|Subject: Fascinating neighborhoods|
I thought I would introduce a new topic after the wonderful day I had yesterday in one of San Diego's most fascinating neighborhoods. I hope this will encourage some of you to write about a fascinating neighborhood you might have in your town or city.
Here is my writeup of Little Italy:
MY TOUR OF LITTLE ITALY (SAN DIEGO), 2/22/06
No matter how long you live in a place, you still find surprises. This happened to me yesterday when I actually visited Little Italy for the first time. I have lived in the San Diego area most of my life, and I even worked for a time at the County Health Department, just two blocks from the beginning of Little Italy, but I had never visited it before.
The day started in La Mesa (15 miles east of the San Diego waterfront) when I met my fellow Red Hat Club members at the Grossmont trolley station. There were 14 of us, and some had never ridden the trolley before, so that was an adventure in itself. As luck would have it, we happened to get on the car that was full of elementary school children on a field trip to Old Town (another fascinating neighborhood in itself where the Spanish first settled in San Diego and where the city of San Diego got its start). We were on our way to Old Town, also, through Mission Valley which was formed eons ago by a large river flowing from the mountains to the sea. The Spanish built a large mission above the valley and the river, hence its name.
Old Town is the end of the line for this branch of the trolley, and there we would transfer to another trolley to take us to Little Italy where our guide for our walking tour would meet us.
Anthony Davi was right there waiting for us when we got off the trolley. He's of Italian descent and grew up in the neighborhood. When I talked about Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast being my favorite part of "Big" Italy, he said his grandmother was from Sorrento, and he loves it there, too. He is very animated and cordial, and he made us feel at home right away. He knows just about everyone in Little Italy and would introduce us to various Italian men that were lounging in chairs in front of their stores on this nice sunny day.
Our tour was one hour, followed by lunch, and then another hour. It was one of the most fascinating and wonderful 3 hours I have ever spent. We learned the history of Little Italy and early San Diego, and Anthony passed around photos for us to look at that showed how the area looked in the early 1900s.
We learned that the Italians came to San Diego in two waves and from two different parts of Italy. The first group was from Genoa in the north of Italy. They were mostly fishermen, but went to San Francisco for the Gold Rush of 1849. They fished with large nets for sardines, which were plentiful off the San Francisco coast in those years. But then disaster struck with the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. The sardines disappeared, and so the fishermen came down to San Diego, having heard that it had one of the best natural harbors in the world.
However, San Diego Harbor did not have sardines, but was abundant in tuna. They had never seen this large fish before, but they caught it in their nets and cooked it and were surprised that it turned white (being Albacore tuna). And w hen they tasted it, they thought it tasted very similar to chicken. This is how it was named Chicken of the Sea.
Because tuna is so large and vigorous, the fishermen from Genoa had problems with their large nets tearing, so they were always mending them. (I often saw this when I walked along the waterfront on my breaks from work at the Health Dept.)
Then the fishermen in Sicily heard about this, and they decided to come to San Diego. They said they had been fishing for 10,000 years and could do it better than the fishermen from Genoa. That is when the second wave of Italians came to San Diego, and they also settled in Little Italy on the sandy beach that rose slowly up from the sea and had beautiful views of the harbor. They used long poles for catching the tuna, which saved them from having to repair nets.
The Italian men came first and worked until they saved enough money to send for their families and build one of the little wooden bungalows that are prevalent throughout Little Italy.
Back then, downtown San Diego was inland, where Old Town is now, and the waterfront was a large beach with big sand dunes. This was something none of us had ever known and was quite a surprise. Anthony said that after school the Italian kids would play in the sand dunes.
Well, that all changed in the 1920s when the city of San Diego decided to move the town to the waterfront, just below and just to the south of Little Italy. Development there required paving over all the sand, and building docks and wharfs and buildings. The part just below Little Italy houses the large County Administration Building and the County Health Dept., where I worked, just north of it. You can still see part of the harbor from Little Italy, but the County buildings dominate the view.
Also in the 1920s, a priest came from Italy and established the first (Roman Catholic) church in the community. We went inside it, and the original oil paintings, marble statues, and stained glass windows were beautiful. These were all done by Italian artisans.
