Pamela D'Orazio Dean (Curator for Italian American History at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, OH)

L'Italia in Ohio, splendida storia di talento, integrazione e memoria

Feb 11, 2019 5041 ITA ENG

According to the latest available data, those of the 2000 census, Ohio is the eighth American state for population of Italian origin. Many of them reside in the northern part of the state, particularly in Cleveland, but not only.

In our tour of "Italian America" today we stop right here, and meet Pamela D'Orazio Dean, who deals with the history of the Italian American experience in these areas. We welcome her to We the Italians

Pamela, you are the Curator for Italian American History at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, OH. Please tell us about your fascinating job

I will start with how the position was created. The Western Reserve Historical Society is Cleveland’s oldest cultural institution. It was founded in 1867 and for the first hundred years or so of its creation it primarily focused on general history, of the whole United States. Later WRHS narrowed its mission to focus on the history of Northeast Ohio.

In the 1970s when the new social history started becoming important in academia, WRHS broadened its collecting scope to include the various ethnic groups in the city of Cleveland. WRHS began collecting documents for ethnic groups like the Irish, the Germans, the Polish, the Hungarian. And the Italians, of course.

Thanks to funding from generous donors among the Italian American community in Cleveland, I was hired to be the curator in 2006.

My background is in history. I have a Master’s in public history from Kent State University which prepared me for work in a museum or at an historical society. I like working with objects and telling a story through exhibits and artifacts and manuscripts collections. When the job of Curator for Italian American History became available, I thought “Well, I am Italian American, I am from Cleveland, I love history, this sounds really great” and here we are 13 years later.

I really truly enjoy the position. I preserve the history of Italian Americans in Cleveland, how much they contributed to making Cleveland a great city, in the arts and in politics, in food. Italians have made many positive contributions to the region. I work to document the history and share it through public lectures, presentations, and exhibits and by making it accessible in the WRHS Research Library.

Can you please describe to our readers the story of the Italian emigration to Northeast Ohio?

The Italian immigration to Northeast Ohio was part of the mass immigration of Italians to the United States between of 1880-1920. The statistics say that about 5 million Italian immigrants came to the US, and 25,000 came to Cleveland, Ohio. They mostly came from towns around Campobasso (in Molise) and in Sicily. The first Italian settlement in Cleveland was known as Big Italy which was located at the center of the city near the produce markets.

There were also other Italian neighborhoods in Cleveland, like Little Italy, E. 110th and Woodland, Blue Rock Spring, and Collinwood, and two on the West Side, one near W. 65th and Detroit Avenue, and the other near Clark Ave. and Fulton Rd.

But primarily most of the Italian immigrants settled on the East Side. Many of the Italian immigrants found jobs doing basic labor. They were coming in at a time when the infrastructure in Cleveland was being built, so they found work digging sewers, laying roads and building a variety of things. Many were also stone carvers, and I think this a significant part of the history of Italian Americans in Cleveland.

About Little Italy: yours is still pretty active. How do you keep alive an Italian neighborhood in 2019?

Giuseppe Carabelli was a stone carver from Porto Ceresio, in the Como province in Italy. He was apprenticed at the age 10 as a sculptor. He came to New York in the 1870s and worked on the city’s Federal Building. Then he came to Cleveland and opened his shop “Lake View Granite and Monument Works,” which soon became known as The Carabelli Co., on Euclid Avenue, directly across the street from Lake View Cemetery. The company created many of the monuments and headstones in the cemetery. Carabelli is known as “The Father of Little Italy” because he helped establish the neighborhood.  His shop was located near what became known as Little Italy, so the men he recruited from Italy to work with him settled there. 

A group that played a key role in keeping Little Italy as a community identified with the Italian Americans in Northeast Ohio was the Mayfield-Murray Hill District Council, named after the two main roads that go through the neighborhood. It was a group of Little Italy residents who got together to monitor what was going on in the neighborhood, and published a newsletter called “Chiacchieroni.” In the late ‘60s, early ‘70s they noticed the neighborhood was changing. The nearby University Hospital and Case Western Reserve University were buying properties in the neighborhood and a lot of the original Italian families were moving out to the suburbs. The Mayfield-Murray Hill District Council saw it as their duty to make sure the neighborhood would be preserved. They petitioned the city to declare the neighborhood as an historic landmark. It was about 1984 that Little Italy was declared a neighborhood landmark, and that really helped to preserve the neighborhood and its history. Otherwise it could have become just another neighborhood in the city and lost its connection with the Italian American community.

