Seattle’s first Italian-Americans
The first Italian immigrants reached Seattle four centuries after Columbus discovered the Americas and Amerigo Vespucci gave them his name.
Coming to America
Italians were slow to follow their lead. In 1850, there were only 3,000 Italians in the United States. They did not come here in significant numbers until the 1880’s when many millions of other European immigrants had already spread across the continent.
It is hard to say why Italians took so long. Ever since the Risorgimento united the provinces of Italy into one country in 1860, things there had been going from bad to worse.
The Italian countryside was collapsing after centuries of ecological abuse. All the forests had been cut and runoff was destroying the already exhausted topsoil. Many sharecroppers and land-owning peasants could no longer survive on the land and the country was not industrialized enough to provide them with jobs.
As food production declined, taxes increased until peasants were paying up to 27 different taxes on their holdings. On top of all this, the draft required men to spend eight of their most productive years doing military service. Small wonder that when emigration finally began it quickly turned in to a deluge.
Eventually 20 per cent of the population would leave Italy for the Americas and other lands. From 1880-1890, 300,000 Italians came to America; 650,000 from 1891-1900; 2,200,000 from 1901-1910. Another 2,000,000 came until discriminatory laws in 1924 put a virtual end to immigration from southern and eastern Europe.
The Italians may have come late but they made up for it. In all, 4.5 million immigrants came from Italy, more than from any other country except Germany which sent six million.
Most Italians, as many as three fourths, crowded into cities on the eastern seaboard. Only a small fraction made it to Washington, which in 1910 had less than one per cent of the Italians living in America. By that year, with the biggest waves of immigration over, Seattle still had only 3,454 Italians in residence. Most of them were men who had first lived in the east or who had worked their way west building the railroads. Few came directly here from Italy.
Construction and Labor
There was plenty of work, especially in construction. Seattle, in the decade following the Klondike rush, enjoyed the greatest growth in its history, tripling its population from 80,000 to 240,000 between 1900-1910. Italians, along with other immigrants and native-born Americans, shaped much of the Seattle we know today. They built buildings, constructed water mains and sewer lines. They regularized Elliott Bay with the dirt from Dearborn, Denny and Jackson Hills and made Seattle into a world-class waterfront.
It was no way to get rich. Laborers made as little as $1.25 for a ten-hour day and the work was literally killing. Orly Alia, now retired from his construction business, recalls an uncle who stacked 95-pound bags of cement from a rapidly moving line, 10 hours a day, seven days a week.
“They were machines,” Alia recalls, “They wore themselves out and they were gone by the time they were sixty.”
Most of Seattle’s Italians were unskilled laborers and some were illiterate. Yet nearly all of them were able by unstinting labor to become successful and a remarkable percentage would become very well-to-do. Alia’s father, Rocco, for example, was a construction laborer who started his own underground and roadway construction company. Orly went to work for his father as a waterboy, and vividly recalls that the laborers’ clothes were always soaked with sweat. Orly, as soon as he could, also started his own company and so did his son Richard, now head of R. L. Alia Co.
This pattern of sons following in their fathers’ footsteps even to the fourth generation would become a tradition among Seattle’s Italian families.
By 1915, 20 per cent of Seattle’s Italian community was in the business and professional class. They included Doctors Xavier DeDonato and A. J. Ghiglione (who founded a macaroni factory where Harborview Hospital now stands); Joe Desimone, owner of the Pike Place Market; Frank Buty, a real estate agent whose generosity to new immigrants is still talked about by their descendants; Attilio Sbedico, professor of literature at the University of Washington; Nicola Paolella, publisher of the Gazetta Italiani.
Paoella produced and announced an Italian language radio show for 26 years and was the recipient of the Order of Merit, Italy’s highest civilian decoration.
The most eminent scholar in the Northwest was Henry Suzzallo, whose family came from Ragusa. In 1915, he was appointed to the presidency of the University of Washington. He held the position until 1926 when he quarreled with the state governor and resigned. He achieved even more prominence by becoming chairman of the board of trustees and president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Learning. He stayed there until he died in 1933.
The community also included the first American Saint, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini. Saint Cabrini, who died in 1917, was canonized during World War II by Pope Paul in the Sistine Chapel. More than 40,000 people, including American soldiers witnessed the ceremonies in the basilica.
