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.”
“Where are your ancestors from?” she said with a beautiful smile and a slight accent. “From Sicily” I replied. “Do you know of Mount Etna?” I asked. “Of course, Sicilia, I am from the south also.” I was checking in at an Italian Bed and Breakfast just south of Rome. Actually it is called an “Agriturismo.” An “Agriturismo” is much more than what we call a Bed and Breakfast. The woman was escorting my wife and me to our room at Corte in Fiori. It is in the Province of Lazio just south of Rome. This is my second trip to Italy but it promised to be a better look at the everyday life and culture my ancestors talked about with such affection. “Are you from an Italian community?” she asked. “Well, I’m from America,” I said thinking she misunderstood me. “No, I mean where you live are there other Americans of Italian origin?” “Oh, now I understand,” was my reply.
She was trying to find common ground. Italians living in our homeland and Italians from the northside are very proud of their culture. Even though my ancestors immigrated to America almost 100 years ago a link could be found between today and yesterday. The message from our Italian host was that Italian culture is timeless and without borders.
Five days later we were traveling to Rome. Our tour guide Tazatianna was bringing us to “Ara Pacis Augustae,” the Altar of Augustan Peace. Before going to the city of Rome our group visited Etruscan, Medieval and Renaissance archaeological sites. Tazatianna was explaining how the 2,000-year-old Ara Pacis was found beneath twelve feet of silt. It was in the flood plain of the Tiber River. This is why “in Roma there are no subways” Tazatianna said. Her explanation continued complete with expressive hand gestures, “Roma is like a lasagna with many layers of interesting ingredients,” she explained. “When the archeologists find remains from the Renaissance, they dig further and find artifacts from the medieval period, then further down are the Etruscans.” Italy is multicultural in a different way. This culture has evolved over thousands of years. In America we don’t have buildings and gargoyles made of limestone to teach us the lessons of the past.
The northside is our archaeological site. Over the past 200 years a variety of ethnic, religious and cultural groups have emigrated to the northside. The Irish laborers dug the ditch that would become the canal with a pick and a shovel. The German brew masters plied their craft on the old northside and left behind crumbling brick buildings. The Italian bakeries still practice their craft. Not as many as in the past, but their brick-lined ovens still produce a crust that cannot be duplicated by super market bakers. When I look back on our recent trip it seems to me that the vacant German breweries are similar to the Roman ruins found at Ostia Antica.
One could say that the northside is like lasagna. The northside is multi-layered, multicultural and open to interpretation. We cannot ask those who once lived in Ostica Antica some 2,000 years ago which was their favorite store for fresh fruit, or what was their favorite stage performance at the local amphitheater. Old time northsiders aren’t around to tell us about their favorite local jazz group playing at Sorrento’s or whether they preferred the Pilsner or the Bock beers from a local brewery. But we have our imagination to fill in the blanks; while another layer is being added to that lasagna right now as a new wave of immigrants’ add their cultures to a northside mosaic that keeps evolving.