The Vanishing of the First Ward, Newark’s Original Little Italy

Before "local" was a trend it was an American way of life within our nation's enclaves, like in Newark's gone-but-not-forgotten First Ward.

By: Pamela Dorazio Dean, La Nostra Voce 

When the general public learns about the Italian immigration to the United States during the 1880s to the 1920s, they usually see it through the lens of those who settled in New York City on Mulberry Street. Unless of course they happen to live in a city with a Little Italy of their own. But even then, the stories of Italian immigrants in New York dominate the historical narrative.

There were actually many other cities where Italian immigrants settled and created communities of their own. There may be some similarities to the Mulberry Street, Little Italy, but generally, the likenesses are superficial. Only through looking deeper at the histories of all the Italian settlements can one truly understand the Italian American experience in the United States.

The book Newark’s Little Italy: The Vanished First Ward, published in 1997, tells the history of one of the larger Italian settlements outside of New York City. In fact, it was one of the first cities outside of New York with a significant Italian community, having the fifth largest population of Italians at the turn of the 20th century. Now known as Seventh Avenue Newark, the First Ward was Newark New Jersey’s original Little Italy. It was settled by Italian immigrants beginning in the 1870s.

Author Michael Immerso is a writer and publicist who has written other books and articles, but this one was personal for him. His grandparents and other relatives lived in the First Ward. At Sunday dinners and other family gatherings, stories of the neighborhood would always come up in conversation. The stories were told fondly, with humor and a longing for what once was, and included lots of colorful characters.

The family stories of the old neighborhood made Immerso very curious to learn more. He set about writing a family history, but found scant resources available about the neighborhood. Realizing this gap in the historical record, Immerso decided he would write a history of the First Ward that would encompass more than just his family’s memories. He reached out to the community requesting photographs, stories and documents, and partnered with the Newark Public Library to create an archive to hold these priceless materials.

The response Immerso received to the request for information on the First Ward was overwhelming. He received over 60,000 photographs, selected 500 to place in the Newark Library’s archive, and used 160 of those to visually tell the history of the neighborhood in his book. The photographs are captivating and communicate volumes about the lives of the Italian immigrants, their families, their businesses, and their culture.

Immerso presents the history of the neighborhood both chronologically and by breaking it down into subjects that encapsulate the major parts of life in the enclave. The book begins with a discussion about the areas in Italy from where the majority of the Italians emigrated. This includes a number of towns from the province of Campania, such as Teora, Caposele, Calabritto, and Monocalzati. It ends with a tragic and heartbreaking story of neighborhood destruction.

A fascinating part of the introductory section is the story of the very first Italian to come to the First Ward. The man’s name was Angelo Maria Mattia. Mattia landed in New York in 1872 with 27 men, all from the town of Calabritto. In the Avellino Province. While looking for a job he mistakenly boarded a ferry that took him to Newark. Realizing there were lots of jobs available in what he called “Nevarca,” he told his paisani to join him there and they did. Being the first in the neighborhood earned him the nickname “Colombo.”

Immerso found this amazing story about Mattia through a diary kept by Mattia’s son, Peter. The request Immerso published in the newspaper brought the diary to him, along with oral histories and many other written documents. These rare resources allowed Immerso to include fascinating stories and anecdotes that relate the inner workings of the community and the character of its people in a personal way.

Stories of the street peddlers, family relations, children’s games, and tragedies combined with the photographs enliven what otherwise could have been a dry historical narrative. One of the more interesting stories relates to the funerary practices of the neighborhood. Funerals were a community-wide event, often including a procession with a band. In 1920, cobbler Emidio Russomanno’s pet canary choked on a watermelon seed and died. Having loved the canary, Russomanno organized the typical funerary procession and thousands attended to view the canary being carried in his six-by-12-inch coffin.

The neighborhood came to its end in the post-World War II period, which was expected. Many urban neighborhoods emptied in the 1940s and 1950s, as their inhabitants moved to newer housing in the suburbs. Compared to the rate this affected other communities, however, the flight out of the First Ward was relatively low. The main factor causing the disintegration of the neighborhood in 1953, which came as a bit of surprise, was developers and the city government. They made people give up homes and move against their will, bulldozing in days what took 80 years to build.

Newark’s Little Italy: The Vanished First Ward is a well-done community history that documents a long-gone neighborhood important to history of Italian American in the United States. It contains rare, rich photographs with detailed captions that greatly compliment the brief, yet detailed text. Anyone interested in learning more about Italian immigration to the United States during the 1870s-1920s, Italian American communities, or the history of Newark, New Jersey, will enjoy this book.

This review first appeared in the September 2020 issue of La Nostra Voce, ISDA’s 28-page monthly newspaper, which chronicles Italian life, culture and traditions. Join ISDA and subscribe today.


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