Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The East Front Street Neighborhood: A Family Remembrance

American Locomotive Company (ALCO) plant, ca. 1907. This view from across the canal (now Erie Boulevard) shows a number of houses on the eastern part of Front Street in addition to the ALCO plant. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

This blog entry is written by Library Volunteer Mary Ann Ruscitto.

Do you know where the East Front Street Neighborhood is? Well, most people don’t! This is a little neighborhood that is nestled between the Stockade and the old American Locomotive Company (ALCO) plant. It consists of the eastern part of Front Street, Jefferson Street, John Street, River Street, Monroe Street, Madison Street, and Mohawk Avenue. Here are my thoughts about our little neighborhood.

As I was surfing the web I came across a dissertation by Robert R. Pascucci titled Electric City Immigrants: Italians and Poles of Schenectady, New York, 1880-1930. This dissertation is posted on the Schenectady Digital History Archive.

I often wondered what East Front Street was like when my great-grandparents settled here. My great-grandfather, Nicola Ruscitto, came to America on June 15, 1901 aboard the Nord America that departed from Naples, Italy. The manifest from Ellis Island shows that Nicola was 22 years old and single (I believe that his first wife, Tulia Pizulo, passed away in Italy). It also showed Nicola was a carpenter, and that he had $20 in his pocket. He was going to see his brother Giuseppe in Schenectady, who lived at 8 ½ Jefferson Street.

Nicola (my great-grandfather) and wife Christina (nee Listorti) lived at 210 Front Street with their son Achille and his wife Carmela. His daughter Tulia (Ruscitto) Villano lived at 214 Front St. Gaetano and Carmela (Nicola’s daughter) Ruscitto lived at 205 Front Street. Yes, a Ruscitto married a Ruscitto! But the family says that they were not related. The village Patrella Tifernina in Italy where they come from had a huge majority of people who were Ruscittos.

My ancestors gathered often for family parties and picnics. Music was a big part of their lives. Marching bands would go down Front Street and through the city and they would love to watch. At gatherings, there was always someone ready to play the mandolin or guitar.

The above picture is a Ruscitto family gathering from around 1917-1918 with all the living descendants at that time. The reunion was held at Dente Hall (Gioia Ottaviano’s grandfather’s building, located at the corner of Front Street and River Street). It is something to see how my family has grown (as of 2006, there are 658 names on the family tree, and since then many more were added!). Back row (left to right): Christine Villano (Carmine), Christine Ruscitto (Scovello), Frank Joseph Ruscitto (Sr.), Vitoria DiLallo Mastrianni), Anna Ruscitto (Pacelli), William J. Ruscitto. Second row from back: Anthony Miano, George Dilallo, Nick Ruscitto, Albert Villano, Patsy Villano. Third row from back:  Dominic Lewis, Louise Miano, Julia Ruscitto (Matricardi), Louise Ruscitto (Guerriero), Mary Villano (Prysmont). Fourth row from back:  Gaetano Ruscitto, Carmella Ruscitto, Cristina Listorti (Rucitto), Nicola Ruscitto, Achille Ruscitto, Carmella Listorti (Ruscitto), Frank John Ruscitto Tulia Ruscitto (Villano). Fifth row from back:  Guiseppina Ruscitto (Lewis), Mary Luise Ruscitto (Vergine), Andrea Vergine, Giuseppina (Peppinella) Ruscitto, Michaelangelo Ruscitto, Frances Ruscitto (DiLallo), Alexander Dilallo, Nicholas Villano, Vincenzo Villano, Vincenza (Jane) Villano, Concettine Lewis. Front row:  Frank Lewis, Robert Lewis, Nick Ruscitto, Frank Ruscitto (my father and Uncle), Lawrence DiLallo, Edith Ruscitto, Josephine Ruscitto (Rykowski), Josephine Dilallor (Foley), Edith Villano, Guy Ruscitto, Tullia (Tillie) Ruscitto (Pacelli). Photograph collection of the author. 

