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Al Bruno: Yearning for a time that no longer exists

Buffalo’s West Side of the 1970s remains indelibly etched in my childhood memories because it was a simple yet prosperous time in Buffalo’s rich, cultural history. It represented a special time when the West Side resonated with an old-country, Italian cultural flavor that was prominent in everything we did in our daily living.

Importantly, it was a socially significant and progressive time when Italian-Americans came together, galvanizing, sometimes by necessity, on the West Side to forge a new American identity while collectively maintaining the proud cultural, vocational and religious values instilled and experienced in sunny Italy.

Promoting old-country, Italian values was unveiled as the theme and impetus behind relocating the Italian Festival to Connecticut Street in the summer of 1976. Connecticut Street was strategically selected because it was located in the heart of Buffalo’s Italian-American community. “We are trying to recapture the old St. Anthony tradition. We are trying to revive the old ways of bringing people together,” announced Chuck Griffasi, the 1976 event chairman. The site certainly achieved that and much more.

The Italian Festival was originally named “La Festa di San Antonio,” in honor of Saint Anthony, of Padua, Italy. It was formerly celebrated in downtown Buffalo at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, on Court Street, with festivities taking place in the Canal District, known as “The Hooks.”

The four-day festival was kicked off each July with a Catholic procession, elevating the beautifully decorated, life-size statue of St. Anthony holding the baby Jesus on a platform of thick, wooden rails and supported by six strong Italian men, who were honored to literally shoulder and proudly display San Antonio that day. In the crowd, you could hear the native Italians, repeatedly shouting, “Viva San Antonio,” which translates as “long live Saint Anthony.”

The Connecticut Street Italian Festival was a small, quaint and authentic celebration, and it had a distinct, Italian cultural imprint. Virtually all the vendors were Italian immigrants or first-generation Italian-Americans, selling delicious Italian food and imported Italian memorabilia. The mouthwatering aroma of grilled sausage, onions and peppers was so inviting and permeated everywhere.

Live Italian music was performed by local artists, like Chuck Cardone, the barber, and ensued all day long, one band after another, it seemed. It featured the Italian dancers, games of chance, children’s rides and much more. Then, the Italian Festival would crown its festival queen, who would graciously address the festival-goers in the Italian language: a cultural tradition that is no longer. The cultural uniqueness of the Italian Festival on Connecticut Street remains a special memory to me.

And I still yearn for that special time when being Italian, Italian pride, meant everything to me. It exuded through me in the way I thought, my family, the friends, the language, the religion, the food and the music. Sometimes I wish I could go back to 1976 through a time tunnel, and for that one day, experience again those vivid, Italian cultural images proudly on display. Admittedly, I don’t think I will ever stop yearning for and reminiscing about that special time, the 1970s, when Italian culture and pride was at a zenith and so tightly woven and expressed in our everyday activities and living contexts on the old West Side.