TAR BEACH Life on the Rooftops of Little Italy
SUSAN MEISELAS with Virginia Dellâ€™Olio & Angel Marinaccio
TAR BEACH Life on the Rooftops of Little Italy
SUSAN MEISELAS with Virginia Dellâ€™Olio & Angel Marinaccio
SUSAN MEISELAS I have lived on the same block in Little Italy since 1974 yet I never imagined what was happening on the rooftops surrounding me. When, in 2009, the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral celebrated its 200th anniversary of laying the church’s cornerstone, a few of us came together to create the Mott Street Memory project. We met at the Cafetal Social Club on Mott street to consider an appropriate community response to welcome visitors and those residents who had lived here for decades. We invited many people who had moved away from the block to come with their family albums to contribute pictures for a display in the storefront windows around the church. Out from the mix of images, appeared a place my neighbors called ‘tar beach.’ That’s how the idea was born to see what more we could find. Now ten years later, Virginia Dell’Orio and Angel Marinaccio have joined me to bring together pictures saved by many families, of life on the rooftops, along with the stories they have shared over multiple generations.
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MARTIN SCORSESE The French historian Fernand Braudel referred to earlier historical epochs as “different planets.” The mid-century New York where I grew up is as different and distant from the New York of today, in every conceivable way, as Earth is from Jupiter. My old neighborhood on the Lower East Side is now a fashionable destination filled with high-end shops and restaurants, and our old apartment probably rents for an astronomical sum. And what was once Little Italy is now a few blocks of restaurants, shops and cafes, through which tour groups are led. And I wonder… do people still go up to the roof? And if they do, what do they see? Because we saw heaven.
There were songs about it. The most famous was “Up On the Roof,” written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin and sung by the Drifters. And there was the last Supremes song, “Up the Ladder to the Roof.” And the roof was in movies. Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront was set in Hoboken but it was a true New York movie, and the most tender and romantic scene in the picture takes place on the roof. The roof was many things. It was where people raised and trained pigeons, like Brando in the Kazan picture. It was where people went to sunbathe and hang their clothes in the summer. It was where romances happened. There were even weddings on the roof. I tried to recreate one of them in the home movie section of Raging Bull, and the roof is there in Mean Streets and in my first feature, Who’s That Knocking At My Door? The roof was our escape hatch and it was our sanctuary. The endless crowds, the filth and the grime, the constant noise, the chaos, the claustrophobia, the non-stop motion of everything…you would walk up that flight of stairs, open the door, and you were above it all. You could breathe. You could dream. You could be. The photos in this book reflect a basic need—literally, to rise above the life around you and find refuge, and peace.
Houston to Canal Street, and the Bowery to Lafayette Street made up Little Italy. All Sicilians lived on Elizabeth Street, and on Mott Street there was a mix of Neapolitan, Calabresse, and Sicilian. Mulberry Street also the same sort of mix, all living together with their own traditions and great food. Back then, everyone knew each other; we were a real community. â€”ANGEL MARINACCIO
No one remembers who the person in the family was with the camera. —and there’s no one left to ask. They didn’t always have money to develop the pictures.A lot of people had Brownie cameras and then if they got rich they
I remember going up there for family occasions, so when people came from all over, the apartments were too small to accommodate them. So eventually we ended up on the roof. To me the roof was a blank canvas. It was like an artist studio. There were no garbage cans, there were no cellar doors. You could take a legitimate proper photograph up there. â€“VIRGINIA DELLâ€™OLIO
These are the women of my family— the Frezza family. My grandfather had just died. The custom was to dress in black as a sign of mourning for at least a year. My grandmother wore black until she died. Her daughters became more Americanized and abandoned the tradition. These women never knew their potential, but to me they were diamonds in the rough. –VIRGINIA DELL’OLIO
I lived on the sixth floor of the building, 98 steps to our apartment. That led to the skylight and then 8 steps more to the roof. You open the door and you were there. That magical, magical place. â€”ANGEL MARINACCIO
