A Bay View Story

November 12, 2018

By Paul Troglia

I’m 72 years old and still see that snowball coming right at my face. I was eight. The thrower was maybe 18, a wooer of my cousin Tina. I was hooting at their kissy-face silliness in that chilly winter air.The snowball’s trajectory was perfect, its range, drop, and adjustment for wind calculated in a nanosecond, the arc so mesmerizing I didn’t duck. It knocked me flat. Tina and Deadeye Dick rushed over, saw I was okay — the snowball was pretty soft — and returned to canoodling, ambience restored.

That anecdote serves as a metaphor as I witness the ebb and flow of life in our community. The changes in Bay View since I was a kid have left its mark on me as much as that expertly thrown snowball of long ago. Nostalgia is fallible, memory with a delete key.

Brothers Charles, John, and Paul Troglia were photographed by their father on the day their new Philco television was delivered to their home. They and their parents, Peter Troglia and Evelyn (Duncan) Troglia, lived at 2442 S. Delaware Avenue in Bay View’s Little Italy. Courtesy Paul Troglia

Mr. Carini, my history teacher at Bay View High, said primary sources, photographs, for example, are best for an accurate study of the past. I remember because he made me write that 25 times for not paying attention. I was flicking bits of Junior Scholastic at cute Connie Randula.

All communities change over time, but Bay View’s story includes a reckoning. It looked itself in the mirror and came away a different, better community beyond its architecture, economy, and infrastructure.

I was born and raised on Delaware Avenue, a block from Groppi’s. At that time, Groppi’s and Club Garibaldi, a block apart, served as the cultural center of ‘Little Italy,’ the trapezoid of land between St. Clair and Superior streets from Trowbridge to Conway. All family names ended in a vowel — Cialdini, Massaro, Foti, Martinetto, Ferraro, Jendusa, Passomani, Giadrone.

Okay, maybe not all, we did have the Yakoviches. But even the sidewalks had a paisan pedigree, the slabs were inscribed M. Zanchetti, Milwaukee.

Yet Little Italy it was! Mrs. Bucharelli walked her geese around the block every day. Mr. Fucilli butchered backyard chickens and sold them to his neighbors. I can still see that white-feathered carcass hanging from our cellar door, headless and draining, ready for my mother to pluck it for supper. I don’t think anyone called it dinner. It was supper and if you went out, you had to be home by suppertime.

Yes, parents could and would turn children loose for hours in the Bay View of yore. The thing we feared most was the Spiri Fulut, the ogre who lived in dark corners and basements that grandmas and grandpas warned us about.

We played Bing-Bing-Cucho, a fast-reaction hand-slap game. 

Old man Bertone lived at the flophouse above Lecci’s tavern at the end of St. Clair. He limped around the neighborhood, and we waited for him to ask, ‘How old are you, my sonny boy? We would answer and then he would swat our culo gently with his cane —uno, due, tre, quatro, cinque.

The iceman delivered his product in a horse-drawn wagon. Think of it, there were horses and ice for “iceboxes” in my lifetime! We kids loved to pick up the broken chunks of ice that dropped in the alley, where the horse had just been, and sip the slippery, melting shards. Sometimes the ragman came along, chanting in a hybrid of Italian and English, ah-regsa, ah-regsa (rags, rags). The neighbors dutifully handed over their old towels, sheets, overalls, you name it.

Wah-dee-melohn! Wa-dee-melohn! another alley-peddler sang. His horse clopped by pulling a wagonload of watermelons. I still hear the ding, ding, ding of the knife sharpener as he pushed his cart down Delaware, a serenade compared to the bubbly monotony tinkling from today’s ice cream trucks. My memory conjures up scenes right out of Godfather II. 

When the retired steam locomotive Old Smoky was placed on display in Bay View in May 1957, it was considered a treasure. Mayor Frank Zeidler heralded it as an educational tool, one that would “serve the children-as a friend and teacher.” Courtesy Milwaukee Public Museum

The aptly named locomotive Old Smoky, that coal-fired steam-belching behemoth, plowed its way through Bay View, spewing ash over clothesline linens. It later sat in rusting neglect in a field at the end of Delaware, our own dormant Vesuvius. 

Club Garibaldi provided a social service beyond providing beer to bleary-eyed late shift workers who stopped there on their way home from the factories. Hey, Gustavo, you stoppin’? Yeah, I’m stoppin’, but only one — and call me Gus, I’m not just off the boat. 

