WHEN A HOUSE IS REALLY A HOME
When my grandfather first came to this country he worked as a laborer, building the subway system in New York City. Most likely he worked for the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), which was expanding existing lines during that time period. Back in Vizzini, Italy he learned his father’s trade of being a butcher, but here in America he needed to make money at whatever job he could find. He met my grandmother in New York, but knew she was from his home town in Italy. A nice girl with a good family background and hard worker.
When my grandparents got married they moved in with my grandmother’s family on Elizabeth Street between Canal Street and Hester, right off the Bowery. My grandmother’s parents, Concetta and Ralph had a son, Joseph, and daughter Mary. My grandmother Lili was the oldest. She also had another brother that died when he was very young.
When my grandparents had their first son, Salvatore, they moved into their own cold water flat in the same building at 54 Elizabeth Street. Two years later my mother Rose came into the world, and Concetta and Ralph had a third daughter, Angie. Angie and my mother were born within a year of each other in 1918 . Even though Angie was my mother’s aunt, they grew up like sisters.
At some point my grandfather decided that breaking his back for the City of New York was not what he wanted to do and saved enough money to go into business for himself and opened up his first butcher shop on Hester street, not a block away from where he lived. Prior to that move the apartment my grandparents lived in had a shared bathroom and bath with another family that lived on their floor, two families sharing a bathroom in a common hall. My mother could remember walking up the long flight of stairs to her apartment and seeing gas lamps on the walls. Once my grandfather’s business started going, he was able to afford a larger apartment in the same building that had a private bath. Living in the lap of luxury!
In 1928, just before the Great Depression, my grandfather did what I did some 50 years later, moved his family out of the City and into the Suburbs, Brooklyn, New York. Not just his family, my grandmother’s family as well.
Back in 1928 Brooklyn still had many farms and dirt roads scattered around the borough. My grandfather bought a two family house on 77 Street between 15th and 16th Avenue for about $15,000, a lot of money back then. The house was a resale and my grandparents were the first of many Italian families that moved into this Jewish neighborhood.
In order for them to survive during those tough economic times my grandfather rented the top floor of the house to another family. My grandparents lived on the first floor with their two children Rose and Salvatore, along with their parents, Concetta and Ralph and their three children, Joseph, Mary and Angie. There were only three bedrooms on the first floor so my grandparents took one and my great grandparents took the other. Mary, Angie and my mother shared one bedroom and the boys, Joseph and Salvatore slept on cots in the living room and kitchen.
My grandfather opened his second butcher shop on 15th Avenue off of 77 Street. He Eventually opened a another on 71st Street and one on 18th Avenue where my Uncle Sal worked.
In 1928 when they made the move to Brooklyn my mother Rose and her older brother Sal were 10 and 12 years old. So they grew up playing in the same streets I did. And actually went to the same schools that I did as well. A teacher my mother had in elementary school was still teaching when I attended P.S. 201, Dyker Heights Junior High School.
There were quite a few changes in that house since my grandfather first moved in. Back then they heated the house with coal, and in the back of the house was the coal shoot that they poured the deliverys of coal through. The basement wasn’t finished then.
During the worst times of the depression everyone contributed to the upkeep of the house. Although people were hurting, they still had to eat. Maybe not as extravagant, but enough for my grandfather to survive in his business and do quite well. Enough to expand and have three businesses going at once. For a man with a 6th grade education, he knew how to run a business.
Eventually my great-grandparents moved out of the house and got their own apartment near by. That old house went through many more changes.When my mother got married she and my father moved in with my grandparents and all four took the top floor of the house. My grandfather split the apartment below into two living areas and collected two more rents. I said he was a good business man. It wasn’t a legal 3 family, but he did what he had to do in order to survive. And my father was a master carpenter so my grandfather had all he needed to renovate the house, eventually finishing the basement and added that to the living space. That’s how a kitchen wound up in the basement.
I could remember when I bought my single family house in Rockland county with an acre of land I was proud of my accomplishment and brought my grandfather up to see my achievement. He said “You crazy! Why no you buy a two family house?? Thata way you hava an income coming in!” That’s how he thought. And he was right. With today’s tough economy and taxes going through the roof, if I had bought a two family house I would have been better off today. But back in 1977, I got a piece of the American Dream.
When my father was called for service during World War ll, my sister was a year old. And of course my mother had the security of living with her family. During that time my father made a record he shipped home to my mother from France. He sang the Cole Porter hit from Kiss Me Kate “So In Love”. My father was a great tenor. We still have that record. I haven’t heard it in years.
When the war was over and my brother Richard was born my parents needed more room. And they were tired of changing the space around everytime the house inspectors came to check how many families were living there. So they moved out of my grandparent’s apartment and occupied the basement and front rooms of the house. They still had another family living in the four back rooms. We have old family movies from that time that show many parties held in our basement with all the family gathering in front of the bright spot lights my father had attached to his 8mm camera. Every one was squinting. He bought that camera because my mother was due to give birth to me any day.
When I finally arrived, seven years after my brother’s birth and 13 years from my sister, my mother was 36 years old. I don’t think my parents planned on having a third child but I was a gift that just kept on giving. My parents needed more room again and two years after my birth we took over the entire first floor of the house, including the basement. I shared a room with my brother.
Growing up in that house I never realized the history that preceded me. To me it was always home. And home to many others. When my Aunt Angie and Aunt Mary and Uncle Joseph came over for the holidays with their family and children they were celebrating in their home. And when my Uncle Sal came over for a visit with his wife Paula and children Concetta and Peter they were as much a part of this house as anyone else. When we were all together we were “la familia”, celebrating as a family.
It’s no wonder why my Grandfather Pietro and Grandmother Lili were considered the Patriarch and Matriarch of the family. It was a title they well deserved.
I remember carrying this dish of baked chicken with lemon and garlic many times up from the basement oven. My mother never used the oven in the kitchen on the floor that we lived in. She used to store her pots and pans in that one. This chicken dish is really simple to make and the flavor of the potatoes with the lemon and garlic is wonderful. I always make it with extra potatoes because they taste so good. I hope you enjoy it!
- 1 chicken, cut into pieces
- 2 lemons
- 3 potatoes, unpeeled and cut into wedges
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees
Place the chicken and potatoes in a baking pan large enough to hold them in a single layer. Squeeze the juice of one whole lemon over the chicken and potatoes. Sprinkle with the oil, oregano, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix everything up with your hands in order to coat everything, then leave the chicken skin side up. Slice the second lemon and tuck the lemon slices between the chicken and potatoes.
Bake the chicken for 45 minutes. Baste with the pan juices. Continue to bake for another 20 to 30 minutes, or until the chicken is browned and the potatoes are cooked.
Plate the chicken, potatoes and lemon slices. Skim off most of the fat from the pan, then drizzle the chicken and potatoes with the the juices.