If you had an accomplishment— communion, confirmation, wedding, graduation or birthday, you‘ d dress up in your best outfit and go to the rooftop to take pictures and celebrate with your family. –ANGEL MARINACCIO
Imagine all your family living on your block. That was my life. It was just me and my sister, but in the building I had 7 cousins. I had my mother’s sister, her two brothers, my grandmother’s sister, her two brothers. I had 22 cousins, within the corner to across the street. We all lived within shouting distance and we were always looking out for each other. We were all neighbors and basically friends and family, mostly family. We had 52 families in one building. —ANGEL MARINACCIO
The spirit of the Italian immigrant is here as long as there are families like ours that have remained and maintained the tradition of the Italian immigrant who have been here for over a hundred years. They built the infrastructure, they helped to build the water tunnels and the bridges. They were fantastic masons, tile workers. â€”LOU DIPOLO
It was all about family and home, but with them, that’s what they had, their fortress was the building, it was their castle. All doors were open. People shared together. People went into each other’s homes. That doesn’t happen today, people don’t live like that anymore. The people who reside here now, they don’t care that there was a life once lived here. It’s what they’re doing here now. That’s all that matters to them. –FRANKIE CAPPELLO
It was a place to sneak a cigarette or plan a clandestine meeting with friends and stay away from the watchful eyes of parents and nosey neighbors. Sometimes my girlfriends and I would chip in to buy cigarettes at the local candy store. We either bought them loose, or in a pack. If we had a pack, we took the pack up to the roof and hid it under the water tank. We smoked and talked about boys and movie stars. â€“VIRGINIA DELLâ€™OLIO
If you think about it, growing up in this neighborhood was like growing up in a small town. It was vertical rather than horizontal. Everybody knew everybody and if you also think about the personality of most of the people in the neighborhood, we were all very social because we were always out. We were never in the house. â€”JOHN BIVONA
You’re away from everybody. We’re in a world of make believe. There were occasions when it was just dress up and let’s go on the roof. —ANGEL MARINACCIO
My uncle Johnny Guarantano, aka Johnny Hayes, was showing off that he played with the New York Giants Baseball team. He used an alias because the Italians were not well known in Baseball. â€”ANGEL MARINACCIO
There are almost no pictures of my generation because we were too busy playing in the street—Skelzies, hopscotch, Johnny on the pony, jump rope, Chinese jump rope, stoop ball, stick ball. We wanted to do our own thing, live our own lives and we found our way down on the streets. They found their way up on the roof. You had to get out of your apartment, you just wanted space. You wanted room up on the roof. They went up and we went down. —FRANKIE CAPPELLO
Before I took over the pigeon coops, it was my father Frankie’s and before him it was my uncle Arthur’s. My father would be on that roof every morning at seven o’clock watering down the tar to make sure that the roof was clean. It was like his backyard. Warm weather, cold weather, he’d be on the roof shoveling the snow in January, February. The birds had to go out. Birds had to be fed. On practically every roof there was a pigeon coop. There must’ve been about 5,000 birds. I identified mine with wraparound bands on their legs, the colors of my birds. Once they start flying around, they know which roof is theirs. It’s a measure of how well you’ve trained them and how smart the bird is. You’d always be looking up and see a pack of birds shooting across the sky trying to get home. I flew birds up until I was almost 35 and then the landlord sold the building and the new owners came in and they didn’t want the pigeon coops ton the roof anymore. —ARTHUR DIBIASI
My mother would hook up a hose for us. First, we’d wrap the hose around a pole on the roof, and then lower the other end to her so she could hook it up to her sink. We’d put a rubber baby pool underneath the hose so we could collect the water as it sprayed out, and cool ourselves off. As far as we were concerned, we were in paradise! —ANGEL MARINACCIO
The best tans ever were also to be found on tar beach. Everyone in the building mixed up a concoction of baby oil and iodine to make their own suntan lotion. Lying down on army blankets or a beach chair, while a portable radio played all the songs of the 50s and 60s, it was a great time. â€”ANGEL MARINACCIO
UP ON THE ROOF When this old world starts getting me down And people are just too much for me to face I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be