Mother Berchmans of Seattle said that two well-documented instances of miracles have to be accepted by the Sacred Congregation of Rites at the Vatican before a movement for canonization can began.
“Though our miracle wasn’t used for her sainthood,” Mother Berchmans told reporters, “we like to think in Seattle that her first miracle really happened with us. This was when we wrapped a child dying of pneumonia in a shawl of Mother Cabrini’s while we looked in vain for medical aid in a small mining community near Seattle. Very shortly the child began breathing normally, her temperature fell and soon she was completely out of danger.”
Mother Berchmans told the press that particular miracle had not been accepted but that it didn’t matter and that her happiness at the canonization was complete. The church was and still is the most important institution in the Italian community.
Our Lady of Mount Virgin Church
Our lady of Mount Virgin Church on the slope of Mount Baker overlooked the Italian neighborhood in Rainier Valley but it was the spiritual center to all Seattle Italians and often the first place new immigrants went to get information and meet new friends.
The first pastor was Father Lodovico Caramello. He was on his way to a foreign mission in 1913 when his superiors asked him to stop by Seattle and help the immigrants there to get the church they were building started. Father Caramello assented to the brief assignment and stayed on the job until he died in 1949, revered by the three generations who eventually made up his flock.
To a man in the first generation, Father Caramello was also a candidate for canonization. “He had nothing,” recalled Nellie Ivie, who was 88 when she was interviewed by the Beacon Hill News.
“He lived in a little corner of the building above the old church. He had a wooden cot, no bed, no furniture, not enough to eat hardly. He used to go out and shoot birds – pick their feathers off and eat them. He was really a saint; everybody loved him.”
“You either loved him or feared him,” said Marie (Fiorito) Hagen in the same interview.
She recalled attending a luncheon in the father’s honor in which he insisted on covered knees and elbows, “in the house of God” even on sweltering hot days.
“If your knees showed, he’d glare down from the pulpit and say, “frogs’ legs,”” Marie Hagen recalled.
Like his parishioners, Father Caramello loved wine and that is one of the last things they brought him as he lay dying in the hospital.
Seattle’s Italian villages
Most of the Italian immigrants found jobs in the city, even though they had been peasants in the old country. Nationally only two out of seven took up rural living again. The reasons were simple. Industrial and mining jobs paid more than farm work and anyway most of the good agricultural land on the frontier had been claimed by the time Italians began arriving.
Moreover, Italians didn’t like either the harsh climate or the isolation of the Western plains. The ones who got to Seattle, however, found to their delight that it was quite possible to enjoy the benefits of city and country life at the same time. They could make good wages in construction and in the mills and have hen kitchen gardens, rabbits and chickens in the yards of the single-family homes that even working men could afford in this still spacious city.
The Rainier Valley neighborhood, which centered around the intersection of Rainier Avenue and Atlantic and climbed the slope of Beacon Hill, was transformed into an Italian village not unlike the ones the residents had left behind in the old country. It was a small village to be sure. Only 215 families lived there in 1915, but everybody knew everybody else. They all shared the same culture and they usually helped each other out when they could, which was both generous and wise for they were a tiny enclave surrounded by forestieri who were not always friendly.
Rainier Valley was the biggest but not the only Italian neighborhood. There were about 70 families each in Georgetown and near Jackson Street and smaller communities at South Park, South Lake Union, Youngstown, and First Hill.
Everyone who lived there remembers the redolent smells of Italian cooking that wafted through the neighborhood, especially on Sunday right after mass.
The immigrants worked prodigiously and ate the same way, partly because they loved good food and wine and partly because they needed lots of calories just to keep going.
This abundance of good food also helped make up for the hungry times some of the immigrants endured in Italy and helped them convince themselves that they had done the right thing by pulling up stakes and coming to this new world.
The immigrants’ love of and respect for food would lead many of them into new careers and make some of them wealthy. Many immigrants decided they wanted to go back to the land after all. Seattle was surrounded by some of the best gardening land in the west, and the rainy weather was perfect for growing vegetables.
Moreover the land was still cheap. An immigrant needed only $75 to get into farming and if he had several hundred dollars he could buy land outright. Most leased land for anywhere from $200 to $5,000 a year.
An immigration commission found in 1910 that one Italian truck farmer sold $60,000 in produce annually and that even farmers with much more modest farms were selling $5,000 worth of produce annually. The investigators were surprised to find that nearly all the Italian farmers were successful.
