Oceanus in Baltimore. Source: Author
Baltimore’s Little Italy has a new resident, and he’s over 20 feet tall.
Spray-painted on a building’s brick face by artist Carlos Alberto Garcia-Hernandez, Greek Titan Oceanus is the star of a recent tribute to Rome’s Trevi Fountain. Four Baltimorean birds – three orioles and a raven – fly beside him, splashing violent streaks of color against his pale figure. At his feet, a stream of water flings itself through the air like a fish diving into the sidewalk.
Down two blocks, silent apart from the patter of a bird’s afternoon stroll, stands Nancy Pelosi’s childhood home. As the first Italian-American Speaker of the House, Pelosi’s roots tie back to her father’s immigration to the U.S. He came alongside his first cousin, Mary Ann Campanella’s father, who married into the local community.
“The house I live in is my root,” said Mary Ann Campanella. “My grandfather married and lived there, my mother married and lived there, and I married and lived there. I will stay here…I’ll die here like my grandfather, my mother, father. In my home.”
In October 2018, which marked its 100-year anniversary, her family home earned the Centennial Home plaque through a Baltimore Heritage project that preserves historical neighborhoods.
Despite the Campanellas’ milestone, Little Italy is shrinking. Formerly a proud 20 blocks speckled with 18 restaurants, only 7 blocks and 8 restaurants remain.
Campanella attributes this decline to the younger generation’s search for a better life. “Moved to the suburbs. Outskirts. Wanted grass and trees. They wanted good schools for their children to grow up in.”
Sadly, the Baltimore Little Italy’s fate is part of a national trend. As reported by NBC News and the New York Times, Little Italys are becoming less Italian, from Chicago to New York. Now, only 8% of NYC’s Little Italy population is of Italian descent.
Jeffrey Carrano, an Italian-American and recent JHU graduate, suspects the media provides no support for dwindling Italian culture.
“Italian culture in America can be summed up in a single quote in American media, which is the scene from the Godfather: ‘Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.’ It’s humorous, I agree, but what it really means is that all of Italian culture that Americans think of is summed up by food and crime.”
It’s true –Vaccaro’s Italian Pastry Shop, established in 1956, serves excellent desserts. Even a spoonful of their cannoli cream is addictive, and the tiramisu’s lady fingers will pluck your tastebuds with the deftness of a harpist.
However, the Italian-American heritage is more than mouth-watering cuisine – Italians also value community, hard work, and family.
Maria Lucia Varella, Vaccaro’s office manager, said, “We do wedding cakes, then we do a christening cake, communion cake, graduation cake. It’s really cool to see all these people’s lives that have evolved from just a wedding cake.”
Campanella, Pelosi’s second cousin, believes Southerners are more likely than Northerners to settle in the U.S., citing their reputation as diligent farmers pursuing improved lifestyles.
Salvatore Gualano, my grandfather, is proof. He immigrated to the U.S. when he was 16 years old, leaving behind a family farm to follow his parents to a land of opportunity. “Over here, everything was blooming. You could do more. It was a difference like day and night.”
Upon arriving, he became a laborer and worked at a plastics factory through his mid-70s. Without knowing a word of English, he devoted himself to building a new life.
Gary Gualano, my father, often reflects on my grandfather’s sacrifice. “I had a very good example in my father, who was the hardest worker I knew. He would do anything to provide for his family.” He paused, chuckling. “Legal, of course.”
When my grandfather immigrated to the U.S., he waved goodbye to relatives he would never see again.
In Rome, a coin tossed in the Trevi Fountain ensures a future return to the city. In Baltimore, a two-dimensional Oceanus watches over his neighborhood, waiting for the rising generation of Italian-Americans to toss a coin before they depart.
“Don’t say ‘ciao’ – say ‘ci vediamo,’” Campanella said at the end of our conversation. ‘Ciao’ is such a slang word. My parents say ‘ci vediamo,’ which means ‘I’ll see you in the future.’”