A town called Little Italy. Not a neighborhood, an actual independent town, in Arkansas

Una città chiamata Little Italy. Non un quartiere, una città indipendente, in Arkansas

Jan 12, 2021 1236 ITA ENG

I may be wrong, and I ask our readers to help me if so, but there is no such thing as a town called "Little Italy" in the United States. There are, of course, many neighborhoods called Little Italy in different American cities, officially or not. But a city officially called Little Italy, to my knowledge, does not exist.

Today our interview guests are two friends from Arkansas who are trying to remedy this gap. They have formed an association and opened a museum, but for some time they have been working to make official what is now only unofficial: to give the area where they live, and where for a century there have been many beautiful traces of Italy, the official name of Little Italy. To me it seems like a wonderful idea, and also for this reason I’m glad to welcome Kristy Eanes and Chris Dorer on We the Italians.

Hi Kristy and Hi Chris. First of all: what’s your relation with Italy?

Kristy: Yes, I am half-Italian. My mother is a full-blooded Italian. Her mother's family, Vaccari, was from Arzignano, in the Veneto region. Her father's family, Belotti, was from Bergamo in Lombardy. My great grandparents immigrated to the US to Michigan and Chicago, where my grandparents were actually born. My grandmother was born in Michigan and my grandfather in Chicago. My ancestors read about land for sale in northern Pulaski County, Arkansas. It was advertised in the local newspapers and my great grandfather, Joseph Belotti, came to Arkansas. He liked what he saw as the terrain reminded him of his native Italy. My great grandfather founded Little Italy. It was originally called Alta Villa. He came with the first five families and settled the area for the Italians. Chris knows more about my family history than I do, as he is our local historian.

Chris: I'm not Italian American. I grew up here in Little Italy: so while I'm not ethnically Italian, I still consider myself very culturally Italian. When I was growing up, everybody said that the Italians like Kristy’s great grandparents saw the land in Arkansas, and they thought it reminded them of Italy. I had always gone to the very touristy spots in Italy, and to be honest, those places do not look anything like Arkansas. But in the summer of 2012, I was actually able to stay for a while in the rural areas of Umbria. And then I thought: wow, this really does look like Arkansas.

Please tell us a little bit about Little Italy in Arkansas... who were and where did the Italians who came there come from, and what did they come to do?

Chris: Most of the Italians that came here were from the northern Alpine regions of Italy. There were two cousins that came from the Southern Calabria but they were just in the minority. One family would come to Arkansas and they would like what they saw. Then they would write to their family members, and they would reach them. For example, take Kristy's great grandmother. Her sister came after and married a man named Sperandio Ghidotti: she came to Arkansas after Kristy's great grandmother. Therefore, many of the families here are not only related by blood, but also by marriage. Several times when Kristy is talking with people, she asks me “Okay, now how am I related with them?” The connections run so deeply here.

So, they came from northern Italy and a vast majority of them went to Chicago first. They worked for the Pullman railcar company, which was a company that made fancy railway line cars. They did not like what was happening there. The conditions were awful, and so they decided that they wanted to find a better life. That is when they came to Arkansas. Some like Kristy’s grandmother's family, instead, went up to Caspian, which is in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and they were working in the iron and coal mines there. These are different stories, and there are others: some people that later arrived in Little Italy, actually first went to Argentina, working at a coffee plantation. However, they all ended up here and they all stayed.

What is interesting now, once again, is very much represented by Kristy's story. Her grandparents and great grandparents lived here, but then what we've seen is that the third generation of Italians moved away, they moved into a larger city called Little Rock, about 15 miles from here. Now Kristy’s generation is moving back to Little Italy to get in touch with their roots. That happens frequently.

As usually, also in this case Little Italy grew up around a church, right?

Chris: That is correct, it’s called “St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church”. This actually is a very interesting story, because not only the Italians here were, of course, very Catholic, but they also had a special relationship with the leaders of the church. Because of the alcohol they were producing in the middle of the prohibition, when alcohol was illegal, they had a special relationship with the politicians of the region, but the church officials also helped protect them from any sort of harm that might come because of their production. This happened because they were producing altar wine and things like that for the church as well. So in the early years of St. Francis church, you would not just have any priest be stationed here as Pastor, you would often have actually the secretary of the bishop himself who would come in and say Masses for us. One of the early pastors of our church became the fourth Bishop of Little Rock. So the hierarchy of the church was very much in connection with the Italians that were living here.