Today, the Little Italy Redevelopment Corporation is the main group in the neighborhood that helps to maintain the cultural and historical elements. For example, they do historical tours of the neighborhood, art walks, a tripe dinner. In any event in the neighborhood, they always promote the cultural and historical ties to the Italian immigrants. I think it’s very important that people are aware of the past of the neighborhood. 

You are also Chair of the Cleveland Italian American Heritage Committee…

Yes I am. It is comprised of a group of dedicated individuals who work together to organize the opening ceremony for the Italian Heritage month, which occurs annually in October, on the first Monday of the month. It’s a celebration during which we honor individuals in the Italian American community who are outstanding in some way, for their work or contributions to the community. The committee solicits honoree nominations and makes the final selections. There are about 10 individuals from the Italian American Community who serve on the Committee with me. It was founded by Councilman Matt Zone, the Councilman for the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood on the West Side of Cleveland. It was originally an Italian American neighborhood. Matt grew up there and still lives there. His parents were both on the City Council and their history in Cleveland goes back a long way.   

Is the new Italian emigration of these last years arrived to Cleveland, too? 

The majority of the immigrants that are coming have a completely different background from those who came in the 1880s and early 1900s. They tend to be educated, they come here either to study or to get professional positions. Customs like sausage-making or playing bocce are not something the new immigrants are interested in doing. They have formed their own group, Italiani a Cleveland and they do their own activities. One of the events we started to celebrate with the new Italian immigrants is the Festa della Repubblica/Republic of Italy in June. That was never really celebrated by the Italian Americans here until recently. Serena Scaiola, the former Honorary Consul of Italy in Cleveland, organized the celebration, and that brought together the second and third generation Italian Americans with the new immigrants.

About Serena Scaiola, so it’s true that after several years - when she did a very good job, as far as I experienced - she is retiring is retiring from the position of Italian Honorary Consul in Cleveland?

Yes. She organized so many community gatherings, she connected Cleveland with many Italian cities. Serena and I partnered together on a number of exhibits, events, and programs… she won’t be easily replaced in that position. We do continue to partner with Serena who leads Italian Language classes at the WRHS Cleveland History Center.

What about Made in Italy in Cleveland: is there room for improvement? 

That’s a tough question for me because I concentrate so much more on Italian American history than that of Italy itself. My focus is more on the Italians when they arrived in the US, particularly Northeast Ohio. 

But I know Italian Americans are very interested in getting in touch with their roots, visiting their home towns in Italy. We do have a couple of great tour companies here in Cleveland, who organize tours in Italy, and visits to the ancestral home town. 

There is a store in Little Italy called “La Bella Vita” and the owners Peter and Barbara Strom travel to Italy regularly to select items to sell in their store. They are the only store, at least the only one I know in the Cleveland area, that imports directly from Italy: crafts, a lot of ceramic, and jewelry as well. It does very well as a shop, in fact they have a second location in Woodmere, Ohio. 

Usually everybody likes something about Italy: it happens in Cleveland, too, right? 

Yes! We see that in particular with the food. When the Italians first came to the US their food was seen as strange and unappetizing: full of garlic and too many vegetables for the Americans, who were really into meat. Italians spent a lot of time gardening and preparing their food. And it’s interesting to see how much Italian cuisine has become part of the food culture in the United States. 

A lot of the credit for this goes to Ettore Boiardi, Chef Boyardee. He started out in Cleveland, actually. He came here to work in a hotel as a chef, then he opened a couple of restaurants. People liked the spaghetti and sauce so much he turned the second floor of one of his restaurants into a little factory. That’s how he got his start, then he moved to Milton, Pennsylvania where he opened a huge factory. The rest is history, with his image on the can and the feeding of the American troops during World War II. 

Cleveland has its own Columbus statue in Tony Brush Park, named after champion boxer and Little Italy resident, Anthony Brescia (AKA Tony Brush). And every October the Columbus Day parade celebrates the Italian explorer. But other cities in the US and even Columbus, the Ohio city named after him, canceled Columbus Day. Will it happen in Cleveland, too? 

I can’t really comment about the future of the Columbus Day Parade in Cleveland. My job as curator at WRHS is to preserve the history of Italians in Cleveland as it unfolds, but not comment on how it should unfold. 



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