Boyoboyoboy – am I ever in the soup. Here I am, six years old, escaped from my parents and standing on the corner of West 11th Street and Ralston. With mocha on my face from the cookie that Mrs. Graham gave me in the big white house on the corner! I was supposed to be home a half hour ago – at my age I don’t even own a wristwatch yet. But I know I’m in the doghouse. What else is new…
I heard Dr. David, our neighbor next to our new house on Ralston Street, talk about “Little Italy” – a colony of Italian people who all lived north of University Terrace. So, I’m this close, I’m in trouble anyway, so I might as well walk back home along one of those streets – Washington or Bell Street. I started walking west on 11th Street.
These little houses were interesting – not part of the Italian neighborhood, really, but the western edge of another subdivision – called Academy Heights, or Academy Manor. That’s because the homes were mostly owned by professors at the university to the east. Like Dr. David who lived next door to us. The homes were small, with very ornate brickwork set in a parquet pattern – a word I didn’t know in 1946 while I was walking. Many had steep roofs with round turrets, and some had rounded tops on their entry doors, like “Hobbit” doors in the fairy tales.
After a few moments of walking I had arrived at Washington Street, which in 1946 was approaching the west end of Reno. I turned to the left – downhill to the south – and found myself in that magic neighborhood – Little Italy. I took some pictures of the homes with my Brownie Hawkeye so I’ll add them to this story. One is a two-story apartment house that came later, from barracks that were down by Washoe Hospital during WWII. We’ll talk more of those on another day.
One feature that struck me immediately was the neatness and design of the yards, not something that a six-year old discerns immediately, but I couldn’t help noticing on this warm August afternoon the orderly fashion of the vegetable gardens, home-after-home, a great pride in them. I’d learn in later years that the Italians were fiercely competitive in almost everything they did, and these gardens were so maintained. As were the fruit trees, row upon row of trees in the commodious backyards. The front yards were well-maintained also, lawn, in a day when lawn was popular, even if small areas. Home after home of immaculate yards. And few square feet of land not being used for some sort of food production.
I nodded at some of the residents as I walked by – all seeming to be interested in this “new kid on the block,” which I was. “Where do you live?” they’d ask. “Who are your parents?” “What school will you go to?” I soon realized that they had kids my age. And I met a few – Bobby Ginocchio remained my friend through life. His folks lived in Little Italy; his grandfather the owner of Reno Iron Works, a prevalent industry for the immigrant Italians. Many men in Little Italy worked in the iron fabricating plant on Chestnut Street, down at the bottom of the Ralston hill (in later years it would be called Arlington Avenue.)
As I met kids my age, I noted that their parents and grandparents in the homes all spoke Italian when addressing each other, but when any kids were around – me or even their own children – they spoke English. I learned that all would severely chastise each other should a child be exposed to Italian. (But I also learned that most of them became fluent in it, and would understand Italian the rest of their lives.)
They enjoyed their wine. In days and week to come, I’d see them enjoying a glass of wine, with dinner when they invited my parents over for dinner, and almost every night. Most had a grape press in their back yards, and it was legal for them to bottle up to 40 gallons a year for their own consumption. I’m told that a few bottles, which they’d save from the restaurants when they emptied, would be refilled and find their way back down the hill to the local restaurants – Siri’s, the Toscano, Colombo’s and others.
On several occasions in the years following World War II I was invited to come to the grape arrival event, held in the freight barn behind the Railway Exress building on Lake Street. (I’d learn in later years that that building would become the site of the “Mens Club,” where men could go and pay to see ladies parade around in skimpy clothes. Why would grownups want to do that? I asked myself…)
Grapes, you see, would arrive in boxcars, loaded in on the boxcars’ floors and stacked to the ceilings – from grape growers in the Napa area of California (my mother and grandmother and a half-dozen great-aunts and – uncles settled there when the emigrated from Ireland.) The bundles of grapes would be off-loaded onto the freight-barn’s floor, and the Italians would arrive to buy them. It was an afternoon of boisterous, often violent, activity punctuated by men hollering at each other in Italian, tossing grape bunches around from one to the other and eventually paying the merchant who was running the whole shebang. They’s pack their grapes – usually enough or more than enough to fill a pickup bed level with the trucks’ sides, and trundle them off up the Washington Street hill. And they weren’t all alone – there were other Italian neighborhoods in Reno, off East Fourth Street behind the old ball park, and in the vicinity of Washoe General Hospital on Mill Street. But the northwest Reno guys would chug up the hill and put their booty into the basements of their homes to keep cool until it could be pressed and bottled.
And I might note that in those days there was no cabernet, merlot, pinot Grigot, chardonnay or all that silly stuff – wine was red, or white which was really blush with a little of the red grape inevitably sticking to the press.
But Little Italy was the home of most wine that was consumed in Reno. And, much of the best fruit and vegetables from those immaculate gardens. In a safe neighborhood – it’s been said that the only time that the Italians locked their homes was during the zucchini harvesting season, so that no one would come home to find that a neighbor had come in and left some zucchini behind for them.
Little Italy was a fun neighborhood, populated by good people with good children my age, and the fun they enjoyed on warm summer nights, or on Columbus Day, which was a virtual national holiday in America back then, was a wonderful experience. Patriotism to their newfound country – for many in the neighborhood in 1946, were new to our shores.
I learned much as a new kid on that block. I’ve heard that tonight my dad is taking the family out for its first restaurant dinner in our new town, to some place called the “El Tavern” coffee shop out on West Fourth Street. C’mon back in a few days and we’ll examine the bill of fare…
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