Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Our gift to you -- a joy for life

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Italians have trickled into this part of the world since Manitoba became a province. But it was not until the 1950s and early 1960s when that trickle became a flood as the tired and the poor of Italy came here to build our railroads, our cities and work in the garment industry.

These were not men and women looking for freedom, for they had plenty of that in their home country. They came for a better life for themselves and their families. For the most part they were uneducated, but they were a proud lot who knew well who their forefathers were and the contribution they had made to the world. And because they loved and missed what they had left behind, they went on to create "Little Italy" districts in every corner of the world they migrated to.

It was as if they willed to transplant to this world all they had left behind, just as they had been uprooted and transplanted here. First came the grocery store, for how could you live without pasta? Second came the church, for how could you live without faith? Then came the pizzeria, gelati shops, travel agencies and all the other professional and commercial services that render a community whole.

In Winnipeg, our Little Italy found its genesis around Mr. Nucci's grocery store. It was there in the early 1960s that Italians convened every Sunday morning to listen to a short-wave radio report on the final scores of the Serie A Soccer League in Italy. We had come to a strange land with a strange language, strange foods and even stranger customs. Here in our Little Italy on Corydon Avenue, we felt a little more at home. A little more connected to our own reality. A little better rooted to the ground.

Don't get me wrong! Canada is a wonderfully welcoming country and Canadians are a hospitable people. Nevertheless, when you come from a different country, there is a world of adjusting to do, and our Little Italy was a place that softened the landing and eased the transition. By the early 1980s, the Italian community of Winnipeg had matured. English was no longer a barrier. The mortgages on their homes had been paid. Their sons and daughters were becoming doctors, lawyers, accountants, entrepreneurs.

With the new status came the move to the suburbs of Winnipeg's south end, and the Little Italy of our fathers on Corydon Avenue began to die. Stores began to get boarded up and homes in the neighbourhood could not be sold at a discount. If this area, including Little Italy, was to survive, it was going to need a fresh injection of creative energy.

I remember we used to sit on the fence in front of Perth's parking lot, just across the street from Bar Italia, waiting to see and to be seen. There were six or seven of us who had been born in Italy and had been brought to this country young enough to continue our education here, but old enough to remember how things were back in Italy. We were all in business and had done well here. We were comfortable anywhere and anyplace in this city, but we were bound together by our funny-sounding last names.

I must admit we idealized our childhood in Italy and could not stop talking about our life there. "You know, just about now my town is celebrating its festa," said Joe Paletta. "Uh! You think you guys have a festa? You should see the one in my town," said someone else.

And so it was decided that we were going to close Corydon Avenue to traffic and bring a piece of our Italian folklore here to Winnipeg. Joe Paletta took the lead and we all chipped in. The Italian community was energized. Unknowingly, we had tapped into this well of emotions that wanted to pour out and show the world who we Canadians of Italian origins truly are and not who Hollywood had turned us into. They volunteered by the hundreds, young and old. They built the stages, served the food and drinks and then cleaned the public streets until they were spotless.

I remember that evening on opening night, as Carmine LaRosa and his band were playing old and much-loved Neapolitan songs, that I looked up and down the street and saw thousands of people from all walks of life, from every race and from every faith strolling up and down the avenue. I noticed my mother pulling on my arm, and she whispered to me: "Son, tonight you have given me wings." Indeed, that night we had brought to Winnipeg what is the best that Italy had to offer -- a joy for life. The dying Little Italy of our fathers was transformed that night. It had been re-energized, not by the "tired" and the "poor," but by their sons and daughters who were no longer "huddled."

It lasted another 15 years, but like all things, it eventually began to evolve into something else. I am often asked, "What happened?" And I can only say that our children now have PhDs and run businesses. They no longer need the cocoon, nor do they need to prove the excellence in their last name. Past generations have made sure of that.

On Corydon, it is now up to others, more recent arrivals, to show us what's special about them, and by so doing, make their contribution to our city. And like those before us, we too welcome them and wish them the best. To those who say Little Italy is dead, I can only point to every patio and every outdoor terrace in our city and tell them it is still alive and doing well.

 

Joe Bova worked in the construction and development industry for 40 years in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 25, 2012 j11

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