According to the 1920 census, my grandmother Carmela was living at 205 Front Street. She was the head of household, as my grandfather died in 1917. She had three children living with her. Julia was 23 years old, Leonard, age 16 years old, Frank who was 14 years old and my father Nicholas was 11 years old. My aunt Julia Ruscitto Matricardi was an Electrical helper (interesting!). I can remember the stories she would tell us about working in a factory on Foster Avenue. I remember teasing her because she would always start with, “way back when I was a kid ...”

Boaters and waders deal with flood waters on Front Street at the ALCO plant in this photograph from the 1910s. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

In the 1930 census, it shows Achille and his wife Carmela living at 210 Front Street (this is now the parking lot for BL’s Tavern). Achille and his wife were 28 years old and Achille was a salesmen who sold fruits and vegetables. The 1915 city directory shows that my great-grandfather Nicola had a grocery store at 210 Front Street.

According to Pascucci, the decade of the 1880’s closed with the two immigrant communities, Italian and Polish, being similar in size. The count in the city of Schenectady contained 221 Italians and 196 Polish foreign-born residents. The city’s growing need for laborers was satisfied largely by immigrants. Large scale Polish immigration to Schenectady extended from 1890 to 1910. The peak of 4,315 foreign-born Poles was reached in 1890. That same year, the number of foreign-born Italians was 5,387. In 1930, Schenectady had 5,910 Italians and 3,648 Poles.

Interior of grocery store operated by Antonio Mele at 28 Jefferson Street, ca. 1910. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

Italians settled downtown when they came to Schenectady, primarily in the Third Ward (which included the East Front Street Neighborhood). 3/4 of the Italian population in 1899 lived in workers’ housing that had been built by the locomotive works in 1848. Almost 80% of Italians had an address in the Third Ward. Most lodged on Front Street, Monroe Street, Jefferson Street, and John Street.

Pascucci tells how there was a varnish factory on River Street where 177 individuals were “herded together” and how families struggled to survive on a father’s salary of seventy to eighty cents a day! It tells that in the early 1900’s male boarders were found in 20% of all Polish households, and Italian boarders were a part of almost half of all Italian families. This could explain why there were so many tenement houses in our neighborhood. These tenement houses were similar in style to Uncle Ben’s, BL’s Tavern, and the rehab house located at the corner of Front and River Streets. The apartments did not have hot water and the bathrooms were located in the halls and were shared by all.

1894 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map showing River Street. The varnish works can be seen at the intersection of River Street and Front Street. Broom factories could also be found on River Street at that time. Image from Collections of Grems-Doolittle Library.  

As I continued to read Pascucci, it gave me insight into how our families struggled to survive. It tells how hard it was being in a new country and living through the depression. By reading Pascucci I can understand why people who did not live in our neighborhood might form the impression that our area was dangerous and poor. What they do not realize is that these immigrants were strong, hard working, family oriented people who were determined to make a new life in a new country.

Quite often I run into people whose families lived in the East Front Street Neighborhood or who grew up in the neighborhood. They are reminiscing about the old days, they say that they are just driving through the old neighborhood, and they can notice the changes and how nice the area looks! It is hard to put into words how our neighborhood was when my father’s family was growing up. I know that everyone was family. If someone was sick or their children were sick, the neighbors would pitch in to help get them through their hard times. If someone needed work done on their house, everyone would pitch in to get the task done.

I would like to share my father’s last request to me. He was very sick; he had bladder cancer. We kept him home as long as we could until it was too hard for him and we brought him to the hospital. One of the last requests that he asked me to do for him was to bring him outside. I bundled him up and helped him out the front door. He asked if I could help him walk to my neighbor’s house. They always had a bench in front and he wanted to sit there. We slowly made it to the bench and he looked at me and said, “Let me sit here alone for a little bit -- you go inside.” I knew what he was doing. He was taking in the sights of his beloved neighborhood. The bench was situated so that he could look up and down Front Street and up John Street. He was saying goodbye to the place he called home for 76 years.

In closing, I urge everyone to read Dr. Pascucci’s dissertation, and see how our neighborhood was a stepping stone in the city of Schenectady’s history, and how 80% of the immigrants that settled in Schenectady stepped through the streets of the East Front Street Neighborhood on their journey!

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