Big History of Little Italy

The spiritual and cultural center of Little Italy, Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church
  • The spiritual and cultural center of Little Italy, Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church
  • Image by Alan Decker

Peter Corona, a veteran superintendent of numerous school districts in California, was born in 1928 in San Diego’s “Italian Colony,” as Little Italy was first known. He grew up during the Depression and World War II, attending Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church and Washington Elementary School on State Street before further education began opening him to the rest of the world. In 1949, Corona went off to UC Berkeley, where he played varsity baseball and met his wife Yolanda, who was raised in Northern California.

The Coronas’ forebears came from opposite ends of Italy too, Peter’s from Sicily and Yolanda’s from Lombardy. I am speaking with them in a rear apartment on the old Corona family property on Kettner Boulevard, where Peter and his three brothers grew up in panoramic view of San Diego Harbor. Today, the apartment is the couple’s Little Italy retreat from their primary residence in Walnut Creek, California.

“When he first brought me down here, all I heard was people speaking Sicilian,” says Yolanda, who spoke a dialect of standard Italian. (Most language scholars think Sicilian is distinct enough from Italian to constitute a separate language.) “I would say to myself, ‘What country are we living in, anyway?’”

Peter Corona has written of his old neighborhood in a 398-page book called Little Italy: The Way It Was. Photos from the 1930s and 1940s fill the last 72 pages. The book came out in January 2010. San Diego’s Italian neighborhood was “different from the other Little Italys in the United States,” he writes. The Italians here “lived in a more confined geographical area, stayed mostly within that area, and rarely associated with people who were non-Italian.” And Italians moving to San Diego from other U.S. cities did not always appreciate it.

Take Rosalie Asaro, who came here from St. Louis. She is noted for complaining that “San Diego’s Little Italy was like living in a cocoon.” Asaro quickly discovered, writes Corona, that “she would be criticized for joining the Girl Scouts and attending the YWCA. [The question] ‘What will people say?’ became part of her relatives’ and family’s comments as it had been for the children born and raised in San Diego’s Little Italy.” Boys in the neighborhood were expected to follow their fathers’ careers, especially in the tuna industry. And “you were told what to say, when to say, and how to say it.”

Corona ascribes the closed nature of Little Italy society to economic realities. “In other cities, such as those on the East Coast,” he tells me, as we start on a walking tour of his old stomping grounds, “Italians most often worked in factories with other ethnic immigrants, such as Germans, Poles, and Irish. Here, especially before World War II, people had to make their living as entrepreneurs in small private businesses. Residents tried all kinds of ways to make money independently. Even us kids. We used to go around picking up old hubcaps and other pieces of metal to sell to the local junk man.”

But change was bound to come, although slowly. In his book, Corona describes the “most memorable sermon I heard at Our Lady of the Rosary.” It was given by Father Joseph Trivisonno in 1950. Charles Buddy, the famously autocratic bishop of the San Diego diocese, had practically forced Trivisonno on the parishioners, who preferred keeping an interim priest from Italy. In the sermon, Trivisonno told the congregation, “We have nice young Italian men in the neighborhood.… These boys do nothing on Saturday nights but just hang around the corner talking with their male friends.… You have lovely daughters at home; they need to get out. The boys are not allowed to date girls in the neighborhood. It’s time that you let your daughters go out with these boys.” After these words, according to Corona, “You could hear a pin drop in the church.”

Corona writes that he almost titled his book “Chi Saccio.” “Translated into English from the Sicilian, it means What do I know? or I know nothing. This was a common response when someone was asked a question and did not want to get involved or did not want to be quoted.” Several other words and phrases from Sicilian and Italian are mentioned as examples of the same tendency to push away people who are becoming too nosy. Corona tells me that since pursuing his education he has always tried to encourage his fellow Italians to “put that habit aside.” But stereotypes by their new countrymen did not always make it easy, especially those linking Italians with organized crime. Even a portrait by one of their own made residents of Little Italy uncomfortable. Lorenzo Madalena’s Confetti for Gino, for instance, a 1959 novel largely about the Italians in San Diego’s tuna fleet, was looked upon with suspicion, according to Corona. “I easily identified the people he incorporated in his story. The book received excellent reviews nationally and mixed reviews within the neighborhood.… Some citizens in the neighborhood did not accept exposing themselves and the San Diego Italian neighborhood to the outside world.… The youth of the community was more accepting because they saw in Lawrence a successful person who did something different and received recognition outside of the community for his accomplishment.”

