Walking History Project Mines Wooster Sq.

Allan Appel PhotoA mission to develop New Haven’s rich ethnic history into structured neighborhood “walks” added some new data: Emiddio Cavaliere’s memories of how kindly old Mr. Gitlitz took care of Italian-American kids like him at the original Farnam Neighborhood House, in Wooster Memorial Park.

The fact-finders discovered, as well, that, Revolutionary War hero David Wooster’s house stood on the site where today Libby’s Pastry Shop purveys Italian ices and cappuccinos on the general’s eponymous street.

They learned that U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s dad Ted ran a package store where La Bella Vita liquor store now stands.

And that long before Trish Perrotti’s grandparents Anunziata and Salvatore Consiglio started what became Consiglio’s restaurant in the early 1960s, it was across the street and called, of all things, “The Big Apple.”

Who knew?

Well, Perrotti knows. So does longtime Wooster Square grocer Cavaliere, whose memory remains bright at 90 years old..

Soon the will the rest of us history-minded Elm City-zens will know about such neighborhood lore when the Ethnic Heritage Center’s (EHC) “WALK NEW HAVEN: Cultural Heritage Tours” debut later this summer.

Each tour is designed to be self-guided and multimedia. Whether you walk, bike, or drive, it should take on average a couple of hours.

Whatever your preferred mode of transportation, if you stop for a pizza or an Italian ice, well, add four or five more hours.

Organizers of the self-guided tour project have been conducting interviews on walking tours of neighborhoods leading up to the launch. Perrotti and Cavaliere were among the final interviews being conducted the other day along sun-splashed Wooster Street and its environs of historic pizzerias, Italian clubs, and the sites of old stores and even more old stories.

The orchestrator of these tales and tours is retired city government planner Rhoda Zahler Samuel, assisted by Joanne Ludwig, Jane Scarpellino, and a dozen more volunteers from the Ethnic Heritage Center. They’ve put the finishing touches on the years-long effort to create the WALK NEW HAVEN tours.

They expect the project’s first phase to launch in a month or so. It will feature self-guided tours of Wooster Square, Lower Dixwell, and downtown.

These walking tours of the Italian, Jewish, and African-American historic sites in the Elm City are just for starters. Tours of the EHC’s other member groups — representing the Irish-American and Ukrainian-American communities — are also in the works.

The tour elements include a booklet illustrated with text and photos — many contributed by individuals on last week’s promenade as well as the historical societies and museums — of landmark buildings and sites of local significance and community memory.

With an important nod to our era of omnipresent mobile devices, each one of the tour destinations in the booklet will contain a QR code, scannable into your phone.

That means that while you’re standing at Joe Maiorano’s Tre Scalini restaurant, the tenth of about 26 destinations on the Wooster Square tour, you can access an interview with Maiorano, whose dad began the Maiorano Cheese company in the building where the restaurant now operates.

You can read about that while you stand beneath the white-lettered sign that deliberately has been maintained on the east side of the brick building.

Or you can go to the WALK NEW HAVEN website (still under construction) to access interviews other links, and learn more.

These three tours emerged as the first three of the five to be produced by the five members of the EHS, with surprises along the way. For example, Wooster Square Tour itinerary features the site of an early Orthodox synagogue, B’nai Scholom, near the corner of Olive and Court streets.

As she helped conduct the Wooster Square interviews, which were videotaped by Tarah Cherry, Zahler Samuel said, “We hope the other [ethnic] groups will form other historical societies and add their sites to ours to share and preserve their histories.”

She said conversations have already begun with members of New Haven’s Latino, Greek, Polish, and Armenian communities.

Yet on Wednesday morning the pilot walk through along Wooster Street was all Italian, all the time, and the vibe was how alive and lively with the past the neighborhood still remains.

Cavaliere, who served in an intelligence unit in World War II in the Philipines, said he remembered a blacksmith near Libby’s Pastry shop who shoed horses. He remembered the man’s big muscles.

Inside the pastry shop, Theresa Argento and her baby brother Frank Carrano recalled how beautiful the fruit was in the Carrano grocery begun by their family at the turn of the century.

By evidence of the great swapping of info during the group’s promenade down Wooster Street, the combination of visits to and info about the landmark sites, along with the personal, poignant, and even oddball memories of the descendants of the folks that made the history, promise to add up to memorable walking tours.

During his interview in front of Sally’s Apizza at 237 Wooster St. Bob Consiglio recalled an early memory of how he climbed up on a box to help his father weigh the dough that would go into food to be served to the likes of Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon, and Don Rickles.

Chris DeSena, the current manager of Frank Pepe’s, adding to the lore of this fabled pizzeria, related how one custome every few months flies in to Tweed Airport from an unrevealed place of origin. He takes a cab to Pepe’s, eats a pizza, and then orders up six or seven more pies. He loads them all in another taxi, motors back to Tweed, and then flies off with the pies.

“The tour tells the pre-1970 stories of the experiences, contributions and hardships faced in New Haven by five of the cultural and ethnic groups that have enriched our community,” reads the draft introductory material in the Wooster Square tour booklet.

The project began about three years ago with a grant of $15,000 from the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven. That money has been matched for a total of $30,000, along with the volunteered time of dozens of folks from members of the EHC’s five heritage societies, and the help of local preservation groups and museums.

As their interview continued, Argento recalled how beautiful the fruit was at the Carrano grocery, with each pear, apple, and orange individually wrapped in different colored paper, and on exquisite display, like an art work.

Yet Theresa and her sisters had their eye not on the fruit but the candies, she recalled, despite her grandfather having been deployed to guard them.

Even when he put little locks on the cases, the girls devised a way to access the treats anyway, and run outside to share them with their girlfriends.

Such tales, like anecdotal icing on the little cakes of history that line Wooster Street, are about to be served up in this neighborhood and around town.

Because humble buildings and enterprises created by immigrants like groceries and funeral homes tend to meet the wrecking ball sooner than the large public and institutional edifices, this project is of importance.

At a time of major developments and construction around town—lots of neighborhoods including portions of Wooster Square were destroyed in previous waves of development in the 1960s—we owe a debt of gratitude to the EHS for, through these tours, keeping the city’s immigrant history and the living bearers of that history alive and relevant and speaking to new generations.

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posted by: Elihu on May 30, 2016  1:40pm

Terrific!  Love this initiative in place-based storytelling.  What’s the best way to stay informed?  The EHC is making printed material, too?  Please advise.