On July 15, 2017, Julie Golia spoke about Napoli, Brooklyn with Education Dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series. An edited transcript follows: (There are spoilers below).
Ted Sod: Will you tell our audience how you became a historian and what you do at Brooklyn Historical Society?
Julie Golia: Brooklyn Historical Society is located in Brooklyn Heights. We just opened a second museum along the Brooklyn waterfront at Brooklyn Bridge Park, so we have a lot of great events going on and for those of you who are interested, I hope you will take advantage of them. You can learn more about us at BrooklynHistory.org. We could talk all day about how I became a historian, but I am basically a historian of gender and media. I get pleasure from studying the deep and very complex history of the borough of Brooklyn. I am also Italian-American, so I have a personal connection to the play we saw today.
TS: There were different waves of Italian immigration to Brooklyn – correct? Will you also talk about a law that was passed in 1924 that suppressed immigration?
JG: Italian-Americans are largely part of what historians call the “Second Great Wave” of immigration in our country’s history. The first major wave of immigrants started in the 1830s and continues through the 1850s, which is when you begin to see the Irish and Germans come over. Italians come over as early as the 1870s, but it’s really after 1890 that emigration from Italy picks up with great speed. During the first two decades of the 20th century, about three million Italians came to the United States, a remarkable number. An even more interesting number is that somewhere between 30% to 50% of those Italians who came over went back to Italy. When we think about the experience of immigration in the United States, we often think of everyone packing up and leaving their homeland behind for good. The Italian-American experience is a different one than that, with great ties to the homeland; many people went back and forth on what was an incredibly arduous trip. The law that Ted just referenced was a 1924 law that was a major immigration restriction act. It comes on the heels of World War I, the Red Scare, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, and a number of other factors that fostered a growing fear that being foreign was somehow the same as being dangerous to our country.
TS: Sounds familiar.
JG: Right? We historians have a lot to say about the past and the present. So, that law basically creates a quota for different ethnicities. And it stays in place until the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s when it becomes illegal to discriminate against people based on their ethnicity.
TS: Meghan Kennedy, who wrote this play, told me that she didn’t do a lot of research, but that she talked to her mother relentlessly because the character Francesca, the youngest daughter, is based on her mother.
JG: It’s interesting to hear about Meghan’s method of research because taking oral histories from the people who experienced being immigrants or were children of immigrants is something we historians do all the time. Brooklyn Historical Society has a wonderful archive of over a 1,200 oral histories, including some from Italian-Americans who grew up in Brooklyn or moved to Brooklyn from Italy. Meghan captured the intimate nature of family, the particularities of their interactions, the importance of food in the family, their complicated relationship with God and what part religion plays in the family dynamic. These are themes that we are able to glean from oral histories, that are sometimes absent from more traditional sources. In that way, Meghan did copious research on being Italian-American.
TS: Other than the Irish and Italians, what was the makeup of Brooklyn at that time?
JG: Pretty much everything. There is a statistic floating around that I actually have never been able to source, but I’ll repeat it to you anyway because I think there is some truth to it. At the end of the 20th century, one in seven Americans could trace their origins to Brooklyn. And so many Americans come from immigrant families. At the moment that the characters are living in Park Slope, circa 1960, you would have encountered Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and many others. In other parts of Brooklyn, you had Scandinavian families, Czech families and Polish families. This diversity continues today because after the 1960s we see another wave of immigration. Today when you look at a map of Brooklyn, you’re looking at growing Chinatowns, as well as a growing number of people from Central and South America, people from all over Asia and many different Caribbean communities. If Brooklyn is anything, it is diverse.
TS: What about Park Slope at this point? As I understand it, it was referred to as a “transitional” neighborhood -- which means you couldn’t give the brownstones away. Wasn’t redlining going on at this point too?
