Buffalo's Old West Side of the Mid-1960s

Quando i tempi cambiano, i costumi e le tradizioni che contraddistinguono una particolare cultura spesso scompaiono misteriosamente dai quartieri di una città e dalla nostra coscienza sociale. Nonostante ciò, non dovrebbero mai essere dimenticati. Questo è esattamente quello che è successo negli anni ’60 nello storico quartiere italiano dell’Old West Side di Buffalo, dove gli ininterotti eventi culturali hanno dato vita ad un periodo d’oro ed al contempo turbolento, contrassegnato da espressioni culturali, attività e temi memorabili.

When times change, distinct cultural practices and traditions often mysteriously disappear from city neighborhoods and our social consciousness, but they should never be forgotten. That is exactly what happened here in Buffalo to the omnipresent, Italian cultural fixtures on the Old West Side during the mid-1960s: a golden yet turbulent time defined by memorable expressions, activities and themes.

Born in Buffalo in 1957, my storied recollections reflect the mid-1960s where I was the only child of Italian immigrant parents from the Abruzzi region in Italy. I spoke Italian before I began to learn and speak English at my first school, Holy Angels, on Porter Ave. The Old West Side of Buffalo is full of Italian cultural nuggets from my childhood. Who could ever forget the singing Italian huckster; a grocer who came by each morning in a box truck, shouting and singing loudly and proudly in Italian and marketing his fresh fruit and vegetables as he drove slowly down the street, "Amici Italiani, fresca fruita e vegetabli per tutti." Within moments, Mama and Zia Marietta would run to the Plymouth Ave. curb in curlers and full nightgowns waiting for the Italian huckster. When he arrived, Mama and Zia Marietta would meticulously inspect and select the fresh produce, negotiating and even arguing in Italian. It was great drama, at times, as Zia Marietta worked her old-country magic to get good produce at a bargain price, "Ho fatto una buona compra oggi (I made a good buy today)," she would say proudly. Then, Mama and Zia Marietta would reach deep into their bras for the necessary greenbacks to complete the transaction. It was a lesson on bartering, the old-fashioned, Italian way.

Prospect Park, located across from Connecticut St. on Buffalo's West Side, was the rallying site for "morra" among the older Italian men. It was a cultural experience in Italian as the men intensely competed to win at the game. Morra is usually played one-on-one or in teams of two and three, displaying fingers and sometimes dueling for hours. In one instance, I distinctly recall a large, tall, Italian man about 50 in age and balding, who always wore suspenders over his large belly. He had become notorious for his intense exhortations and could be heard from the other side of the park. In a heated and consuming morra contest, the large man became sweaty and red-faced. His eyeballs were bulging out of his skull, it seemed to me, as he shouted with fierce intensity: "cinque (five), sette (seven), nove (nine)!" until he won or lost. He was committed and fanatical about the game, using a loud, thundering voice, theatrics and intimidation for pure effect and entertainment for the onlookers; and he hated to lose. You stayed away from him if he lost at morra that day.

On Saturday nights, my parents and I often went to the wrestling matches at Memorial Auditorium cheering on Illio DiPaolo from Abruzzo, Italy. We watched him flawlessly execute the airplane spin and pin his opponents to the delights of fans, especially those screaming, "Bravo Illio!" DiPaolo loved his fans, but had a deep love for his paisani, respectfully referring to most of his Italian friends as "compare.” He was a gentle giant, an Italian icon locally and regionally, whose cultural identity and wrestling legacy lives on. I believe these Italian cultural nuggets still proudly resonate and are worth retelling for years to come.