And there the world below can’t bother me Let me tell you now
When I come home feelin’ tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet (up on the roof) I get away from the hustling crowd
And all that rat-race noise down in the street (up on the roof) On the roof, the only place I know
Where you just have to wish to make it so Let’s go up on the roof (up on the roof) brief instrumental-chiefly strings
At night the stars put on a show for free
And, darling, you can share it all with me I keep a-tellin’ you
Right smack dab in the middle of town
I’ve found a paradise that’s trouble proof (up on the roof) And if this world starts getting you down There’s room enough for two
Up on the roof (up on the roof)
Up on the roo-oo-oof (up on the roof) Oh, come on, baby (up on the roof)
Oh, come on, honey (up on the roof)
Everything is all right (up on the roof) –GERRY GOFFIN & CAROLE KING, 1962
We had barbecues with charcoal. We used to have hot dogs, hamburgers, sausage. Everybody made a dish for my daughter’s birthday. We had pizza from Dino’s on Mott street and cake made from Cafe Roma or Ferrara’s. Everybody sat on folding chairs –ANGEL MARINACCIO
When I was growing up, the streets of Little Italy were my world: my family, friends and neighbors were my life. I guess I’m selfish; I wanted things to stay the same; I know we can’t go back in time but what great times they were. When walking down Elizabeth St., passing by my old building I look up to see the roof and say; “Hey roof how ya doing?” —ANGEL MARINOCCIO
When the immigrants came to New York’s Little Italy, they took any jobs that were available. The Fish Market was one; they sold fruit and vegetables out of pushcarts, they opened Italian grocery stores, worked on the docks, they opened restaurants, cheese stores and pizzerias, and worked in the factories near our neighborhood so their children could have a better life in America. Generation by generation, their children educated themselves and became doctors, lawyers, a judge, teachers, bankers, and some worked in finance on Wall Street. Some went into real estate, some became designers, actors and artists, and one became a great film director. I think they did a good job; their hard work paid off. So, when you walk our streets, have a little respect for the Italians in our neighborhood. Yes, some ‘Goodfellas’ walked our streets, but they were the exception, not the rule! —ANGEL MARINOCCIO
CAPTIONS AND CONTRIBUTORS 4 Filamena Verno, John Verno, Robert Verno,
John Anthony Verno, and Virgina Verno,
8 CS, Anna (?) with Anthony Scorsese and
Martin Scorsese, Lena Scorsese, c. 1943
10 BACK ROW LEFT TO RIGHT: Charles Scorsese,
Aunt Rose; FRONT ROW LEFT TO RIGHT: Mo Scorsese, Rosario Mauro and Serafina Scorsese, Dominic Mauro and Mimi Mauro, c. 1930
12 Maria and Ann Cappa 13 Marie Cappa 15 Caption Here 16 Vincent Nettie’s mother, 1942 17 Jack and Nettie, 1942 18 John, Grace, and Lil, Frances, 1942 19 Jack, Nettie, and Joe, 1942 21 Caption Here 22 Unknown boy, Serafina Musillo and Leonard
Musillo (aka Junie Boy), 197 Hester Street, Summer 1938
22 Lucy Doll Cutrona, 130 Mulberry Street,
25 Nancy, Sarah, and John DiPalermo, Late 1940’s 26 Cira DiPalermo, c. 1940 27 Caption Here 29 LEFT TO RIGHT: The Frezza Family, Phyllis,
Concetta, Grace, Caroline, Antoinette, with Grandma Alfonsina in the center, 250 Mulberry Street, Summer 1944
30 Louise Ubel, 1924 31 Josephine Viviano, 3 years old or 2 years old,
1944 or 1945
33 March 24, 1940 34 Left to right: Felicia Dell’Olio (neé Carrano),
Leonard Musillo, Frank Maffia, Rose Spero (neé Musillo), Buddy the dog, 197 Hester
Street, Summer 1945 35 LEFT TO RIGHT: Felicia Dell’Olio (neé Carrano),
Nancy Carrano (neé Musillo), Frank Maffia, 197 Hester Street, Summer 1945
36 Joseph and Jenny Cutrona with Lucy Doll
Cutrona, 130 Mulberry Street, Winter 1948
37 LEFT TO RIGHT: Jenny Cutrona, Lucy (Lucy
Doll), Joseph Cutrona, dressed for the opera, 130 Mulberry Street, Spring 1945
39 Sarah DiChristino in an angel costume for a
play at Our Lady of Loretto nursery, c. 1950
40 LEFT TO RIGHT: Rose Spero (neé Musillo) and
Frank Spero, Oak Street, During WWII
41 Frank Spero, Oak Street, c. 1944 42 Virginia Verno, Carlutz, Mickey Lofaro, Rose
Luisi, Jeanette Gucca, 1940
43 Nancy Carrano (née Musillo), 197 Hester
Street, c. 1938
44 Lucy Doll Cutrona, First Communion, 130
Mulberry Street, Summer 1946
45 The day after First Communion, May 16, 1954 46 Patrick Montana’s Graduation, 247 Mulberry
Street, June 1954 Patrick Montana’s graduation from Cardinal Hayes High school; he went on to receive a PhD from N YU
47 Uncle Sam and Sarah 49 Angel Viviano Marinaccio 50 Angel Viviano Marinaccio, c. 1950 53 Angel, Ernie, Marie, Nancy, c. 1950’s
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