A Look Back At … The Italian American Community in Ithaca

By Charley Githler
Tompkins Weekly

Photo provided by The History Center in Tompkins County
A Sons of Italy dinner in 1950.

Though record-keeping was far from an exact science at the time, historians estimate that between 14 million and 15 million people left Italy between 1880-1920, more than 4 million of whom came to the United States.

In 1900, Italians comprised less than 5 percent of the foreign-born population in the United States. By 1910, they made up about 10 percent of all foreigners. The majority of those immigrants wound up in the northeastern cities of the United States, including Ithaca, and the experiences of immigration, settlement and assimilation in our city were typical of those of the Italian American communities in other cities and towns across the northeast.

From 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, May 20, The History Center in Tompkins County will host an Italian American Community Forum to explore that experience in Ithaca. The community forum’s goals include understanding the experiences and roles of Italian-Americans, using 1910 as a starting point, exploring a sense of place, connecting people across the generations and adding new archival material.
“How ethnically-defined communities played a role in shaping Ithaca is an important issue,” said Rod Howe, executive director of The History Center. “It resonates today with current immigration issues.”

The History Center has a substantial archive of resources on the Italian immigrant community in Ithaca and Tompkins County, and Howe hopes to augment that, encouraging people to bring stories, photos and other artifacts to the forum.
“We had a similar event in 1983 and acquired a lot of really useful information and documentation,” he said.

Of the more than four million Italians who came to the United States between 1890-1920, approximately 80 percent were from rural areas in Southern Italy. Besides being predominately from the south, the Italians who traveled to America in the late-19th and early-20th centuries were mostly male and young, usually unmarried or traveling without families, and largely illiterate and without job skills. Both Italian and U.S. statistics show that anywhere from 75 to 83 percent of all Italian arrivals to America between 1895 and 1914 were men in the 14-44 age bracket, more than half of whom were illiterate.

The average Italian immigrant during this time arrived in America with between $13-$17. This pattern was reflected locally as the first immigrants made their way to Ithaca in the 1890s. As a result of these factors, Italians arriving in the United States generally had little choice but to take jobs as unskilled laborers.
Federal census records for Ithaca show that in 1900, native-born Italians numbered 42 out of a population of 13,136. By 1920 – out of a city population of 14,802 – 275 residents identified themselves as having been born in Italy. By 1930, almost 500 native-born Italians had come to Ithaca.

They were not necessarily welcomed with open arms. The first significant numbers of Italian immigrants came to Ithaca in the 1890s, and by 1900, there was an enclave of single Italian workers settled in an area on the east slope of South Hill, east of Coddington Road close to the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad tracks and near the city line. Numerous makeshift shacks were built on what was then vacant land and the men worked on the railroads and various building projects. The raucous, camp-like atmosphere called to mind the Alaska gold rush, then much in the news, and the area acquired the nickname “the Klondike.”

More ominously, the deadly typhoid epidemic in Ithaca in 1903, in which 10 percent of the city’s population became ill and at least 82 people died, was blamed on “Italian workers” constructing dam improvements on the water system, a controversy that has never been fully settled. In 1927 (the same year as the Sacco and Vanzetti case), The Ithaca Journal would refer to Italian American defendants by their ethnicity in a headline: “Two Italians Charged in Rochester Murder.”

And not all the immigrants stayed in America. Immigrants of other nationalities left America also – indeed, for every 100 immigrants of all nationalities who entered the U.S. from 1908-1924, 38 returned to their homelands – but of all the larger groups of immigrants, the Italians showed a much greater tendency to return home, and many traveled back and forth.

The practice of sailing to America and back to Italy that sometimes hindered the development and stability of many Italian neighborhoods, and often delayed the assimilation of Italian immigrants into the American mainstream. Italian love of family and homeland was a powerful force to these immigrants, most of whom had never ventured more than a few miles from their homes in Italy.

Photo provided by The History Center
Cesare Fontana in his 316¾ College Ave. shop, circa 1910.

Still, the majority did stay, and family and friends followed. “Chain migration” refers to the process by which immigrants from a particular town follow others from that town to a particular city or neighborhood in a new country. That occurred in the first decades of the 20th century as dozens of families from a single village in Italy (Carpineto Romano) came to Ithaca.

According to Teresa Ferrara, who is a descendant of one of those families, that group stayed in close contact for decades after coming here, forming the Societa Semprevisa.
“They got together for dinners very regularly for years,” she said.

Many of the families settled in the West End and the Northside of Ithaca. A search of the city directories from the 1920s and 1930s shows residences and businesses with the names of those immigrant families: Battisti, Bordoni, Cacciotti, Ciaschi, Guidi, Lucatelli, Paolangeli, Petricola, Raponi and Saccucci.

Tammy Wilcox (nee Ciaschi) remembers growing up in the Northside in the 1970s. Her father, Joe Ciaschi, owned the Villa Restaurant on Third and Madison streets.
“Six of us kids and my mom and dad lived upstairs,” she said. “I just remember eating a lot of Italian bread and chocolate milk. A lot of late-night card playing went on.”

Neighborhoods and associations helped preserve a host of Italian family and social customs. There is no denying that the Italian American community in Ithaca has retained a cohesiveness through the generations that other ethnically-defined communities have not.

The Italian American community in Ithaca used the familiarity of the enclave as a haven to begin small businesses. There were shoe repair shops, restaurants, groceries and bakeries. Italians worked, saved money, purchased property and raised families in Ithaca. In other words, they were taking other critical settlement steps that made it clear they would become permanent part of Ithaca’s culture.

Howe hopes the forum will explore some of these themes.
“We see this as the first in a new multi-year series that will focus on different groups in Ithaca,” he said. “I’d like to see and hear us compare and contrast the experience of different groups over the years.”