Ask the Truth: What's the history behind the Italian influx to Harrison Street back in the 1900s?

For this week’s Ask the Truth, readers voted for us to answer a question about an Elkhart neighborhood that a large influx of Italian immigrants called home starting in the early 1900s.

Posted on Aug. 2, 2014 at 6:35 a.m.

ELKHART — These days, there are a few remnants of the Italian influx that surged to Harrison Street west of downtown Elkhart starting in the early 1900s.

In this week’s edition of Ask the Truth, the community voted for our reporters to answer a question about the influx of Italians to Elkhart in the early 1900s: “Would you tell us about the Harrison Street Italian district in Elkhart? Where did most of the Italians arrive from?” 

The question won with 45 votes out of 101, and the reader who submitted it preferred to remain anonymous.

If you’d like to send your own question to Ask the Truth, write it down in the blue box at the bottom of the story labeled, “Ask the Truth: What have you always wanted to know about our community?”

There’s Michael’s, the eatery at the corner of Harrison and Sixth streets that, for 55 years, has served up Italian fare.

There’s Siciliano’s, formerly another Italian restaurant, now a liquor store. Next door, there’s the green, red and white awning reading IARA — the Italian-American Relief Association.

Still, it’s not like it used to be.

It’s a mixed neighborhood today, a little worn at the edges, a target for prostitution stings a few years back. But back in the day, shortly after the turn of the 20th century through the 1950s, it was a bustling little city within a city.

You’d hear people talking Italian walking down the street.

If you got there in the early evening, you might find neighbors on their porches, talking, drinking wine made from grapes grown in the backyard.

"It was a true ethnic neighborhood back then," said Larry App, a videographer who interviewed numerous Harrison Street old-timers for a documentary about the neighborhood. The zone had its own markets, restaurants, lawyers even.

Cappelletti, Minelli, DeFrancesco

Much like Latinos today, Italians surged into the United States starting in the late 1800s, extending into the 20th century.

Elkhart was included on their list of destinations, and many settled along Harrison Street, most notably between Fourth and Ninth streets. Paul Thomas, an Elkhart historian and operator of the Time Was Museum, has a 1938 edition of the Elkhart City Directory, which contains a preponderance of Italian names among the residents of the various homes dotting Harrison Street at the time.

Dominick Cappelletti. Patsy Minelli. Salvatore Bozzacco. Patsy DeFrancesco.

The Iavagnilio family, founders of Michael’s, originally came from Foggia, Italy. Thomas said the city, across the ankle of the boot of Italy from Naples, was the source of many who came here. A few would arrive, get jobs on the railroad — the original mainstay for many Italians coming here — then send word back to family in the Old Country that there was a future here. There were jobs to be had.

Those who grew up in the area remember Harrison Street and environs with a heavy dose of nostalgia.

"Everybody had a healthy garden and took care of their yards,” said Ralph Lucchese, 69, who grew up on a home on Mason Street, one block south of Harrison. “And everybody knew everybody. As a kid, you didn’t dare misbehave because there were a lot of spies out there.”

Thomas said the area incorrectly had a reputation as being a tough place if you weren’t Italian. More accurately, it was a protective place, where neighbors looked after each other.

And Margaret Kendall, who grew up in the area, dispels the notion the Italian and Italian-Americans there were closed to outsiders.

The woman, now 89 and living in Nappanee, is of German and Irish descent, but remembers with much fondness her neighborhood friend, Lucille Battista. She and Lucille would go to the movies on Saturdays, then return to the Battista home, where Mama Battista would cook up pizza bread for the girls.

"You would tear that off and dip it in your sauce," Kendall said while eating lunch at Michael’s, a regular haunt these days for her and her husband, Forest Kendall. "No matter how cold it was outside, inside it was heaven on earth."

'It’s bittersweet’

Of course, all wasn’t rosy.

App said the original wave of Italians, as newcomers, faced discrimination. When new immigrants come "we don’t always accept them, and that’s the way the Italians were," he said.

That changed. But so did the neighborhood.

Janet Iavagnilio, whose husband Michael Iavagnilio founded Michael’s restaurant, said the generations that followed the original Italian immigrants spread throughout Elkhart. Now, says Rico Iavagnilio, Janet and Michael’s son and the restaurant manager, only two Italians that he knows of live in the neighborhood — himself and a woman, a Lucchese.

The Italian-American Relief Association, or IARA, a social organization formed to hold the community together, is still there, at the southwest corner of Fourth Street and Harrison. And members still meet to socialize and play Briscola, an Italian card game.

Even so, the numbers in the organization don’t add up like they used to. But that’s just the way things go, figures Johnny Iavagnilio, the IARA president, cousin to Rico and nephew to Rico’s parents.

"It’s bittersweet,” he said. “It’s just the way of how neighborhoods go.”

Follow reporter Tim Vandenack on Twitter at @timvandenack or visit him on Facebook.

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