JG: The first thing to know about Park Slope is that it’s actually a very large neighborhood. Parts of Park Slope could have been considered upper middle class areas, even as other parts of it were much more working class. While Park Slope was established in the middle of the 19th century, before that a lot of it was farm land, as much of Brooklyn was very rural in the early 19th century. When Park Slope was laid out, it was actually one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Prospect Park West, a street that lines the beautiful Prospect Park, was the Gold Coast of Brooklyn -- it was the equivalent of Fifth Avenue – in the late 19th century. In a lot of ways, Park Slope’s trajectory mimics the history of Brooklyn. You have this incredible wealth by the park, and then of course there’s a slope because a lot of things, as you all may know, in New York, are named literally. One hundred seventy feet below and toward Manhattan, there is the Gowanus Canal. There were no wealthy people living by the Gowanus Canal, that was where you would find factories, a lot of them producing awful industrial waste. Nearby, is where the working-class families who worked in those factories lived. So, Park Slope was and continues to be a very diverse place with its own subdivisions. By the mid-20th century, many of the once-grand brownstones of Park Slope had been subdivided into working-class housing. There remained a number of areas where there were vibrant communities and institutions. By the 1960s and 70s we start to see a movement that people call “brownstoning,” in which people would buy inexpensive houses and commit to revitalizing brownstone neighborhoods. One of the challenges they did face is that because Park Slope was so ethnically diverse, many of the areas were red lined. What redlining means is essentially that banks refused to grant loans in neighborhoods that were deemed undesirable – and this was usually racially coded – that is, that when people of color lived in a neighborhood, it was classified as undesirable. The sad part of the story is that it’s only with the influx of more white people that redlining declined in places like Park Slope and property values actually began to raise in the 1980s and beyond.
TS: They were trying to keep African-Americans out of certain areas, correct?
JG: Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. When people of color moved into the neighborhood, banks and even government organizations like the FHA would recode some areas as a less desirable neighborhood. The investment into that real estate would be deemed risky, and the property value would go down. There were a lot of places in Brooklyn that have the unfortunate history of having white-only neighborhoods establish racial covenants and bar black people from buying homes. So, one of the big takeaways of this is that if we have any notions that segregation only existed in the South, Brooklyn’s history really tells us that is absolutely not the case. Of course, there were neighborhoods in mid-century Brooklyn that were racially diverse; Park Slope was one of them. There were also neighborhoods where residents were so afraid of their property values lowering that they practiced discrimination every single day. In fact, often when we think about segregation we think about public housing in New York, but many of the public housing facilities that were built in 1930s and 40s -- and this is something our oral histories at BHS tells us -- were actually racially diverse. It’s not until the 1960s and 70s that you see more white people moving out of these areas and public housing becomes much more African-American and Latino.
TS: The end of Act I features a plane crash that actually happened in Park Slope. Can you tell us about the history of it?
JG: In December of 1960, there are two planes flying over air space in greater New York City, and I believe it was a mix-up between air traffic control and one of the pilots. The two planes collided in midair. The TWA plane actually made its way to Staten Island and crashed there, in an unpopulated area and no one who was on the ground died, but everyone on the plane did. The United Airlines plane coasted for a couple of miles before it landed at 7th Avenue and Sterling Place in Northern Park Slope. It killed everyone on the plane except for one young boy. It killed six people who were on the ground, and it hit a church, a grocery shop, and I think a couple of other places.
TS: A worker at a butcher shop was killed.
JG: The sole survivor of that flight was a young man who was about 10 or 11 years old. His name was Stephen Baltz. He was flying alone and as a mom it really unnerves me. His mother and sister had already arrived, they were from Illinois, they were here for the holidays. He got tossed from the plane, and according to the newspapers, he landed on a pile of snow. He was awake enough that he was talking, he actually later described what the crash was like. He was rushed to the Methodist Hospital, which was a few blocks away, and he lived for two more days, but he had inhaled so much jet fuel that he burned his lungs and died two days later with his mother by his side.
TS: There were a lot of neighbors who took care of him and I believe one of the neighbors even had a memorial made – true?
JG: There’s actually a memorial plaque dedicated to him in the Methodist Hospital in Park Slope.
TS: It’s really a fascinating story because all this could have happened in your own neighborhood and that is rather horrifying. I believe the United pilot was nine or eleven miles off course.
JG: It was the worst air disaster in American history to that point. Very few people know about it, which I think should be remedied.