The religious events began in people's houses because there was not an actual church at first, when they moved here. A priest would come to the nearby railway station, and he would walk up the mountain and say Mass in somebody’s house. But by 1922 the Italians had raised enough money to build their first church. The church was originally built in one location called Ola in Arkansas, and that town was what we in America call a lumber town. That means that they built a church quickly, because there were many men who were working to cut down the trees. Then, when the trees were gone, the men left. So they took it down, brought it board by board on the train to Little Italy, and rebuilt it in the center of the community. It was named and consecrated as St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church. The church became not only a place where they used to pray, but it also became the center of their social interactions, and a place of refuge. If there was a tragedy, people would ring the bells of the church to let the others know that they needed to come help. Over time, as the children grew, there were baptisms that occurred there, and weddings, and funerals. So the church is very much still a center of the community in Little Italy.

Are there any particular important names to describe the history of the Italian community in Arkansas’ Little Italy?

Chris: Probably one of the most prominent names is going to be Kristy's family's godfather. He was a bachelor, his name was Gelindo Solda. He was very powerful. He had tremendous influence, not only with politicians in the region during prohibition, but he was kind of like the sheriff in town, too, a deputy sheriff for Little Italy. So he had a lot of power and a lot of prestige. Also for those people in Little Italy, the families that stayed, there are some prominent names that everybody would certainly recognize. One is Kristy's great grandfather, Joseph Belotti, the first person that pioneered the settlement. And then the Segalla family would be another name, and the Zulpo family too.

In 2015 your Little Italy has turned 100 years old and you have been trying to do something that perhaps no other Little Italy has done in America: to become an autonomous Township. What is it exactly and how are things going on about it?

Chris: I am not sure about other Little Italy's, if they are official townships. Well, here, Kristy and I got together on this idea. We are in Pulaski County, in an unincorporated area close to Little Rock. Our place is already called Little Italy, but not officially. In most big cities in America, there are small neighborhoods called Little Italy. Little Rock never had a neighborhood named Little Italy because the Italians tended to take a more agricultural lifestyle; they never felt to be part of Little Rock itself. They wanted to be separate from it. They always felt that they were a different city, they just didn't realize that they weren't. So if you look at a map of Arkansas, you can see a place named Little Italy. Even though it is not a city itself but a hamlet, still recognized by the State, still an area by itself. It is just a small community, but still big enough to have our own signs on the road that say this is Little Italy. But being officially a town would mean having the abilities to tax and to raise funds, and to better the services of our people. We do not have those things now, we have to actually depend on the county.

Kristy: We saw that urban sprawl was happening with Little Rock, and in an effort to preserve our Little Italy we felt that incorporating into a town would be the best way to accomplish these goals of preserving our heritage, improving services, and having our own voice. So we formed a committee of about eight people and we followed the statute of the State of Arkansas for becoming an official town. We checked all of the boxes to achieve the township status: we signed a petition with more than the required 200 qualified voters, plus there were other obligations that we needed to fulfill, and they were all fulfilled.

Chris: According to state statute, we had to have 200 qualified voters to sign this petition. Here we had signed up 235, and the county clerk verified that 220 voters of those were qualified. We actually were able to gather approximately 85% of the total qualified voters in the area to sign the petition. That is a wide majority: the 85% of those who live here agreed to our idea. But the will of the people was overturned.

Kristy: In an unincorporated Little Italy, we do not have a mayor and we don't have city officials; however the city of Little Rock does for example because they're an official city. So that's what we are trying to become, our own autonomous town with our own mayor, and we would have five aldermen in the area. We would make decisions about taxes and about services improvements as a township. We would be able to apply for grants.

But our petition was denied by the local county judge, who is actually an administrative judge. There was definite government overreach in our opinion. The city water company got involved since the proposed Little Italy boundary was in the watershed and they owned some land that was in the proposed boundary. They opposed our petition however not based upon any scientific reason for being any sort of threat to the watershed. I personally think it is because they would no longer have the control they sought over the land and property in this area.

So we appealed the administrative county judge’s ruling to the Pulaski County circuit court and the water company’s attorneys argued we didn’t file it correctly and the circuit judge agreed with that interpretation of a particular rule. We appealed again to the Arkansas Court of Appeals. The panel of judges agreed with the lower court. At that time we thought we could appeal it again to the Arkansas Supreme Court, but then we decided that we were up against a political machine and our efforts were best spent going in a new direction. We never got to argue the incorporation case on its merits and tragically the vote of the people became null and void all because of an interpretation of a rule. This is not justice.

