Resurrecting Lost Italians – Gettin’ My 52 On in the CBD

FullSizeRender (24)* This is the twenty-sixth in a series of walking Cincinnati’s 52 neighborhoods to find what makes each relevant to me. What will I learn? Where I will I go next?

“You would make a lousy politician,” my husband said to me once. “Because you don’t like to share the streets and parks with others.”

“That’s not true,” I moaned. “I just like the quiet, so I can experience the city through my own eyes and not while bumping into others.”

So, I rose before dawn on the longest day of the year to walk the Central Business District, the city, downtown. However one referred to it.

I have walked every street and alley in the downtown region, as well as the backways and shortcuts, some out of necessity, others out of curiosity. It would be a challenge to find a way to connect to the city for the purpose of these walks and not diverge into other areas of history, alleys, murals, etc.

But, I would diverge, regardless.

My first effort began with heading towards the east end of downtown and the Theodore M. Berry International Friendship Park. I love the park’s version of the “Bean” which offered a flattering look back at oneself and not the overly distorted one. I also discovered this quote by Mr. Berry and its relevance to what I am personally, if not professionally and certainly not financially, accomplishing through these treks.

Then next challenge arose when I turned back towards Sawyer Point and downtown. Which way would I choose? I wanted the park to be its own neighborhood, for it often felt such in early morning, and because I had too much ground to cover.

The cherry red awning of Montgomery Inn shone brightly that morning and when the restaurant first opened in 1989, my sister, Laura and I took every parent, sibling and guest there over many years’ time.

Moseying along Sawyer Point, the volleyball courts were once the site of an AVP tournament I used to attend, and there were bricks along the point, when the park was renovated, which my sister and I donated to its fundraiser, but I had yet to determine our brick’s exact location. 

I bypassed the rest of Yeatman’s Cove (named for a well-patronized tavern on the river back in 1793) and Serpentine Wall because both spaces were iconic and ubiquitous. I turned up through parking lots to pass by the Anne Louise Inn, now owned by Western-Southern after a nasty ownership battle. Renovations were coming along on the proposed economic development, but I was there for another reason.

Behind the Inn, at Third and Lytle, in the late 1800’s, two Italian nuns had formed the Santa Maria Institute to support the assimilation of Italian immigrants in Cincinnati. At the end of the 19th century, there had been 8,000 Italians living in Cincinnati. (Italians of Greater Cincinnati). Now, that number of descendants was closer to 44,000.

And what I was learning and witnessing was that an entire subculture or ethnic group had been easily erased from Cincinnati’s history. For instance, one can read this brochure, which was handed out during the last Woman’s City Club meeting when Maria Hinojosa spoke, and see there were no reference to Italians, who contributed greatly to this city.

Further up Pike Street is the American Book Company Building, which is where William McGuffey (of the famed McGuffey readers) got his start through Winthrop Smith who tapped him to create “eclectic” readers, textbooks that espoused the values of honesty and hard work. The books were used often in Cincinnati Public Schools. According to legend, no McGuffey ever made money off those readers, but a few publishers did. I can totally relate. (Literary Cincinnati is worth a read for those wanting to know more).

I have referenced this fact before, but the annex of Proctor and Gamble was built over a demolished Church of the Sacred Heart at 527 Broadway. Sacred Heart was THE church for the Italians and had been built in 1890. It was another nod to corporate interests in a move that is now all too familiar in cases such as the Dennison Hotel.

I traveled along Fourth Street to where Mark was a patron of the Salzano Brothers barbershop, carrying on the tradition of Italians in Cincinnati. Mark always comes home speaking in a Italian. Like that’s gonna make him one.

The apartments at Fourth and Plum used to advertise, If you lived here, you’d be home. My first husband, Devin, lived at Fourth & Plum in his twenties, and until now, I never thought of him as an urban dweller. Perhaps at the time, we didn’t have the many distinctive labels that separate us all now.

In the spot where the Duke Convention Center sprawls, Peter and Stella Cetrulo opened another barbershop. It was known Peter sang arias as he cut his customer’s hair. I wondered if the Salzano Brothers had brought back that tradition.

Barbershops had been all the rage in the Italian set. Villari’s was opened on Central Avenue, and Angelo Bruno opened a barbershop at 5 Garfield Place and owned it for 36 years before selling to Fausto Ferrari in 1967. I’m not sure if Fausto is still there, since that’s not my thing, but the latest Yelp reviews had not been kind.

Passing along City Hall, I was trying to locate an area on W. 8th Street. I had read that along the 600 block of W. 8th, many Italians had once made their home. There was also a nursery, a welfare center and St. Vincent Apts. That stretch too was gone, replaced by parking. Though I had found plenty of connections to Italians in Camp Washington and also South Fairmont, where I had yet to walk, from my vantage point, Italians disappeared from the collective memory of many historians of Cincinnati, other than reference guides such as this:

Produce had also been a mainstay for Italians hoping to start a new life. The Sansone family hosted a market at Vine and Walnut on Court, after the Canal Market was torn down. The city once had Joe Lasita & Sons produce wholesalers, and today, still is home to the Castellini Company. Further north, a passerby might also notice Catanzaro trucks, started in Springfield, Ohio.

Finally, Italians were and are excellent tailors, and the DiPilla Family was well-known in town, during the early 1900’s for their work on W. 8th Street.

Several dining establishments in the business district, Scotti’s and Campanello’s, still carried the Italian traditions, and some, like Via Vite, upgraded the experience. But my husband knows I don’t patronize establishments that can’t compete with my mother’s cooking. That’s just a hallmark of good Italian, to disdain anything that Mamma didn’t make.

The book, Italians of Greater Cincinnati, kept me occupied for days. While Cincinnati was once comprised of 60% of Germans, I informed Mark, the rest had to come from somewhere and they did. There had been multitudes of participants at Columbus Day parades over the years. I know, Columbus is no longer P.C., but tradition is worth holding on to. And am thankful to be in a city where Italians have held on (we always have a hard time letting go), even if the city, in many ways, has let go of them.

I conceded to time, on my tour of Italians in the downtown region, but resolved to keep pushing to learn more, join one of the Italian societies, find the deli that made the sausage at the Cincinnati Italian Festival and push for a sister city in the future. Afterall, Italians were all about la famiglia.


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