TS: This is why I think Meghan, the playwright, was so fascinated by the story. She wanted to dramatize this event that she has been told about over and over again. I want to talk about your take on women at this time. This play seems like a protofeminist piece.
JG: I was going to say it’s distinctively feminist. It’s captured a moment of protofeminism a few years before second-wave feminism technically takes off.
TS: Exactly and I’m curious what you make of the women who are portrayed and Meghan’s understanding of them. How accurate was it for the time? Will you talk about how you understand a woman’s role in that particular time?
JG: It’s a great question. I think more than anything this play captures a moment of remarkable transition, between a very patriarchal way of understanding family and a world that is opening up for women. It had opened up a bit several decades before this play is set, for the first generation of Italian-American women. Many children of immigrants worked in factories. The idea that women didn’t work is factually inaccurate when we look at history. By the mid-20th century, growing numbers of women are working in factories. Especially before they get married. This depiction of Tina is definitely accurate. I think there is a real connection between the experience of joining the workforce and the opening up of financial opportunities for women. Working gave these women a new freedom and a way to experience the city. Also, as we can learn from watching the characters of Celia and Tina, it’s incredibly back-breaking work. The idea that women were shielded from that type of manual labor, was absolutely not the case. I think we also see a group of young women who are influenced by the growing experience of leisure. I love that we hear about the daughters going to Coney Island. There was a kind of freedom women were able to find on the streets, in the subways, going to places like movie houses. I would imagine that audiences don’t have so much sympathy for Nic, the father, but you can’t really understand how jarring it must have been for him to be born in Napoli in the 1910s, and then turn around and see this world that is so alien from the world he grew up in. It must have been incredibly jarring for people like him. Finally, with Francesca we see a queer woman who lives in a moment where we don’t yet have the language and the understanding of what it means to be gay in America. The word lesbian was never actually said in this play, and her relationship with Connie was actually very chaste and you could see that they didn’t have the language to understand their own experience. Within 10 years of 1960, there was a feminist movement that would really embrace and think deeply about what it means to be gay and female. We see in Francesca a young woman who is ready to experience that before she even has the structure in which to understand her own life.
TS: The idea that Francesca and Connie choose Paris to run away to is fascinating. Paris was more accepting of one’s sexual orientation. A lot of artists like Charles Demuth moved to France because they gained more respect. Can you talk about the middle sister, Vita? Her trajectory in this play is fascinating to me because she is relegated to a convent -- was that unusual?
JG: I can’t say for sure, I don’t know if it was standard for Italian-Americans to send their daughters to convents. It seems very complicated. I guess the best way to understand this is that Italians coming over from Italy, came over with a deep sense of family. Family was the structure of your life and there was nothing else above that structure. I think Vita has a different view of the world, in which family is permeable. She says, “You’re not my father!” It doesn’t sound unusual to us because she just got the sense beaten out of her by him, but to her mother and her father that was unthinkable. Again, I think this is a woman growing up in a society with different values than the ones her parents brought from a different country.
TS: Isn’t this a culture where a woman would stay home if she wasn’t married?
JG: No, and I think that’s the thing we need to understand. There’s this idea of women staying home in immigrant families and even if women did stay home and become housewives like Luda does, many women would actually do things like piece work, they were making extra money for their families as well. More and more, women were going into factories in order to keep their families afloat. This idea that there was one male breadwinner who would keep a family financially afloat in New York, is not necessarily true.
TS: What do you think becomes of these women?
JG: Well I’m interested in hearing what the audience thinks. I’m a historian but putting on the hat of a literary critic, I feel like there’s an element of fantasy in this play, it actually has a weirdly happy ending.
TS: A hopeful ending.
JG: When the father, Nic, leaves, there is a weight lifted from all of them. It seems like this is a moment for all of them to succeed. I don’t know what happens to them in particular, but I do think their lives may not be so hard with him out of the picture.
TS: Do you think Luda runs off with the butcher?
