The Prince of Belmont Avenue
By Robert Amoroso
As a kid growing up in the 50’s, the South Bronx, and in particular Belmont Avenue was the only world we knew. This 2 ½ mile stretch of real estate was our home, the place where we felt safe and secure. Our parents and grandparents had escaped the “Old World”, to seek a better life for their children and grandchildren. They settled in places called Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and of course New York.
They were immigrants in a foreign land, unable to speak the language, with little education, no money, and no political influence. But they did have one thing, the will to survive…and survive they did! In fact, they flourished. Soon the hot teaming ghettos, gave way to colorful ethnic neighborhoods. Manhattan had its Mulberry Street, and across the Hudson we had Arthur Avenue, the “Little Italy”, of the Bronx, and within this area, at the outer edge, laid Belmont Avenue
To the world outside, this place called “Little Italy”, appeared to be just another ethnic neighborhood. With its “Old World” charm, traditions, exotic foods and customs, and for the most part that was true . However, if one looked close enough; one would see a complex social structure that would rival any government. To an Italian immigrant, social order was an important element of his life. It started with “La Faimila”, the family and continued to the extended family, the “neighborhood”. Equally important, within this social structure, was where one came from, “Il Pieasa”…the region or province, the village, or birthplace. These two elements were the essential ingredient, within the Italian Culture.
What appeared as chaos, to the outside observer, was in truth a complex social system. The church was the heart of the community; it provided a spiritual need, however there was also another equal and at times more powerful and influential entity that was seldom spoken if not whispered about. It was called “The Black Hand”. Later it became known as the “Mafia” (after the Arabic word for refuge), it was over a thousand years old and its roots can be traced to the southern regions of Sicily. What started out as a noble political movement against an army of invaders (similar to that of the French Resistance during World War Two), soon degenerated into a band of thieves and murders that ravaged the countryside, in time it became so powerful that it eventually embe dded itself into society.
Tony Russo, is the main character in this tale, he’s a composite, a mixture if you will, of the kids I grew up with on Belmont Avenue. He’s a kid growing up, in a white working class, closely knit ethnic community, divided by an Invisible racial boundary line, separated only by fear and ignorance. American by birth, Italian by heritage, and like his neighborhood, on the verge of change.
His parents came to America, like millions of other immigrants, with nothing but a few meager possessions and a dream. His dad was born in a tiny village, about 20 miles from the city of Naples. They were farmers, and owned a tiny plot of land, with a few cows and some live stock. They produced just enough food to feed their family. And depending on the harvest, (if conditions permitted), sell in the marketplace. He was the oldest of three brothers, and after his father died, he dropped out of school, to support his family; His mother on the other hand, came from an upper middle class environment. She was born in the city of Naples, in a large villa, overlooking the “Bay of Naples”. Her dad was a financier, a cultured man who could speak several languages, fluently. He instilled in his daughter a thrust for knowledge and culture. He would take her to art galleries, museums, and the theater.
At bedtime, he would always read to her, from one of his six bound books. His choice of literature was always the classics, “Romeo & Juliet”, “A Tale of Two Cities”, and her favorite “The Prince and the Pauper”. He would always edit the content, so she could understand the meaning of a word or interpret a scene, pausing at the end of a particular paragraph that he felt might be difficult for her to understand, and ask her questions. She would always enjoy these exchanges, until she slowly fell asleep. His wife, on the other hand, made sure there was always a proper balance, between playtime and learning.
However, Europe was a powder keg waiting to explode. Italy, in particular was a country in turmoil. Political and civil unrest had taken hold. The country itself was on the verge of war. Tired of the conditions within his homeland and fearful for his family, he decided to come to America. He was sure that, he could start a new life, without disrupting his lifestyle. After all he had heard that America was the “Land of Milk and Honey”.
And so, on a bright sunny spring day, he bid farewell to his homeland, boarded the luxury liner “Dora Napoli” and left forever, his homeland. The long sea voyage itself however, was filled with peril and danger. Like his homeland, the luxury liner Itself was a microcosm of the society his family was leaving behind. The passengers were a mixture of classes, from the very wealthy to the very poor, separated only by a few inches of steel and a ticket. And, as in all societies, there lurks an assortment of opportunists, petty thieves, hookers, con artists and harden criminals, the “Dora Napoli”, was no different. Tony recalls his grandmother telling him of that awful night, when his grandfather was found dead on the upper deck, a knife wound in his chest. An apparent victim of a robbery.
While his mother would never directly speak of this event, he could only imagine the pain, anger and fear they must have felt. A young woman, suddenly and brutally widowed, with an eight year old daughter, coming to a strange and foreign land, with no skills, and with almost all of their life savings gone. Soon, whatever money they did have was also gone; they began to sell their possessions, until there was nothing left except the six bound books that her father would read to her at bedtime. They vowed that no one would ever take these books away from them. These books would be a legacy to him, his link to a future generation. They would be passed from one generation to another, a testament to their endurance…to their survival.
Years later, Tony recalls his mother would read to him at bedtime, from these very same books. Her particular favorite “The Prince and the Pauper”, would always get special treatment. She would always remind him of the classic struggle, between the haves and have knots. That one can be born a pauper, but can always strive to be a prince, and she would always refer to him as her “little prince”.
“The Prince of Belmont Avenue”, is a contemporary tale of a kid on the verge of manhood, growing up in the 50’s, at a time when water canisters, police dogs and separate drinking fountains, were the news of the day. When towns like Selmer, Montgomery, Watts and Newark, were flash points of racial bigotry and divisions. “The Prince of Belmont Avenue”, is also a tale of a neighborhood on the verge of change, of unlikely bonds, of mutual respect, of courage, and above all a life long friendship. In short, it’s a tale of coming of age. I hope you enjoy reading it, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.
Copyright 2005 Robert Amoroso