The village of West Albany is quiet, paved, just an aging lower-middle class neighborhood into between the highways and the once bustling Tobin First Prize Packing Plant crumbling into ruin on Exchange Street. The smell of hogs going to slaughter has faded, the uproar of train whistles, school bells, church bells and factory horns silenced. The railway shops, the stockyards, the hotel where men yelled over cards at night and the stores where kids got penny candy long gone.
This Italian immigrant ghetto once intimidated ‘Miticans – short for Americanos who were mostly Irish immigrants. It’s been transformed beyond what even those peasant settlers from Naples could have dreamed up while potted on eye-watering homemade wine – the West Albany Elementary School now a Hebrew Academy? St. Francis de Sales Catholic church a worship center for Koreans.
This month 360 members and guests gathered to celebrate the 100th anniversary of one West Albany institution that remains from the old days – the Italian Benevolent Society. IBS leaders also will serve as grand marshals of the Albany’s Columbus Day parade this weekend in honor of the group’s longevity and the role of Italian-Americans building the region. From 1909 the club, which is what we knew it as growing up, or the "Sooge," short for Societa, as our parents called it, was the hub of community social life as surely as spiritual life was grounded in St. Francis and work life in the railyard and Tobin’s.
You got married in St. Francis, had your reception in the IBS club across the street at which tipsy aunts and uncles were certain to dance the tarantella and after a honeymoon you put on a white coat and a hairnet and did your shifts at the packing plants. The kids sure to come soon after would cross the line into the territory of the Miticans to attend West Albany and you’d live in a little house with a big garden in the back on a curving dirt road in the village that shook with the reassuring regularity of the passing New York Central locomotives.
That was pretty much life for generations.
In some ways the IBS remains maddening unmodernized. Women still can’t belong except as kitchen workers who put out the best pizza in the area on Friday nights or as members of an auxiliary belatedly formed 20 years ago. Men whose fathers were not Italian and who, therefore, do not have Italian last names can’t belong at all. Anyone in search of a card game or a round of bocci can find it at the club still and when aged men who were once boys in the village die fellow members come to funerals en masse to salute them.
But the old barriers that kept the village and isolated – and united – don’t exist anymore than do the stockyards and railroads. It’s hard to even find photos of the bridge that ran over the shops and raillines, or the gardens or the trail of people who came out of Tobin’s at shift change times. Photos were rare and special. You posed in family groupings in your best clothes for them and who would pay for a photographer to shoot such everyday stuff as that? It sounds quaint now when my mother describes how Mitigans were afraid to push through the thongs of dark-skinned, dirty men who gesticulated on the corners and outside the stoops of West Albany. She was an adult before she realized how frightening the men she knew as cousins and neighbors must have seemed to outsiders. And the outsiders were not exactly wrong. Hotheaded card players brawled and growled insults with regularity the women joked about and there was scandal when a West Albanian shot the boarder he suspected of fooling around with his wife.
Fresh off the boats and still indentured for the long ride over from the mountains above Naples, Italian peasants flowed into West Albany at the turn of the last century. They worked for $1 a day in the shops and the slaughter house around heavy machines and equipment that could cost them a limb and their livelihood in a wink. Deaths, also common, left widows and children bereft. The immigrants had no insurance, no government aid, no employer benefits. Their dilemma foreshadowed today’s worries about health care for the poor and uninsured.
So 20 men, among them my great-grandfather Anthony Scaringe, all illiterate and unable to understand English came up with this solution: they each put in $1 a month and they formed a society to watch out for the families of workers hurt, killed or in trouble. In days when a doctor came to your house for about $2 that kitty made a huge difference.
The good deeds of the IBS are part of countless family legends in this area. How the members didn’t wait for someone to have to ask for help, they just offered. How they made sure families in a tight spot had food for their kids and how everyone got a proper Catholic burial.
In the early days before there was money for a hall, members met monthly in each other’s houses, their wives responsible for the pasta and wine served that night. That was the start of the group’s more social functions. Eventually the organization moved into the building at 50 Exchange Street where it is still housed which had a bar and a kitchen, because no Italian event would be complete without food and drink.
In mid July of 1924 the IBS staged its first celebration of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, enlisting the church, the businessmen and all the great Italian cooks in the village to show devotion to the mother of God. They put together a band of members and their children, lit the streets with lights and sold Italian ice and cookies in street stands. A statue of Mary was paraded through the village and residents ran to pin dollar bills to her dress. In her house on Richmond Street, my great-grandmother Rosemary Scaringe used to feed the electricians who strung up the streetlights for the Feast, which is what we called this event second only in grandeur to Christmas. My great uncle Paul led the bank rehearsals in the kitchen of his house on Exchange Street.
Through the ‘60s my sisters and I would don our stiff white First Communion dresses and veils, clutch a gladiola that the IBS supplied by the truckload and lined up behind the band with our grandmother for a march through the village that ended with a procession around the pews of St. Francis. The organist always played Ave Maria and the priests set off clouds of incense waving a a silver burner on a chain. There were two nights of games and treats behind the IBS and every friend and cousin we knew was there. We stayed up late to watch fireworks and no event since has ever surpassed the Feast in my mind.
My mother says we never really saw The Feast at its height, which we cannot believe because how could it have been more huge? But World War II killed it, she says. During those years you could not fly the Italian flag. Italian heritage was not something you wanted to advertise.
The end of the war brought more change to the village and to the IBS. Young men fresh from the service swelled the membership ranks and created a generation gap. Antonio Piombino, the first and only president stepped aside in 1945 and it fell to the second president, my grandfather Vito Stellato, to keep the group together.
Grandpa could speak Italian and English and he was an astute businessman. He’d come to New York at 18 with no money but a lot of good lucks and many relatives. He ran an ice business for years, until somehow sensing that this new-fangled refrigeration was going to change things, he sold out at a big profit about 1928. As IBS president he pushed the formation of a Bowling League and inaugurated the first annual clambake – which was almost as grand as the Feast.
The older generation did not fade away unobtrusively. At one point long past his prime Paba was stirring up a trouble and being loud in the middle of a meeting chaired by Uncle Paul – his son – who tried diplomatically to get him to stop, addressing him mildly as "Brother Scaringe," in the club’s fraternal style.
"Brother, my ass!" Paba roared back. This is a story that has been passed down in the family, no less.
As the railway wound down and the vast shops were plowed under to make way for Watervliet Extension, as Tobin’s phased out, as Melucci’s Hotel and Pacella’s store gave way to competitors, as the Italian section blended into the rest of the city, the IBS got rich and kept growing. My father joined, a succession of uncles and cousins too, though they all had insurance through jobs and Social Security too. Eight men in the club now have more than 60 years of membership.
It could be the pizza or bocci that keeps members so numerous and loyal – or it could just be the direct link to ancestors who didn’t leave us photos or letters or inheritances. "You know the sign outside the building?" Tony Biance asked at the anniversary celebration. Of course. Two hands shaking inside a circle pinned into the center of an American and Italian flag. "My dad and I hung that up 35 years ago," he said. Pat Biance, 92, smiled and nodded at the memory.