Although some remain as sentinels of the past, most moved away from the Strathcona area, Vancouver's original Little Italy district, more than fifty years ago. You'd think that enough time has passed to make the stories of the old neigbourhood insignificant to an aging generation of Italian Canadians and others now dispersed throughout the Greater Vancouver area and beyond. Not a chance; instead scenarios abound, myths persist and memories of a cultural phenomenon grow in intensity and verve.
The "Prior Street" Gang
A group of 20 to 30 men, friends for life, gather once a month for lunch at a local watering hole to reminisce on unique experiences of a bunch of guys who love with a passion the memory of their birth turf. A powerful and magic elixir seems to emanate from the rhetoric of these former sports jocks turned entrepreneurs, professionals and working stiffs, now retired, as they share and exchange whimsical tales of another time. The atmosphere created is a virtual Shangri-La of trivia preserved! Their story also is one of a living cultural legacy gained from immigrant parents through a kind of osmosis. When the first huge wave of Italian immigration to this country trickled over the Rockies, much of its pioneer spirit seeped into beautiful, bountiful British Columbia.
Elements of this group, circa 1910, including my paternal and maternal grandparents, established Vancouver's Little Italy district along the Atlantic, Prior, Union and Georgia streets corridor. The average family lived in this quartiere between 25 and 50 years with some impressive exceptions. To wit, Italian-born Elda Venturato, who died in 2001, lived on Union Street for 80 years! The Benedetti family continues to flourish in the district with successive generations managing Benny's Market, on the 500-block Union Street, since World War I.
The district extolled the dreams of every immigrant: a better life for the parents and greater opportunities for the children. District champions included Angelo Branca, "Gladiator of the Courts" (as described by Vincent Moore in his 1981 book by the same title) and one of Canada's top criminal lawyers and judicial minds. A foremost female pilot of the 1930s, Tosca Trasolini gained the distinction of being a member of the nation's dazzling Flying Seven. She also lived in our neighbourhood as did Canada's very own Jimmy McLarnin, the welterweight who knocked out Young Corbert III to gain the world championship title in 1933. In more recent times, brilliant lacrosse stars like Mario Crema, John Cervi and David Durante led the parade to the Lacrosse Hall of Fame.
Before you ask about the women of this scenario, let me explain. The spouses of most of the guys in question came from areas of the city other than Little Italy. Indeed, some are close friends and see each other fairly often, but most meet only occasionally. However, all of them have attended most of the seven reunions held since 1977, when Lino "Chee-Chee" Cervi coined the first gathering the "Prior Street Reunion." This October, an estimated 400 guests plan to attend reunion number eight at the Italian Cultural Centre where they are expected to dance to Glenn Miller favourites like "Tuxedo Junction" and "Little Brown Jug."
Midge Santaga, who has assisted in organizing most of the reunion bashes, will be there with his wife Yolanda and three generations of family. If the schedule allows, Michael Bublé Santaga's grandson will also be in attendance to represent generation number three. And who knows but that he will croon a tune for the Prior Street guests as he did at a previous reunion, long before he rocketed to stardom in the music business.
"I am proud to be a part of the old neighbourhood. I think everybody who lived or presently lives in the Strathcona area should be proud too," exclaimed Midge Santaga.
Santaga speaks from the heart when he describes the neighbourhood of his youth. It's been a love affair that has spanned 75 years and, like malted Scotch, it gets better with age. However, the way of life to which he refers has been transformed somewhat over the years. Gone are the days, for example, when a single house key would suffice the needs of a family of six. "We lived at 638 Union Street and never locked the door during the daytime hours. The last one in at night would lock the front door before going to bed," he mused.
When Santaga was young and life was simple, safe and more beautiful than it appears to be today, he gained, at his mother's knee, an appreciation of his birthright: the family's concept of Italian culture. During the warm and inviting summer evenings, he and his mates would often hear Italian songs being sung in beautiful harmony by the moms on the block. The women would sing the praises of their homeland with gusto and good cheer as they knitted another stitch in a shawl or sock. Tears too would flow, for these were ex-patriots of a homeland from which they were forced to emigrate in order to find new hope and opportunity abroad. And in the process, Santaga and friends learned about aspects of their cultural heritage and the value of an extended family. It was a time when love, respect and faith in God permeated the lives and fortunes of a struggling but proud segment of our society.
And yet it can be argued that much of the connection with the old ways has been lovingly preserved. Persuasive proof will surface when the gang gives life to the memories of my old neighbourhood at Vancouver's Italian Cultural Centre in October. Don't miss it!
Raymond J. Culos is an active member of Vancouver's Italian Canadian community.