The achievements of Little Italy’s residents, the good they have done in the world, are what Corona highlights. He ticks off the many professions they have entered in addition to tuna fishing and tells colorful stories of their home lives. Many young men from the neighborhood, including one of Corona’s brothers, died fighting in World War II. “I used the positive approach in my writing,” he tells me.

In the middle section of his book, the longest, he goes block by block in Little Italy, starting from his grandmother’s house, and tells who stayed there, what kind of living they made, and who their relatives were. Along the way he adds poignant details, such as the two men who were not yet American citizens and had to move from “the wrong side” of Kettner Boulevard. During World War II, noncitizens were not allowed closer to the harbor than the middle of Kettner, which constituted a “line of demarcation.” So Giovanni Canepa, who lived a block west of Kettner, moved his house and family to the boulevard’s east side, though he could not continue in commercial fishing until after the war. The other man, Sabastiano Di Maggio, was not so fortunate. He not only lived west of Kettner but worked in the macaroni factory on the west side of the street. So Di Maggio’s boss found him another job in a Los Angeles macaroni plant.

I ask Corona why he used the block-by-block approach. For outsiders it can get tedious. “Walking the neighborhood, as we are doing now,” he tells me, “stimulated my memory. Probably 90 percent of the book is based on my memories of interacting with just about all the families who lived there while I was growing up. I did some extra research, like talking to former residents. But most of them are dead. For dates and things like that, I checked the cemeteries.”

Corona’s grandmother lived on California Street, which shows on today’s maps as only a small finger in the Midtown area. But in the old days, the street was a dirt road that was owned by the railroad and ran right next to the tracks heading downtown. The trolley now traverses the same route, and there is a narrow, paved alley in place of California Street. From the spot Corona shows me where his grandmother lived, one could almost have reached out and shaken hands with train conductors passing by.

The Columbia Street site of Frank Bompensiero’s home. Historians still argue about Little Italy’s most famous mobster, 34 years after his death.

The Columbia Street site of Frank Bompensiero’s home. Historians still argue about Little Italy’s most famous mobster, 34 years after his death.

We walk uphill from there, and Corona’s “positive approach” to Little Italy’s history hits rough waters as we arrive at Columbia and Hawthorn Streets. For, from that corner, he points out the apartment building where mobster Frank “the Bomp” Bompensiero lived his early life on Columbia. Without naming the culprit, Corona says that in 1934 his father, who owned a tuna boat, once captured a thug coming aboard clandestinely in the middle of the night. He was “a Sicilian from the same town [Porticello] as my parents in Italy,” writes Corona. “When my father pressed charges, the young man’s mother came to our house to plead for her son’s freedom. My parents respected the older lady, who was well liked in Little Italy. She had a lovely family, and all of her children, except one, became respectable citizens. My father did not press charges, with the understanding that the son stay off his boat and create no harm to any of the other fishermen and their families. My father insisted that there be no gang activities or pressure placed on the fishermen.…

“The agreement prevailed over decades. That person had previously been involved in a robbery of a theater in San Diego. He later became a member of organized crime but stayed out of Little Italy and the fishing industry. In his later years [1977], he was shot by the mob.…” As we continue walking, Corona tells me that the incident on his father’s boat was the only crime he’d ever heard of growing up in Little Italy. “And the young man got the message,” he says. “He knew the Italians would kill him if he kept coming back and trying to extort them for protection.”

The coy approach to Bompensiero, whose life as a Mafia hit man has been detailed in the book A Bad, Bad Boy by Judith Moore, does not sit well with everyone. Retired Air Force Colonel Joseph Bonpensiero, the Bomp’s nephew (the different spelling of their last names was due to an error on the hoodlum’s 1905 birth certificate from a Milwaukee hospital) has posted a comment about Corona’s book on Amazon.com. After praising the book’s discussion of “the neighborhood, the customs, the people” and noting that “I was born and grew up there as well,” Bonpensiero charges Corona with taking “the easy way out…[in] not wanting to cast aspersions.… Peter Corona was considerate to give the criminal a pass. However, a leopard can’t change his spots. Frank Bompensiero was a hardened criminal and, yes, became a member of organized crime. Unfortunately, he killed…people and didn’t spend enough time in prison.… The hood was, unfortunately, my uncle.… Frank Bompensiero, 1905–1977, was a loser, no matter what Judith Moore or his daughter Mary Ann say in A Bad, Bad Boy.… Peter Corona goes on to say that ‘during our youth, we did not hear of the word Mafia in Little Italy.’ I definitely concur with him and can say emphatically [that] in the Bonpensiero family, for obvious reasons, ‘Mafia’ was the worst of any four letter words, even the F or N word. I don’t wonder why. And every time he was in jail, the word was, ‘Uncle Frank is in college.’”

