Recently via the magic of e-mail, my cousin
Sam Melchionne sent me a treasured picture of my grandparents. It
was taken about 1940 in the side yard of their North 4th Street
home. There is Sabino with his accordion, and Rosa, the image of
my own mother, with her gentle smile.
From the Italian mountain country of Avellino province (near Naples),
in the town of Manocalzato, Sabino and Rosa immigrated to Newark,
sometime in the 1904-1906 time frame, settling in the old Little
Italy section. Soon they would raise 9 children, who would raise
30 of their own-we first cousins-and now there are probably 85 of
us counting all the 2nd thru 4th cousins. All this from two people.
It does make a rather dramatic statement about population growth,
but love enters the picture as well, and we shouldn’t forget
Sabino sold fruits and vegetables on the streets of Newark, peddling
first by horse and wagon, and later by his old red and green Rio
truck. Now almost 100 years later, as I drive the streets of the
city every day, to and from work, I wonder if Sabino peddled those
same streets, and what his eyes must have witnessed.
When I pass the Colonnade apartment building on Clifton Avenue,
I remember that his home on Drift Street sat where that large building
now rests. When I look out from my downtown PSE&G office windows
toward Sacred Heart Basilica (Cathedral), I can see St. Lucy’s
Church, the last remnant of Little Italy, his beloved first home
I often wonder, and try to imagine, what Sabino’s eyes saw?
What was his new life in America like?
It’s 1906 now in my mind’s eye, and equipped with
some historical knowledge of my old hometown of Newark and the surrounding
area, I am going to try and visualize Sabino’s world; a world
that some of your grandparents may have witnessed too.
Trolley cars and horses prowled the streets, with clanging bells
and hoof beats on cobble- stone or brick streets. Trolleys fed themselves
from overhead electric lines, while horses donned oat bags; and
unfortunately, the horses left their residue along the street or
curbs. Many of the old steel poles for the electric lines still
exist on Newark Streets. I have even seen metal hitching posts for
horses, complete with a horse head and steel ring for the horse’s
Many houses were still probably gas lit, with electricity making
inroads everywhere. PSE&G was only 3 years old in 1906, having
been incorporated in 1903 by utility business tycoon Thomas N. McCarter.
If you rode the trolleys, used gas, or powered with electricity,
you paid his company for the service; and you still do today for
electricity and gas.
A short walk from his Drift Street home, and Sabino could see
the Cathedral being built. The twin spires began rising about that
time; and just to the west, a brand new Branch Brook Park (1904/05)
was inaugurated. Where the Newark City Subway now runs along its
western boundary, was The Morris Canal, a vestige of the once agricultural
/canal barge way of life. It wasn’t until the early 1930s
that the subway replaced the canal. He saw that come too—along
with Newark Airport’s first planes.
In 1906, the area where the skating rink now resides at the far
southern edge of Branch Brook Park was a private water reservoir
(one of a number around the city-another one was on South Orange
Avenue between West Side High and the old Pabst Brewery. It’s
Barringer High School, founded in 1838 and widely believed to
be the 3rd oldest high school in the USA, just next door to the
rising Cathedral, was already almost 70 years old as Sabino’s
fruit and vegetable wagon clippity-clopped past its Ridge Street
entrance. His son Anthony would later become a beloved janitor there,
and his grandchildren Sam, Dolores, and Harry would graduate from
there in 1949, ’51, and ’66. Could he have imagined
His oldest son Louis would attend Arts High to become the famous
chief designer for legendary Lionel Trains, bringing unimaginable
Christmas joy and smiles to generations of children and toy train
enthusiasts. His son Luke would supervise shade tree crews throughout
the city, and become a local golf legend at Hendrick’s Field
in Belleville. His son Ernest won a Golden Gloves title---later
to minister to the wounded at Anzio Beach and other WW II hell-
holes on his ancestral soil in Italy. His son Anthony would land
at Normandy and be seriously wounded. Uncle Sal made chocolate at
the old Hooten’s factory and Uncle Mickey made those delicious
cakes and pies at Dugan’s bakery.
Luke’s son Sam, an accordion and musical prodigy, would
later venture to Las Vegas to seek his fortunes, writing music for
and performing with our nation’s greatest entertainers---
setting performance and longevity records along The Strip, ultimately
helping that city evolve from a small sandy oasis to the fastest
growing city in America.
In 1906, the famous Thomas Edison was still very much alive, and
highly productive in his West Orange Labs on Main Street. With trolleys
along Clifton Avenue, and connections to Park Avenue likely, Sabino
could have rode to the great inventor’s doorsteps in about
20-30 minutes. More than likely he read about his inventive exploits
in the newspapers and probably started seeing and using some of
the inventor’s products.
In just the short span of time from about 1878 to Sabino’s
1904-1906 arrival, Edison had produced the electric light, the electric
utility system, recorded sound, motion pictures, and radically improved
Bell’s telephone with a carbon button microphone for greatly
improved sound clarity. Surely Sabino partook of this largesse in
his daily life. His grandson Harry as a young boy would worship
the exploits of Edison, later becoming an inventor himself.
Times were changing when Sabino came here. All the change he saw
and the sights and sounds and smells of his ethnic enclave must
have been quite frenetic compared to his rural Italian farming roots.
It was a time when smokestacks were synonymous with progress and
opportunity. Perhaps Sabino’s eyes stung with the dust and
smoke in the air?
Sure, Sabino’s dream was in Technicolor, just like it was
for his grandson, but he saw people coming into the city, and his
grandson saw them leave for the suburbs-all in a span of about 50
years. Nothing stands still in America, which I am sure Sabino learned
when well-meaning urban planners in the early 1950s decided to bring
high rise apartment buildings to Little Italy, and ironically named
them the Christopher Columbus 1
Sabino’s eyes watered I am sure when he saw how these concrete
monsters tore the heart out of his beloved community, destroying
forever the birthplace of many Newark doctors, lawyers, teachers,
engineers, politicians and congressmen, musicians, artists and nurses.
I think Sabino’s eyes would smile now if he saw from the ashes
of that failed experiment, the lovely single family homes that have
been built and inhabited by a new generation of immigrants.
“Mr. Harry, I hope you can understand me and my brother Pepe’s
broken English. We are trying hard to learn and sometimes our old
Peruvian language gets in the way.”
“Marco….it’s the same broken English, my grandfather
spoke 100 years ago when he came here. I hired you and Pepe to put
a new roof on my house because you and your men are the best roofers
in this area. I have seen your work.”
“What if we cannot communicate something?”
“Then we’ll draw some pictures, use our hands, or
I’ll learn some Spanish and you’ll learn some Italian.
We’ll make it work.”
You should see the roof these men put on my house.
Sound familiar, Sabino?