(The priest hid the statues in an unknown place during World War II right after Pearl Harbor in case the Japanese bombed San Diego.) The church is still run by three priests from Italy, and former Little Italy residents and their families still come from the far reaches of San Diego County to worship and hold their weddings there.
Then another disaster hit the Italian community Prohibition. The Italians couldn't believe that the U.S. government was outlawing the drinking of wine! So they thought about going back to Italy, but then they came up with another solution. Those that had basements built stills and made their own wine with grapes from a vineyard in the north of San Diego County. They even eventually came up with a product that was first sold as grape juice in a bottle, but which eventually turned itself into wine!
Then the bootleggers moved in and took over the industry, and evil times hit the community. The Black Hand established itself, and we saw the house that was their headquarters. Not only did they run a bootlegging operation, but they also ran a protection racket, where they demanded money from the storekeepers to "protect" them from being killed and their businesses being destroyed. At the beginning, there were blasts throughout the neighborhood when a holdout had a stick of dynamite thrownat his building. There were 14 more of these incidents before everyone gave in to the racketeering. The racketeers were never punished, because the people were afraid to turn them in to the police. Anthony showed us a tree where the body of a man had been found hanging after 5 days. He wasn't an informant, but had just talked around the neighborhood, badmouthing the Black Hand. He was hung from the tree as a warning to the other residents.
At one time the main industries in San Diego were tuna (the fishing of, as well as two canneries that were built in San Diego), the military, and tourism. Well, a few decades ago the government put in such strict regulations regarding the tuna industry, that the fishermen moved out and established fishing grounds in other countries, including Mexico. The canneries closed, and you no longer see the tuna boats lined up along the waterfront, nor fishermen repairing their nets. I loved seeing this on my walks, and I really miss it now.
Also, more redevelopment in San Diego took away about 2/3 of the neighborhood; so now what remains of Little Italy is establishing itself for tourism. Over $1 billion dollars has been spent so far on revitalizing the neighborhood, and it is turning into a wonderful place to visit. Nothing's being torn down, but just being spiffed up, and there's a new large archway sign over India Street saying in big raised letters, "Little Italy." A number of the bungalows and larger homes are still there with Italian families still living in them, and the old stores are still there the sausage maker, the grocer, the little Italian restaurants, the baker, the drugstore, etc. Everything is homemade except for what is imported from Italy. Some of the little bungalows have been brightly painted and now house specialty boutiques and shops.
The Italian restaurant Anthony took us to in the neighborhood is a non-descript looking one with fading paint, and is half Italian market where you can buy homemade meat and fish products and baked goods and also packaged goods from Italy. Filippi's, though, is well-known, and even celebrities eat there. I've heard that on Saturday nights, the line of people stretches way out into the street. I know people who have eaten there and raved about it, but I had never been. Now I know why they rave. The wonderful smells when you enter through the market put you back in Italy, especially as you pass the meat case and look at the packaged goods in the narrow aisle that leads to the dining area in the back.
Anthony had arranged everything, and several tables had been
pushed together to make one long table for the 15 of us.
And then the food came! It was served family style, so we
first got warm Italian rolls brought in baskets to the
table. These were the best rolls I've tasted since I was in
Paris! They were delicious, and with real butter. Then
came huge serving bowls of an antipasto-type of salad with
an olive oil and vinegar dressing. Again, delicious! Then
out came large pans of various types of pizza Marguerita,
eggplant, and Italian sausage. Since I'm a light eater, I
took just one piece, and I picked the Marguerita. I have
heard so much about it being THE pizza of Italy from Naples,
where pizza was invented. Well, the pizza was absolutely
wonderful and thick with cheese, which is my favorite part
But, Anthony wasn't finished. He had a raffle for 3 gifts, and I won one of them a bag of candy from Sorrento! He said he had hoped I would win it since I love Sorrento so much.
What is amazing about this fabulous day is that it only cost $21.95 (plus $2 roundtrip for the trolley ride)! That was for all the food and Anthony's time for the 3 hours. Such a bargain!
Regards, Diana in San Diego, California