I reached Bonpensiero, who is 72, by phone at his home in Montgomery, Texas, and asked him about his disagreements with Corona’s book and Moore’s portraits of the Bomp. “You can go any number of ways in a history of Little Italy,” he told me. “Corona did a good job for what his objective was, but it’s not the whole story, which includes both the good and the bad.” To expand the perspective, Bonpensiero has already written Chocolate Moon, a book he calls a “coming-of-age nonfiction novel” that he expects to be published soon.

Bonpensiero is now writing a second novel about his uncle with the tentative title of The Nephew. Recently, he sent me two chapters in draft form. In one, the Bomp is drunk on Scotch at the Del Mar Racetrack and is angry at losing his bets. In this state, he spews out a string of racist vulgarities at singer Lena Horne, who is sitting in front of him. “I was there that day,” said Bonpensiero, “and Lena Horne was celebrating the bets she had won. She looked stunning in the sunshine. But Frank went after her. And that was totally in character for Frank.”

But Judith Moore’s book makes the Bomp out as respectful of women, almost idealizing them, especially the ones in his life. Her descriptions of Frank’s relationship with his first wife Thelma Sanfilippo come off as highly romanticized. She depicts him as invariably well dressed and charming. She also says that Frank rarely drank, except for an occasional beer, which was not true, according to Bonpensiero. The problem, he told me, is that for the portrait of the Bomp, Moore relied too heavily on the criminal’s daughter. “Mary Ann, who was my cousin, had no idea what was going on outside of her home. She led a secluded and protected life. And she was a spoiled brat.”

After moving away from his family home, the Bomp never again lived in Little Italy. But Moore paints him as returning to the neighborhood time and again to visit his mother, giving her an allowance for groceries and handing out hams, salamis, and produce to her neighbors, as though he were a Sicilian Robin Hood. The people loved him for it. That’s an exaggeration, Bonpensiero told me. “Peter Corona is right that once he realized he couldn’t extort Italian businesses, Frank virtually disappeared from the neighborhood.”

I asked Bonpensiero if he knew much about the Bomp’s criminal life that does not turn up in Moore’s book. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “He was my father’s brother and was over at our house all the time. When he first got out of prison in the 1960s, I walked him around. So I learned a heck of a lot about what he was doing and also how many cops in San Diego were on the take. My dad must have paid out close to a hundred grand over the years getting Frank out of jail.”

It’s difficult to assess Bonpensiero’s claims because he’s withholding most of the details to fill out his book. During my time with him on the phone, he spoke only in generalities. “Frank was the laziest man I ever saw,” he said. “He hated hard work, especially working on the tuna fishing boats that his father and brother owned. He was never successful at any legitimate business he tried. He never had any money. Moore called the Gold Rail his bar, but other people really owned it, and his bosses in Los Angeles just set him up in there so that he’d have a base of operation in San Diego.”

Is Bonpensiero preparing simply to capitalize further on his uncle’s infamy? Or will his effort serve to help demystify legendary mafiosos? “Italian Americans are tired of their being stereotyped by stories glorifying criminals,” says Nick D’Angelo, a local accountant who grew up in Little Italy and is a friend of Joe Bonpensiero. “Many people are sensitive and resent the television show Sopranos and movies like The Godfather and Goodfellas. They feel that our heritage is being misrepresented.”

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It is so amusing to remember that in 1977 when Frank was "wacked" while out walking his dog in PB, the two Copley papers reported it as if he were just some elderly, retired meatpacker or plumber. It took about a week before someone woke up and reported his murder as involving an organized crime figure. Then years passed before the real story of SD's mini-Mafioso was ever mentioned. It was mystifying why an old ex-con like him was still seen as a threat to other crime thugs.

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