Bienvenido a federal hill

By MARY ANN SORRENTINO  |  December 30, 2009

My grandfather's house still stands on Westminster Street in Providence, its yard overlooking the Armory field where my uncles would gather to play bocce.

The Federal Hill many of us remember was about family life and immigrant survival. Today, immigrants still struggle to survive in the back streets of "the Hill" while Atwells Avenue and Broadway quake behind an upscale façade that only pretends to be the "Little Italy" of the capital city.

The butcher shops of my youth, with sawdust floors and giant salami hanging from the ceilings, have given way to sanitized "gourmet Italian delis."

Pushcarts once selling fish or "uva per vino" (grapes for wine) have disappeared. On special occasions, today's kiosks hawk gaudy T-shirts, mugs, or bumper stickers promoting the "Italian Stallion" and other myths. Souvenirs with references to Soprano-like stereotypes, from which responsible Italian-Americans have tried to disassociate themselves, sell briskly.

The late Francis Basso of Providence Cheese was a prime architect of a gentrified Federal Hill. He saw opportunities to court customers from Providence's affluent East Side who thought it chic to embrace ethnics by "slumming" in their ghettos. Soon the Hill went gourmet and grandma's beans-and-escarole soup was selling for big bucks. Small family restaurants were replaced by white-linen, valet-park, break-the-bank affairs. The Hill became a place not exactly like Italy, but like the Italy of films and TV. And the locals made their way to the suburbs.

Today, on Columbus and St. Joseph's Days, throngs of Italian-Americans — now from Cranston, Johnston, Warwick, wherever — return to reconnect with their roots. But when the last zeppola has been washed down by the final espresso, they head homeward, happy to leave the residents of Carpenter, Tobey, Bradford, Vinton, and America streets behind. Some observe, with a wink, that the "complexion" of Federal Hill has changed, and it has.

Latinos, African-Americans, Asians and people of colors other than white now fill some of the tenements where once our forebears gathered for Sunday dinners after Mass at Holy Ghost, St. John's, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel or St. Mary's "on Broadway."

Italian-Americans, who controlled the capital city for generations, are now part of a dwindling population of 82,000 whites in Providence. Latinos (64,000), blacks (25,000), and others who describe themselves as other than white now constitute a majority, according to census figures.

A new breed of lawmaker, ward heeler and power broker is evolving, with a home address once claimed by Italian grandparents and cousins. City Hall, already bilingual, hosts a City Council with a waning Italian-American membership.

As grocerias replace the sawdust-floored butcher shops, and salsa music drowns out Jerry Vale, every new ballot printed by the Board of Elections reflects the city's changing demographics.

Neighborhoods will continue to elect their own, as Italians did when they bumped the Irish from the Hill. And Providence's first Latino (Latina?) mayor cannot be far behind.

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