. “Will we ever get along?” is a question we all have. The answer may be percolating right now on the Northside. Regrettably I never did join the reunion committee. I want to be part of the story whether I am living or writing the story. All these young northsiders need is support. They have the energy and will to turn a reunion into a rebirth.