Issue Three’s nonfiction includes Robert Iulo’s essay on growing up in the parish of Old Saint Patrick’s in New York’s Little Italy. The essay, part history and part memoir, reveals what it was like going to church surrounded by a fortified wall built as protection against anti-Catholic nativists, and using an eighteenth century graveyard for a playground. Prose Editor Lauren Alwan caught up with Robert earlier this summer, when he graciously offered to give a tour of Old Saint Patrick’s and answer a few questions about this urban neighborhood whose public and private history has become an ongoing subject in his work.
We understand that you frequently write about Little Italy, the New York neighborhood where you grew up. What about it compels you and why place is important to your work?
Little Italy was such an interesting place to grow up. I was within walking distance of Greenwich Village, Chinatown, and the whole Lower East Side, and a cab, bus or subway ride of the rest of the City. I lived in Manhattan but, in the fifties and sixties, it was very much like a small town, with Mott Street as our Main Street. I knew everyone, everyone knew me, and I was surrounded by so many interesting people right on the block where I lived. The City and that neighborhood in particular have such strong personality they can easily assume the part of main character for any writer.
Although the old neighborhood has changed, I’m pleased that it was a positive change. It’s now known as Nolita (north Little Italy), which is a lively and appealing area with a whole new cast of characters in the same historic buildings.
You left the neighborhood after joining the military and did not return for decades. In the interim, family and friends moved away. What happened that made you return and begin thinking about the neighborhood again?
It had been years since I’d done much more than pass by Mott Street until one summer evening in 2005, when I responded to a report of a building in danger of collapse (and where I’d once lived). I worked for the City at the time, and part of my job was managing the response to structural emergencies. The fire department closed the street and got the tenants out of the building. As I was being briefed by the Incident Commander, I noticed a sushi bar had replaced the butcher shop that was on the ground floor when I lived there. An engineer and I started our inspection at the roof where I could see the backyards and church graveyard where I used to play. As we checked apartment interiors, I remembered people who lived there before, and glancing out of a window, I could see where I learned to ride a bike and play stoop ball. We determined that it was a false alarm and the building was secure, but throughout the inspection, I was distracted by childhood memories.
(Editor’s Note: Robert’s essay inspired by that experience will appear in Neither Here Nor There: An Anthology on Reverse Culture Shock, forthcoming from Martlet & Mare Books.)
Do you see your work in urban planning as connecting to your interest in the history of New York City and your personal history growing up there? Has writing about the City been something you’ve always done, or is it a more recent interest?
The history of New York can’t be avoided because so many important events happened here, going back to when New York was New Amsterdam. Growing up in one of the older sections of the City, history was all around me; an historic church, school and convent. A factory on the block where I grew up was used as a hospital during the Civil War.
I first wrote about the City while working on my urban planning degree. New York was often either the ideal or the exception in many planning scenarios so I chose it as the subject for a number of my assignments. My graduate thesis dealt with the look and feel of different streets in the City. Aside from research, this took a lot of footwork and calling upon my strong feelings about the City’s unique character and my equally strong opinions on what should be regulated and protected. Since then the City has been the background of many of the pieces I’ve written.
In your essay on Old Saint Patrick’s church, oral history is clearly important in passing along an understanding of place, and your family’s history within it. How has the tradition of oral history in your family influenced your writing?
Getting the oral history of my family down on paper was how I started writing. Growing up, I heard stories from relatives and friends and lived through some of my own. I wanted to record and pass them down to the next generations before they were lost. I write what I feel are interesting and meaningful episodes which are important for my family to be aware of and remember. I write them mainly for my family but some of these pieces have a broader appeal.
Although you draw on personal experience in your essay on Old Saint Patrick’s, you also include rich historical detail that you learned after moving away. Can you tell us a little bit about the fact-gathering process for the essay and how you approach research (or the role of research) in the rest of your work?
All of the research for my Saint Patrick’s essay was done online, starting with Google and Google Books. That might not seem very novel, but the last time I did a research paper was in college when all I had to use was a brick and mortar library. It’s much more convenient to click links than to look through card catalogs and shelves. I was able to read scanned volumes—some written in the 19th century—at home with my PC, and copy and paste instead of making handwritten notes. That being said, despite the convenience of the internet, I somehow missed the trips to the library and the smell of old books.
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