JG: I don’t think she does. Maybe she just wants to be alone and be herself. There was actually a lot of tension between Irish Americans and Italian Americans. Often the newest group is the group who is meant to bear the lower wage jobs or ethnic discrimination. I remember my Italian grandmother telling very bitter stories about how the Irish treated her in school. Today we live in a world where it’s not okay to go to school these days and say ethnic slurs to somebody. I don’t think that was the world people grew up in in the mid-20th century. It wasn’t seen as off-color to criticize someone for their ethnicity. I think there were a lot of tensions between many different ethnic groups even as those groups moved close to one another and interacted with each other.
TS: Does Connie go after Francesca?
JG: Let’s just say the idea of both of them going to Paris makes little sense to me. Francesca could have gone across the river and participated in New York City’s incredibly rich cosmopolitan world in neighborhoods like Greenwich Village. It would have saved her a miserable trip to Europe as a stowaway.
TS: One last thing before we let the audience ask questions. How did it come to be that the Italians make the best food ever?
JG: That’s an ancient secret, we could never tell you how. Food is a real symbol in this play. Food and the eating of food was in almost every scene, something I’m not used to seeing when I go see plays. It’s so accurate, you couldn’t do a play like this without actually consuming food. Francesca’s rejection of the food is a rejection of her culture. It’s a rejection of the life that she thinks her mother has chosen, in a lot of ways it’s a rejection of her Italianess. The food also contains what is beautiful about being Italian, it’s the love and the affection that Luda has for her family. The passing down of recipes to Vita, the joy of making your child happy and then the joy of having your child say, “Mom this is the best food ever!” In a lot of ways, it is the family bond, it’s the perfect symbol of the complicated times of an Italian-American family in mid-century.
TS: Can you talk a bit about the feast they are preparing on Christmas Eve?
JG: In Brooklyn Historical Society’s podcast Flatbush + Main, we did a wonderful episode on food back in December. My co-host and I talked about our favorite foods and, of course, mine was the Feast of the Seven Fishes. It’s the most meaningful meal in my life, it smells like heaven, it’s the best-tasting food in the world. It’s a great example of how taste can be so tied up with your identity and with the rituals that shape your life, and make you who you are.
Audience Member #1: Can you talk about the churches? I think churches united the neighborhoods in Brooklyn and then people started to break away.
TS: I think there were two things that united Brooklyn, the churches and the Dodgers, right?
JG: Brooklyn in the 19th century was called “The city of churches.” The church is an incredibly important institution, it’s one of the first institutions that immigrants established when they came to this country. A very important thing to understand about immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is that today we just think Catholic is Catholic. When Italians came over from Italy in the late 19th and early 20th century, they refused to go to Catholic churches already established here. I think there is some debate as to whether or not they weren’t allowed, or they just didn’t want to worship with the Irish. I think it was a little bit of both actually. By the 1950s and 60s, you would have seen Catholic churches becoming more of what they are today. If they are specific to an ethnicity it’s because of the neighborhood, not the ethnicity. So I think it would have been safe to say that Albert and Luda could have worshipped in the same church. That would have been part of building the bond they have and the way different people would have interacted with each other.
Audience Member #2: I moved to New York and I worked with United Airlines when that 1960 crash happened. I was young and single and New York wasn’t what it is today.
TS: Where did you come from?
Audience Member #2: From Colorado. I was enjoying New York City life. The gay movement was certainly happening, but it was very much more male then -- we didn’t use the word lesbian. I had a lot of gay friends that worked at the airline, and there was a lot of targeting.
TS: Did you know the plane crash was featured in the play when you came to see it?
Audience Member #2: No, I sat here and it brought back a lot of memories.
Audience Member #3: I always thought that Bensonhurst was very Italian and Irish, but I didn’t know about Park Slope. Is there a difference between the areas?
JG: I would say the difference is more about the time period. Further out in Brooklyn, places like Bensonhurst and Canarsie were really hard to get to. It would have been very difficult to live there and then commute to the city or the waterfront where many people worked. So as transportation innovations improved and that trip became easier, it became easier for Italians to establish neighborhoods in those areas. Another interesting thing about the Italian-American experience is that the majority of Italians came from rural southern Italy. They were farmers, so getting off the boat and seeing the booming city of New York City must have been a mind-blowing experience for them. A lot of people yearned for a more rural experience and that is something they could find further out in Brooklyn. A lot of areas weren’t even developed until the mid-20th century.
