A new documentary about New Haven’s Little Italy is part fond recollections, part Ken Burns, and fully committed to the stories of everyday neighborhood residents.
The movie made its world premiere at the New Haven Documentary Film Festival on Thursday night, and has a handful of other upcoming screening dates in downtown New Haven.
A native of Western Pennsylvania, Hamm has worked as the business editor for the New Haven Register and chief storyteller for IBM. He has written a number of books about globalization and technology. He readily admits that he is not Italian-American; his ancestors hail from Germany, Scotland, Ireland, and England.
But, he said, when he moved back to the Elm City a few years ago, he got an apartment in Wooster Square that looks out over St. Michael’s Church on Wooster Place. The idea for this movie, he said, came from his sitting at his work desk, looking out his window, and watching funeral processions depart from the historic Catholic Church.
“Every funeral is the loss of a life full of stories,” he recalled thinking from his desk. “These stories have to be captured.”
That epiphany and a conversation with Frank Carrano, a former teacher’s union leader and longtime Wooster Square resident, got Hamm interested in making a documentary that told the history of New Haven’s Little Italy through the individual stories of its residents.
The movie includes interviews with nearly 40 people, Hamm said, ranging from local politicians like former Mayor John DeStefano and U.S. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro to local businesspeople like Claire Criscuolo and John Cavaliere to a host of 70-, 80-, and 90-year-old men and women who grew up in the neighborhood and reflect fondly upon living in a primarily first-generation Italian enclave of the city.
“I think the stories of regular people are often fascinating, exciting, dramatic, moving,” Hamm said. “I wanted to do an oral history about this place.”
In its telling of the 100-plus year history of Wooster Square as an Italian-American neighborhood, The Village loosely follows four key organizing principles that Hamm said he heard about from nearly every person he spoke with: hard work, family, faith, and fraternity.
Longtime residents recall the critical role that labor unions like the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) played in organizing poor and working-class Italian immigrants who came to New Haven, primarily from the Amalfi Coast, to work in the city’s many factories at the turn of the 20th century.
Hamm uses interviews and archival photographs to recall a deadly 1957 fire in a dress shop in a factory building on Franklin Street that led to the deaths of 16 women who could not escape due to faulty fire escapes.
He also brings in generations-spanning festivals and parades organized by the St. Andrew’s Society and the Society of Saint Mary Magdalene, both of which are still extant.
“They were social service agencies,” Hamm said about the Catholic Italian fraternal and sororal organizations. “They weren’t just people playing dominoes.” They were places to find a job, learn English, register to vote, and get a line of credit.
Hamm said popular culture too often focuses on the history and allure of the mafia when telling the history of Italian Americans. He said he wanted to focus on the aspects of the Italian-American society that brought residents together and helped sustain a thriving immigrant community.
He described his approach as part fond recollections, part Ken Burns, in terms of the balance he had to find between the evident nostalgia that many of the older residents had for an earlier era of Wooster Square and the critical filmmaker’s eye he wanted to bring to his telling of this history.
“It’s a very important reminder of the roots of the country,” Hamm said about the immigrant story featured in The Village and in the neighborhood’s history more broadly. “Of how important immigration is to the country, and how important immigrants were and are today.”
He said the vitality of America today lies in its immigrant populations, from Latin America, Mexico, Africa, and the Middle East. “These are highly motivated, hopeful people,” he said. “These are just the people you want” in this country.
Go to the film’s Facebook page to learn more about upcoming screenings of The Village Click on the audio player below to listen to the full interview.