The Baldizzi ApartmentThe Baldizzis - Adolfo and Rosaria together with two-year-old Josephine and baby John - moved into 97 Orchard Street in 1928, about five years after Adolfo, a stowaway from Palermo, landed in New York. Adlofo was a skilled cabinetmaker, having begun to learn his trade at the age of 14. In 1935, one of the grimmest years of the Great Depression, he, like millions of others, was "self-employed." In Adolfo's case, this meant that, with toolbox in hand, he walked up and down the streets of the neighborhood hoping someone would need a job done.
Rosaria, the youngest of four children in a relatively well-off family, also from Palermo, married Adolfo when she was sixteen and he was twenty-six. On what her daughter describes as "doctored papers," Rosaria also came to America illegally, a year after her husband arrived. Eventually Rosaria would be glad she had come, but she would never forget her first disappointed sight of the Lower East Side - dirty, treeless, crowded...and the apartment, how tiny!
Then, to regularize their situation, the two left for Canada and re-entered the United States "legally." Their first apartment in the New World was on Elizabeth Street, a center of Sicilian life on the Lower East Side. But in moving several times before getting to Orchard Street, they behaved like many poor tenants during the Depression: families "forgot" to pay September rent, then moved into another building in October after having secured a month's rent concession from the new landlord. Given the high vacancy rate, and faced with an apartment either empty for twelve months or occupied and earning rent for ten, landlords chose to put up with the scam.
Life In The Baldizzi ApartmentAs Josephine remembers it, their apartment at 97 Orchard Street was dimly lit, barely furnished, and terribly cold. The cold must have been memorable. Rosaria demanded they take cold-water sponge baths each morning, and their weekly tepid baths (small amounts of hot water came from a heater attached to the stove) took place in the kitchen sink. Rosaria also insisted on enemas, which she administered in the chill hall toilet.
But hardship is relative. Rosaria decorated the apartment by draping fabrics everywhere: lacy curtains at the windows, coverlets in the beds, skirts across the shelving that Adolfo built into the walls. The family kept birds as pets. They cultivated flowers; morning glories twined at the window. The radio played, day and night, as they laughed with Amos and Andy, hummed along with Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians, and followed the puzzling, upper-middle-class lives of One Man's Family. Although Josephine remembers never having enough meat, she says that her mother cooked good, wholesome food (storing perishables in a small ice box kept on the fire escape). She also remembers fondly the activities they enjoyed as a family: movies, Italian theater, and trips - occasionally to Coney Island and once to the Statue of Liberty. And with their father, she and her brother played cards and other games, told riddles, and took walks around the neighborhood and across the Williamsburg Bridge.
As an added richness, the family lived among cherished neighbors, the Bonofiglios and the Raspizzios, who rented apartments in the building and served as godparents to Josephine and her brother. And they had their faith: Rosaria was an observant Catholic who took the children to church with her three times a week - novena on Wednesdays, confession on Saturdays, Mass on Sundays.
Educating The ChildrenSurely the adult Baldizzis, Bonofiglios, and Raspizzios spoke their Sicilian dialect when together. But when Rosario and Adlofo spoke to the children, it was always in English, however broken it may have been. Clearly, they wanted the children to become Americans, but Americans proud of their heritage and able to speak "real" Italian, a language which like most immigrants of their generation, they themselves could not speak. So, in addition to public school (P.S. 42 on Broome Street), the children were sent to an Italian school - only very briefly, however, because one day the children came home chanting "Viva Il Duce!" No two native-born Americans could have been more outraged. Adlofo and Rosaria stormed about, screaming and lamenting that the school was paying homage to Mussolini. Roosevelt, yes! LaGuardia, yes! Mussolini, never! Little Josephine and John were not permitted to return.
After The TenementWhen the landlord of #97 closed down the apartments rather than make legally mandated improvements, the Baldizzis moved a few blocks west to Eldridge Street, as did some of their closest neighbors. Adolfo continued to work, when jobs were available, as a handyman, once crafting home bars for a firm on the Bowery. During 1938-39, he held a job with the WPA, a successful Federal make-work program. Then, with the coming of the war, defense work became available. With the security of knowing he would be steadily employed, he and his family followed some of the Bonofiglios to Brooklyn - another "suburb" of the Lower East Side - and Adolfo was hired in the shipyards. While they were still living on Orchard Street, however, it was Rosaria who was more able to earn money. The vast garment industry, which had its center in New York City, always needed willing workers. With the children in school, she took her first factory job, quitting only when an "investigator," coming to the house, warned that the family would lose its home relief if she continued.
After they no longer needed to depend on relief, Rosaria - who had always been bold about traveling around the city - began working full time in a mid-town garment factory where, for the rest of her working life, she sewed linings into coats. She retired at the age of sixty-six and died in 1976, four years later. (Adolfo passed away in 1960; he was sixty-four years old. John, who served in the Pacific theater during World War II, died in 1970. Josephine and her husband George still live in the old neighborhood in Brooklyn; they are grandparents.)
Ties To The Old CountrySo far as Josephine remembers, her father did not keep in touch with his family in Palermo. Perhaps Rosaria did the job for both of them. Certainly Rosaria sent letters and packages home, writing the letters herself by spelling out the Sicilian words phonetically. But because she had never learned to read, the cherished replies were read out to her by others. She demanded to hear them over and over, says Josephine. And finally, after the war, she went back to the Old Country on a visit.
It was not that she regretted the trip: in time, she would make a few more. But when she arrived back at Idlewild Airport (later renamed for Kennedy), bearing a Sicilian trousseau for her daughter, Rosaria knelt down and kissed the American soil. Like her husband, like her American-born children, Rosaria was a patriot.