TS: There is a documentary that was on PBS that I believe was called “The Italian Americans,” about immigrants from Italy. It seems it started sometime before unification.
JG: In a lot of ways it’s the result of unification. Unification in Italy largely takes place by the 1860s and causes a series of government shifts -- a lot of tax money goes to industrialization in the North -- not toward developing the South. A lot of crops failed and created extreme poverty. All immigration experiences usually involve push factors and pull factors. There was little money in Southern Italy and there was a significant opportunity to make some money in New York even if it came at unbelievable hardship.
TS: So those who went back to Italy – did they go back to poverty or was there more opportunity by then?
JG: The idea was that you would come to America, make money, and bring it back to your family. A lot of people actually left their wives and their children in Italy, and in some cases, people would go back five or six times. The trip was by boat and it was unbelievably excruciating.
Audience Member #4: I grew up in Brooklyn right at the time of that plane crash, and I was the same age as the kid who died. A couple of years later, I worked in a company that had a lot of Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans. I wanted to ask you about the tension I experienced firsthand between the Irish and Italian- Americans at that time.
JG: In a lot of ways you can see this inter-ethnic tension throughout Brooklyn’s history. One example I can think of is in the 1840s, they had this moment of incredible violence along the waterfront when Irish and German workers were actually pitted against each other over wages. There was a shooting, and a number of German people were killed in this small riot between Irish and German people. It’s an interesting thing to think about in terms of labor history. Often labor historians ask, “Why did workers allow these ethnic tensions to come between what could have been a larger solidarity?” I think the universal immigrant experience is getting here and working at the lowest paying, most dangerous jobs that there were and often these were along Brooklyn’s waterfront. I think one way of answering your question is to think about the enormous cultural differences that people brought to Brooklyn. Italians themselves aren’t even actually a homogenous group. In the early 20th century you would have been Napolitano or you would have been Sicilian, the divisions in identity were actually incredibly narrow. There was fighting between Italians, let alone between Italians and Irish, who were seen as a whole foreign experience. Italians didn’t think the Irish really practiced Catholicism. That’s why I think the phrase “melting pot” Is all wrong. It was actually a lot of different pieces in the soup.
Audience Member #4: My father-in-law had a butcher shop at Sterling and 7th and he came out and he spoke to the little boy who fell out the plane. It was very real to us sitting here watching the play.
JG: Low-slung houses like brownstones allowed people in that period to interact with their neighbors much more than the high-rises of today. People know each other, people frequented the same shops over and over again. If you saw a kid in the street, you’d be out there taking care of him. It’s one of the things I love about Brooklyn.
Audience Member #5: Why didn’t any of the women in the play aspire to marry one of the Dodgers?
TS: They left Brooklyn in 1957.
JG: It’s true, there wasn’t mention of the Dodgers in the play. We could have a whole conversation about the Dodgers. It is enormously controversial. To this day, Brooklynites are so torn over it. Right now at Brooklyn Historical Society, we have an exhibit on Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers and we get both sides. Even after all these years, people still feel so passionately about the Dodgers and some still feel so betrayed. One of the things the Dodgers did do, is they brought people together. Especially after Jackie Robinson. The moment that the Dodgers left, which was on the heels of industrialization, the closing of a lot of factories, it felt like a moment of major change. Meghan’s play is a very intimate and domestic experience, a lot of it takes place in a house, and it was a cast of almost all women. Maybe it wasn’t on their radar. It wasn’t the most important thing in their lives.
TS: Can you tell us a bit more about the Dodgers exhibit? Where they could see it?
JG: It’s called “Till Everyone Has It Made: Jackie Robinson’s Legacy” and it is at our Brooklyn Heights location at 128 Pierrepont Street. It’s just a quick stop over the river. We have other exhibits going on over there too -- one about Brooklyn Heights in the 1950s, one is about Prospect Park. We just opened our newest location, a gorgeous gallery, in the Empire Stores Building in Brooklyn Bridge Park. You can find more information about all of these events at BrooklynHistory.org.
2016-2017 Season, Napoli Brooklyn, Upstage