the italian ghetto

When my grandparents first came to Canada, to Sault Ste Marie, the Italian immigrants lived west of downtown, in an area butting up against the steel-mill. The neighborhood was called James Street after the main commercial street in the area. The stores on James Street were all owned and operated by Italian families – Tagliabracci, Scarfone, Bumbacco, Greco, Spadoni, Boniferro.

By the time we arrived in the late 50s, many of the Italians had moved to the north-side of the west-end. The north-side was separated from the official west-end by rail-yards and the Tube-mill. My grandparents were part of the first wave to leave the west-end and head north to the other side and that’s where we first lived when got to Canada. But they still went back to James Street to shop; and we all went back to the west-end for Midnight Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel – the Italian church.

Biagini Studios, which all the Italians used for births, first-communions, engagements and weddings, was the premier photography studio in town and it was in the west-end. My aunt-and-uncle’s wedding pictures were all take at the studio. (End of November 1957, and little May-ree-oh, in his Sunday-best that Mafalda brought from Calabria, is standing sideways at the end of the family line in his little suit-jacket and looking like a little old man with a pot belly.) I remember this huge camera and the photographer getting under a dark-cloth and the noise and burst of the flash-powder.

My sister Jo’s first-communion pictures were taken at Biagini’s. And she has the famous 1970s big-hair; we’re talking a serious bouffant, big enough to put a crown around it. (At least she wasn’t on a kneeler looking off at a superimposed Jesus surrounded by heavenly clouds.)

I bought my very first pair of hockey-skates, used, at a shoe-store next to the James Street Hardware. I can still picture the wooden display-box, up on 2X4s, and full of worn skates. The leather was all scuffed, the blades covered in dust and my friend told me that they would need sharpening. They were so narrow and so uncomfortable, but buying a new pair that actually fit was beyond the means of a struggling immigrant family. A new pair of skates was more expensive than dress-shoes. Oh yeah, my parents were gonna buy me skate; skates and hockey-sticks were frivolous things; things for English people. (I used my Christmas money to buy that first pair; I think they were $6.00.)

The Sanguinettis lived in the James Street area when they first came from Calabria. (Joe was born while they were still living in the Italian section, and I babysat him in that second floor walk-up.) From there they moved eastward to Bush Street and then finally to the new subdivision at the northern corner of the expanded west-end, to Digby Crescent. I remember when they moved into the new house; my dad was helping and took me along; I carried in a coffee-table with a glass top. (What strange details the mind keeps and brings forward.)