We are not giving up on our dream to become a town and preserve the name Little Italy. We would like to build a town center. We do not have to be an official town to build a town center, so we are going to start there, where we have the museum now. The museum was a dream Chris has had for many years. The museum opening was a huge success. We have about 400 people living in the area and growing because there are some new developments out our way. It is a beautiful area and some of the land overlooks Maumelle Lake surrounded by lots of forests; we're actually in the foothills of the Ouachita mountains.  As Chris said, Little Italy is very much like rural Italy, a lovely place to live.

Chris: We are on the border of two counties, Pulaski and Perry. We could have had all of the people from the other side of this line join us at once, and that would have made it much easier for us. But the law was written in a different way, you can only incorporate in one county at a time.

Kristy: The county and city of Little Rock as well as Central Arkansas Water opposed us we think also because we would have received turnback funds upon becoming an official town – a piece of the pie. By State law, upon becoming a town we receive sales tax and income from the streets, and so that that would have helped Little Italy in our efforts to improve our own services, which are badly needed. The money that we spend as taxpayers are now spent in other areas throughout the county, not so much in our area. The judge could not deny township based upon financial reasons, and so they came up with other reasons that would have been hard to argue in a real court of law. I think we could have won on the merits of the case.  

Please tell us the story of this wonderful project: the Little Italy Arkansas Heritage Museum

Chris: Growing up, as I mentioned, I had always heard the stories from the people, like in Kristy's grandparent’s generation. When those people began to pass away, it was sad, because many of their stories were lost. So about 10 years ago, the idea came: we could make a museum! In 2012 it was the 90th anniversary of the church. So we really started saying: look, we can do this. At the beginning, it was slow. But eventually, we formed a nonprofit organization in 2018, the Little Italy Arkansas Heritage Society. Then, with generous donations from the original families here, we were able to have a small home in the area, and to create a museum. Obviously, I'm a little biased about it, but it's one of the nicest small museums I've ever been to. I think it is very well done. Many different people put a lot of work to get it done. And it's still growing.

The purpose of the museum is to not only help preserve our heritage, tell the story of Little Italy and its role in the history of Arkansas: it is also a lot of educational and social outreach. We had an event in December creating Christmas in Little Italy. When we were younger, Kristy's uncle - who is my godfather - would dress up as Santa Claus and he would go to all children's houses. So another family member of Kristy's, a distant cousin, said that she wanted to recreate that. Therefore, that's what we’ve done this year, we have at least 50 children in the neighborhood that came to the museum to receive a book and also a present from Santa. We want to reach the community not only to help us promoting our museum, but also giving back. That is what the museum really does. While the church is still certainly the focal point of the community, I believe that the museum has turned into a second focal point. It is something that we are all very proud of.

Eventually we will get out of this very ugly pandemic. What are the future plans of your museum and of the township?

Kristy: As previously mentioned, we want to build a town center perhaps around the museum area. Chris suggested naming it “La Piazza”. I would like to have some little family-owned businesses there, perhaps a farmer’s market, and it could be a place for people to gather. It is currently in the concept phase. We can certainly act like a town without being official yet: being officially recognized by the state is the ultimate goal.

I imagine and hope that once it will be safe and healthy to organize events, you will return to organize your festival... can you describe it to our readers?

Kristy: Yes, it’s called the “Annual Spaghetti Dinner & Bazaar”. St. Francis of Assisi parish carries on the tradition of serving our famous pasta & sausage dinner at our annual community event on the first Sunday of October, following the morning mass.

This has been a parish and Italian community tradition since 1927.  On this day, we are all Italian! Originally founded as the community’s Grape Harvest Festival, the celebration has grown to attract festival-goers from far off distances. Each year visitors from California, Illinois, Indiana, and surrounding States can be seen flocking to Little Italy to take part in our community’s history and the hospitality offered by our parish. In 2017, over 1,500 attended the event, which serves as the parish’s main fundraiser each year.

In the weeks leading up to the event, members of our parish family bake traditional Italian sweets to be sold at the festival. On the day of the event, nearly a hundred gallons of spaghetti sauce (from a long-held family recipe) is served over hundreds of pounds of spaghetti, accompanied by 850 pounds of the best Italian sausage (also our traditional recipe) you’ll ever eat. 

Well, now I'm hungry! Whatever We the Italians can do to help, please count on us. If you need an Italian resident who supports your cause by writing a letter, I am in. How can our readers help you?

Kristy: Thanks so much!  They can visit our websites for more information, to donate, and jump to our various social media sites to interact:

https://littleitalyarkansas.com/

https://stfrancislittleitaly.org/

https://littleitalymuseum.org/

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