By 1915, Fred Marino was the leading truck farmer and that year he estimated that there were 200 to 300 Italian farming households around Seattle. The ratio of Italians on the farm to Italians in town was two out of three compared with two out of seven for the nation as a whole.
The most influential farmer was Joe Desimone, a 6 foot 2 inch, 300 pound extrovert who arrived in America in 1897 with half a dollar in his pocket. He worked as a swineherd in Rhode Island for a while before he came to Seattle, went to work for the Vacca family and married one of their daughters.
The Desimones bought up land bit by bit, drained the Duwamish swamplands and ended up owning large tracts of some of the best farmlands in the area.
Pike Place Market
Desimone also became an owner of the Pike Place Market. He has been criticized for letting the market deteriorate but the consensus is the market went down hill because of competition from supermarkets and the takeover of nearby farmlands by industries. By keeping maintenance costs to a minimum, Desimone was able rent the farmers stalls at very low rates and in this way made sure that the market survived.
Desimone proprietorship continued until he dimmed in 1946. His son took over until it came under public acquisition by the 1971 voters initiative.
It is possible that Joe Desimone is the reason that Boeing remains in Seattle. In 1936, the company was anticipating lucrative defense contracts. The company felt hemmed in on it’s Seattle site and was looking around the country for a better place to build airplanes.
Desimone heard about it and gave Boeing several acres off Marginal Way for one dollar. Boeing put up its building 2 there and as the world knows Boeing is still in town.
Whether it was truck farming or mining, Italians seemed able not only to survive but to prevail. When the mining industry began dying off, Italians living in Black Diamond found other ways to make a living.
Merlino and Sons
Angelo Merlino, while still working in the mines, began to import cheese, pasta and olive oil in bulk. He quit mining and opened a store in 1900 that was so successful that he was soon importing Italian food by the shipload. Today Merlino and Sons is one of Seattle’s biggest distributors of Italian foods.
Gradually, Seattleites developed a taste for Italian foods and other Italian food businesses also became household words: Oberto’s and Gavosto’s Torino sausages, DeLaurenti’s, Magnano’s and Borracchini’s food stores.
Italians pioneered the transformation of Seattle from a dismal place to eat out into one of the best restaurant cities in America. One of the earliest restaurants was the fondly remembered Buon Gusto established in 1910 on Third Avenue by Orlando Benedetti and Giovanni Panattoni.
Later restaurateurs, such as Rosellini and Gasparetti became city-wide personalities whose names and faces were known to everybody.
Not every early-day entrepreneur was successful. John DiJulio, for example, opened a butcher shop in Seattle after his wife, Angela, insisted he leave the Black Diamond mines because they were too dangerous. He failed after six months because he couldn’t say no to customers who asked for credit.
DiJulio and like most other Italian working men were also considered successful by the community. Some of them, especially the bachelors, felt lonely and depressed here and some returned to Italy. Most, however, lived and ate well, had lively social lives and were content here, especially when they remembered what life had been like in the old country.
DiJulio’s son John, now retired, became the first Italian clerk hired by City Light and retired as an administrator with five departments under him.
The 1980 census confirms that the success of Italians around the state is no myth. It showed that their per capita income was eleven percent higher than other national descents surveyed except for Poland.
It also revealed that a higher percentage of young Italians are high school graduates than any other group, and that there were fewer of them in prisons or mental institutions than any other descent.
If Italians earn more money, commit fewer crimes, and crack-up less often than the rest of us, then surely there are aspects of their culture that are worthy not only of admiration but of emulation.
The question is whether the Italians can preserve their Italianness. There are no longer any Italian neighborhoods in the city. Rainier Valley was obliterated by the Interstate-90 overpasses and tunnels. It didn’t matter much because most of the Italians had already become too prosperous to live there or in their other neighborhoods much longer.
Their sons and daughters are marrying non-Italians and there are not enough new immigrants to replenish their loss. But Italians know how to endure. They continue, for the most part, to work hard, cherish their families, go to church and have a good time with friends.
Doubtless Italians are becoming less Italian. But consider how much the rest of us are becoming Italianized. Who would have thought, even a few decades ago, that Seattleites would sip wine under plane trees at sidewalk cafes, that there would be as many espresso outlets in the town as fire hydrants, that we would order dinner from menus written in Italian, and that our children would come to prefer pizza over all other things.
We are merging and so far we seem to be all right.