The Garibaldi Mutual Aid Society was created in 1908 to help Italian immigrants assimilate into neighborhoods, to a better life, to America. Members still meet in the building on the corner of Russell and Superior, though its assimilation role is now a thing of the distant past.

A most important family ritual was bringing a new bambino, often the first child born in America, to Groppi’s grocery store to be weighed on their meat scale. Perhaps the tradition arose because the No Springs—Honest Weight logo on the Toledo Scale seen by the mortadella and saltisa customers, gave credence to the braggadocio of proud papas. Little Italy’s babies were ‘christened’ there beneath the spools of butcher’s string and the flypaper dangling from the ceiling. It was, in a very real sense, a baptism because once weighed at Groppi’s, a baby was now in the club, in the neighborhood, part of something bigger.

It was good, whispers nostalgia, the right place to grow up, to learn how things work.

Back then a hyphen was not yet used to indicate what kind of American you were. Precision wasn’t necessary. You were one of two things, either from the old country, as our parents and grandparents called their European home, or you were the new generation. Old country people spoke their native language as if they’d never left. They cooked the sauces, soups, and suppers of their upbringing, whether the rustic dishes of the countryside or the fruitti di mare of the coastal regions. The rate of change in most of life could have been measured with an abacus. There were no satellites, computers, cellphones—unless you count two soup cans on a string. No wifi, Siri, or anything close. That was the stuff of Flash Gordon, a hero of the round-screen television, duly forgotten today. It was life lived in the two-sided world of plane geometry. 

The 1949 South Shore Water Frolic evening gown contest. Courtesy Ron Winkler

As charming and quaint as that life is when seen through the Viewmaster of nostalgia, sometimes, when you click its lever to rotate the next picture into view, you begin to notice something. You click once more. You see it there at South Shore Beach. Click it again, yes, in the crowd coming out of the Mirth Theater. There, at Puddler’s Hall with Joe Schott and the Hotshots. Click—yes, at the House Pharmacy soda fountain. Click—the jelly bean and jaw breaker bins at Champeau’s Five and Dime. Click—you can see it in the glow of the smelt fishermen’s lanterns.

Click—the miracle-cure pilgrims filling their jugs at the Iron Well. Click—the Sunday rowboaters on Humboldt Park Lagoon. Click—and even the Fourth of July Doll and Buggy parade. Click faster. There’s more—the Miss South Shore Beauty Pageant. The band shell audience singing Funiculi Funicula. The crowd at South Shore Water Frolic. 

Children gathered at the Pryor Avenue Iron Well in the early 1960s on a hot summer day. Courtesy Bay View Historical Society

The people at the yacht club and gin mills, in the schoolsthe neighborhoodit’s all white! Not by fate, not because there was no Hoan Bridge, not because of the cost of living in Bay View, but by an old country tenet that dictated people should stay with their own kind. We call it something else today and its corollary is a de facto sign that reads No Vacancy. If we used the hyphen for the type of American we were then, we would be ashamed. So that too is a part of our Bay View story, Un-American.

I graduated from Bay View High in 1964. There was one African-American student but that term was waiting for the future. If you were nice, you said Negro. Some people weren’t nice.

Civil Rights Leader Father James Groppi and Alderwoman Vel Phillips were instrumental in instituting Fair Housing laws in Milwaukee. Groppi and his siblings grew up next to their parents’ grocery story on the corner Russell and Wentworth. Bay View Compass Archives

When the movement for school desegregation and open housing began in the 60s, we Bay Viewers were not rolling out the Welcome Wagon. ‘Troublemakers’ were going to ruin this thing we had going. But thanks to the leadership of one of the Groppi sons, a man raised in the cobblestone alleys and concrete playgrounds of Little Italy in Bay View, our community changed. We began to see the light. Look at the pictures of this neighborhood now—use your Flash Gordon gadgetry—and you see a much more varied and dynamic community, grown from old country values and attitudes into a new culture with a gamut of ethnic adjectives preceding 

You’ll also see a variety of business thriving in this deeper, richer, more three-dimensional Bay View.

I’m often asked if I’d like to go back to the way it was, back then, and my answer is always the same: Not a snowball’s chance. Sometimes I think weighing those babies on the scale at Groppi’s was more than a charming neighborhood tradition. Perhaps it introduced the new generation to the scales of justice that ushered in social change and a more open, multi-dimensional Bay View. 

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