Anthony V. Riccio From Italy to the North End: Photographs, 1972-1982
Foreword by James Pasto. Albany: State University of New York Press, Excelsior Editions, 2017
Anthony V. Riccio's enlightening and inspiring From Italy to the North End: Photographs, 1972-1982 is divided into three unequal parts introduced by a brief, but penetrating, Foreword by James Pasto. Pasto frames Riccio's profusion of images and sparse but efficient text around the work of two sociologists who, for most scholars, seemed to have pronounced the death of authentic Italian Americana. For Richard Alba, it has long passed into its "twilight.'' For Herbert Gans, and those many who have followed his lead, it is merely a "symbolic," even nostalgic expression. Followers of both imply that Italian America has lost its authenticity. For me, all ethnicities, labelled "authentic" or not, are symbolic, and twilight comes at the beginning as well as the end of the day.
More substantially, Pasto disagrees with Riccio, that "The ItalianAmerican elders captured in these photographs from 1979-1982 are forever gone, ancestral ghosts of the past who once gave the North end its Italian soul." Pasto notes that his photographs keep them alive. At least as long as, by seeing them, we are reminded of their iconic existence. l would go further and argue that the North End, as Italian America itself, has simply entered another phase in which the past is its prologue.
As with many in his generation, Ricco heard his older relatives and family friends talk about what it was like in the old country and thought that he might travel someday to see for himself what life was like in their hometowns. The first of his visual excursions began in 1972 as a consequence of a study program in Tuscany that gave him the opportunity to visit his own relatives in their fabled Campania villages of Alvignano and Sippiciano. During this and subsequent trips he used his camera, and ever-improving photographic skills, to document these and other more and less typical Italian venues.
In From Italy to the North End, stories are told through his images of people and places on both sides of the Atlantic. I think it makes a powerful statement that all Italian Americans have two "homes" - one in Italy and the other in America. Making connections both visually and in words - his own and his subjects - Riccio vividly and lovingly tells a story about the eternal ties between peoples and places. In the process, he eliminates the far and near temporal and geographic distances between them.
Anthony V. Riccio's attention to Boston's iconic Little Italy in the North End is similarly serendipitous. In 1978, he answered a job ad in the Boston Globe to "Work in one of America's oldest anti-poverty agencies. Must speak ltalian." Expecting resistance, he gradually earned the trust of residents, especially the "anziani." ln the North End, he learned firsthand the power of Italian immigrants to create a viable, indeed enviable, community in what originally was an inhospitable place. In a few words, enhanced by dozens of images, he demonstrates how local residents and business people overcame initial and later attacks on the community, only to succumb to the overwhelming forces of the dreaded monster called "gentrification." Having seen this in so many other Italian-American neighborhoods, we must admit that, in a sense, it was their own fault. By creating and preserving a coveted space from which others had fled they were hoisted by their own petard.
As he had for "Italy, 1972-1975," in the "North End of Boston, 1979--1982," Riccio shares again with us sensitive portraits of people as well as the insides and outsides of ethnically meaningful places. In the final, shortest and most personal Part, "Stories and Reflection," he essentially erects visual monuments of his most cherished personal memories, some of whom have passed on, but whose spirits haunt the neighborhood.
As to a disclaimer of bias, I have known Anthony V. Riccio for a long time and a few years ago even went to hear him give a lecture on his 2014 book Farms, Factories, and Families: Italian American Women Connecticut that was also aimed at a broad market. The responses of the excited audience made me jealous of his ability to convey his extraordinary knowledge and insights about ltalian-American life and culture to scholarly as well as popular audiences. I must also admit that I have been envious of much of what he has been doing over the years. For decades I have been waiting for the opportunity to assemble my own photographs of Little ltalies taken around the globe and compare them with those I have taken in Italy. His collected works parallel in many ways my own on the connection between Italy and ltalianAmerica. However, my focus is almost exclusively on ethnic vernacular landscapes while his is much more intimate and in a sense "honest." Where I see people as merely an albeit important part of the scene, for him the people are the scene and the landscape the background for them.
Lucky for those, like myself, interested in the past, present, and future of Little Italies, Riccio employed his improving skills as a photographer to capture in images and words the disappearing social world of what Herbert J. Gans called an "urban village." I have photographed in the North End many times since the early 1980s, capturing some of the changes, and noticed that many of the places he felt iconic were those I was also attracted to. It is also interesting to see his evolution into a first-rate photographer. Riccio's work is much more intimate and emotionally powerful. From Italy to the North End: Photographs, 1972-1982 fits well into what ought to be a growing collection of visual and other studies of Italian spaces here and at "home." It is a perfect addition for university, school, and home libraries.
Emeritus and Murray Koppelman Professor Brooklyn College CUNY