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1916: Italian flavor adds to the 'Burg
By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian
   Michael Commini arrived alone in America as an 11-year-old boy speaking no English, carrying only a few spare dollars in his pocket and wearing an immigrant's identification tag around his neck.

    Like the thousands of other Italians who passed through Ellis Island on their way to Trenton the turn of the century, young Michael seemed destined for a life of drudge work and obscurity. The recent arrivals from southern and eastern Europe were seen as crude rabble who could toil their way to a living, but would forever be misfits in English-speaking society.

    "That they have many virtues there is no denying," commented one author, Frank Julian Warne, in 1916. "Still, they are simply rough, unskilled, illiterate, unimaginative and hard-working laborers, and even in America, with all its opportunities, they will never be anything else."

    But even as Warne wrote, Commini was proving him wrong. Bright and hard-driving, he spent a decade waiting tables, attending night school at Trenton Business College and making political contacts. On Jan. 1, 1916, he was sworn in as a member of the Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders the first Italian ever elected to a public office from Trenton.

    Commini's success story was repeated over generations. The children and grandchildren of Italian immigrants went on to become lawyers, doctors, teachers. Today, Italian-Americans from Trenton serve as sheriff, state treasurer, and, in the case of Antonin Scalia, as a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

    "It's only after time and thought that you begin to realize how remarkable an achievement it was," said Angelina Campo, who was born to immigrants in North Trenton 75 years ago.

    "They were uprooting themselves from their homelands and their families, traveling across an ocean, not knowing what was ahead. They didn't think about it at the time. To them, it was a matter of survival."

    Italians were not, of course, alone among Trenton's foreign-born population. There were Poles, Hungarians, Germans, Irish, Slovaks, Jews, and, more recently, Central Americans and Puerto Ricans. Not to mention that the city's largest ethnic group African-Americans are descended from slaves forcibly shipped to this country.

    But among these groups, the Italians perhaps carved out for themselves the most distinctive ethnic neighborhood Chambersburg, where diners still flock to munch on tomato pies and pasta fagiole, the rowhouses remain tidy and plaster saints adorn front porches.

    Chambersburg was once a quiet, semi-rural, largely Irish-German borough. But in the 1880s, John A. Roebling's Sons Co. and its wire-rope works took off as a major enterprise. They sought low-wage labor, and found it overseas.

    Italians, Slovaks and Hungarians formed the muscle power for Roebling's might. Staying close to the plant, Italians settled in closely packed row houses, radiating northward along Butler, Bayard and Elmer streets. The other ethnic groups tended to settle southward, in company housing.

    The city's demographics were revolutionized. In 1880, there were so few Italians in Mercer County that the U.S. census didn't even count them; by 1910, there were 4,928, growing by 400 every year. Overall, Trenton in was more than one-quarter foreign-born in 1910.

    Most of them were working at Roebling or in manual labor at potteries or construction sites. Others opened groceries, barbershops and other stores to serve their fellow immigrants. Southern and central Italians tended to settle in the 'Burg; Sicilians along the railroad tracks in North Trenton.

    The sight of neighborhoods made up entirely of foreign peoples was disorienting to longer-settled Trentonians. In 1908, journalist John Merzbacher wrote a book, "Trenton's Foreign Colonies," to make sense of it all.

    "Trenton surely has Italy transplanted," he marveled upon walking through the 'Burg.

    He described the glittering show of lights and joyous celebrations that marked the annual Feast of the Madonna. He heard the stories of one-time peasants who gave up dirt-poor farm life to work 12-hour factory shifts. And he toured houses crammed full of extended families and their boarders "astonishing one to the point of doubting that a house so small can hold a family so large."

    The Italians of Trenton were, in a sense, one big extended family. Many of them, driven off small farms by oppressive landlords, shipped out together from the same town and arrived together. Today, two members of the City Council, together with the city clerk, trace their roots back to the same, small town in Naples, Grumo Nevano.

    Italians settled into their own, self-contained communities for good reason. The outside world could be perilous and corrupt. Many immigrants right off the boat was gouged by phony ticket agents, and notaries public would sell them phony working papers. Even fellow Italians might extort them through "Black Hand" societies that evolved into today's mob.

    To protect themselves, fresh arrivals turned to a padrone, or boss.

    One of those padrones was Commini. He had come to America in 1896, peddled newspapers on the streets of New York, and finally moved to Trenton as a teen-ager. In his adopted city, Commini learned English, earned citizenship, worked as a waiter and began learning the political ropes as a Republican.

    This was a time when immigrants in other cities were loyal to Democratic machines. But in Trenton, dominated by the Roeblings and a wealthy industrial elite, the business-friendly GOP welcomed immigrants as allies in their bid to keep power.

    The Italians' relationship with Roebling was more ambivalent. An old joke has an Italian being asked the name of the first president on his citizenship test and answering, "John A. Roebling!" However, Italians were also labor agitators and strike leaders at the plant.

    Showing savvy, the GOP nominated Commini in 1915 for a freeholder seat in the city's 9th Ward now the area where the county sports arena is under construction. An Irish Democrat, Thomas Boyle, represented that region and expected easy victory. Commini shocked him, winning, 417-383.

    Commini's time in politics would be brief. He serves as freeholder for just one term. Then, when he ran for city commission in 1923, two other Italians jumped into the race, split the immigrant vote, and cost him a victory.

    "Unfortunately, there was a lot of that sort of rivalry going on," said Maurice Perilli, who saw the politics of the 'Burg first-hand as a boy apprentice at the Italian newspaper Il Secolo XX (Twentieth Century). "It took a while for some of those bad feelings to go away."

    Still, Commini became more beloved as a non-politician than he ever was as a politician. He served as the county's naturalization clerk and taught classes in American citizenship. His travel agency and real-estate firm did two-thirds of all transactions in the 'Burg.

    "If Michael Commini had a penny for every person he has helped since coming to America as an immigrant boy, wearing a tag, he would be a millionaire!" proclaimed one friend, Alfredo Borgianini at a '20s banquet.

    Commini lived until 1964, long enough to see the Italians grow out of their narrow boundaries within Trenton and move on to the suburbs. Perilli was one of the many who did so, buying a home in Hamilton Township and becoming mayor there. Others intermarried, dropped out of the Roman Catholic church and cut off their ties to Chambersburg.

    Today, the 'Burg is an aging community, and along some of the streets that were once wholly Italian, Spanish is now the predominant language.

    Dennis Starr, a professor of immigration history at Rider University, said that the Italian-Americans of Trenton have enjoyed huge material success, the loss of their city-based heritage troubles him. Whether the festivals of Chambersburg survive is a "test case," he said.

    "Should this festival disappear, as it may, something profound will have changed for Italian-Americans," said Starr, a 'Burg native. "They will have melted into the mainstream, and their tradition will be undermined by the forces of modernism and consumer culture. When you make $80,000 a year with the state, do you need a saint?"

    However, Gilda Rorro Baldassari, a retired Trenton educator who is the city's Italian vice consul, said the community spirit of Trenton's Italians a spirit she described as "campanilismo" will endure.

    "I am still amazed by the extent to which Italian-American people help each other out, in the 'Burg, in Hamilton, anywhere," Baldassari said. "It's a small-town atmosphere where everybody knows everybody else. It's campanilismo that goes back generations."