Noticing hearses periodically going past the window of his converted condominium in an 1865 house that overlooks New Haven’s historic and picturesque Wooster Square, Steve Hamm had an epiphany.
“I thought, ‘Gee, every time a funeral procession goes by, that’s a whole life of lost memories and lost stories,’ ” the freelance writer and documentary filmmaker says during an interview at that same viewing post by the window.
Most people now think only of first-tier pizza (Pepe’s, Sally’s) when they hear “Wooster Square” or “Wooster Street.” But the area offers far more: a rich history of wide-ranging experiences of Italian immigrants coming to America and settling in the neighborhood.
At about the same time last summer while Hamm was pondering the idea of telling the Wooster Square story in a documentary, he saw that Frank Carrano was posting recollections of the old neighborhood on a Facebook group: “Wooster Square Neighborhood Heritage Exchange.” Other former residents (Carrano now lives in Branford) were adding their own memories.
“I invited Frank to join me at Pepe’s,” Hamm recalls. “And over our white clam pizza we decided to make this movie.” Hamm credits Carrano as the inspiration for The Village: Life in New Haven’s Little Italy. Carrano even came up with the film’s name.
“I’ll take credit for the village concept because I have always thought of the neighborhood as a self-contained entity,” Carrano tells me in an email. “We lived, worked, played, went to church and shopped within the territorial confines of Wooster Square.” In the film, Carrano says: “Everything you wanted and needed was there.”
Hamm says, “The framework came from Frank: the values people shared here that made it into a village.”
The film, which runs slightly over 60 minutes, premiered June 7 at the New Haven Documentary Film Festival. The Village is filled with testimonials from old-timers such as Carrano and includes hundreds of black-and-white photographs from family albums as well as home movies of the St. Andrew Apostle Society parade and festival in the 1920s.
“I interviewed a lot of people who are in their 80s and 90s,” says Hamm, reinforcing the need he felt to speak with these witnesses while they are still with us.
When Hamm finished his rough cut last fall and handed it to Scott Amore of Wallingford, the film’s editor, Amore told Hamm: “My family came from that neighborhood.” And so Hamm interviewed Amore’s father, Nick Amore, who recalled as a boy seeing a woman being harassed by several men demanding she pay the back rent she owed or be evicted.
The film doesn’t duck the poverty of those times for the immigrants. Dolph Santello, who still lives in the neighborhood, says in the film, “Italians love life, every minute of every day” but he also reminds us: “Wooster Square was a low-income place.” He recalls families picking up food scraps to make soup. They lived in crowded tenement apartment buildings, not houses. Most of them worked in factories with grim conditions and low wages.
But Bill Gambardella, who grew up in one of those crammed buildings, says in the film: “People loved each other, cared for each other and would do anything for each other.”
The film brings us the sound of the bells ringing above St. Michael Roman Catholic Church while Msgr. Gerard Schmitz says the church was “the glue that held the immigrants together.” But he also notes ruefully, “Now we have many more funerals than baptisms or weddings.”
Indeed, The Village begins with footage Hamm shot of Luisa DeLauro’s funeral procession in September 2017. She was one of the neighborhood’s long-time leaders and a New Haven alder for 35 years. Her daughter, Connecticut U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, states in the film; “My mother was a force of nature.” DeLauro says her mother taught her that government can make a positive difference in people’s lives. “She always told me, ‘Never give up.’ ”
And DeLauro says of her old neighborhood: “It shaped my life. Families, faith, accountability to one another; that’s where I learned we have a moral responsibility for one another. It’s my touchstone.”
DeLauro proudly credits her parents, Ted and Luisa, for standing up against Mayor Richard C. Lee’s plan in the early 1960s to have Interstate 91 go straight through the heart of Wooster Square as part of his so-called “Model City” redevelopment. “They played a big role in stopping the bulldozers from going through Wooster Square. Those bulldozers were turned back!”
But not everybody in the neighborhood escaped the wrecking balls. Carrano’s sister, Theresa Argento, recalls in the movie seeing her mother crying after “the fellow from the state gave us a deadline to move. They were brutal.”
However, Hamm says the resistance by the Wooster Street community to that redevelopment became a national model. “It was important in the history of urban renewal, for restoration rather than destruction.”
Asked what is left today of the old neighborhood, Hamm replies, “There are some Italian Americans who still live here, some of them pretty old. In the square you see a lot of younger people walking dogs. You see people of all ages sitting on the benches, reading books. I think this park is almost magical. People love it so much. It’s really a rare thing.”
Santello notes in the film that houses and condominiums around the square now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. “It’s no longer Italian. It’s cosmopolitan.”
The Village ends with a quick interview of Chris George, executive director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) in New Haven. He tells us immigrants still need to “be welcomed with open arms.”
Hamm believes it’s important to tie today’s immigration issue with the experience of the Italian immigrants who came to Wooster Square. “We decided to put it as a coda at the end, to grab ’em by the lapels. I feel very strongly about this.”
For a schedule of public showings of The Village and the future availability of a DVD, go to facebook.com/thevillagewoostersquare.