A Christmas lament: Arrivederci to all that was great and is lost

26 Dec

I belong to something called the Societa Romana Di Mutuo Soccorso, which is based in Trenton, N.J., the tired, failing city of my birth.

The name in English means the Roman Society for Mutual Aid. Until a few years ago, the group’s meeting minutes were recorded and read in Italian. That changed, along with everything else in Trenton. Today, the society’s name is misspelled all over the Internet, a sad state of affairs for a once noble organization.Roman Hall

The Roman Society is a fraternal group whose members have ancestral roots in Rome and its surrounding provinces. Founded by 13 men in 1896, its primary purpose was to provide sick and survivor benefits. The society’s motto is the applicable but mildly unoriginal, “One for all and all for one,” which sounds less cliché in Italian: “Uno per tutti e tutti per uno.”

Dues originally were 50 cents a month. More than a century later, they are $25 a year. This is quite a deal, especially if you attend the Christmas party, which is free.

When you walk into the party, as I did a few weeks ago, there is red and white wine on the tables, along with fresh Italian bread. The first course is always Italian wedding soup. Then a salad. Next is the big favorite: two kinds of pasta, served home style. One has a red sauce, the other a white. Everyone eats both. For entrees there is a choice of roast chicken, veal Parmesan or fish.

The tradition was that one week earlier there would be a party for the children and grandchildren of members. This also was free. The food was simple – hot dogs – but there was a magician, a very impressive Santa and a respectable gift for every child, like a basketball, a nice truck or a doll.

In the summer, there is a free picnic, a feast of near excess that goes far beyond the humble burger.

When I first became a member at my father’s urging, it was a mystery to me how $25 a year could cover all this. Then I learned that the sustaining element of the Societa Romana was something called the Roman Hall. It was what made the society great and of consequence.

The hall dates to 1938. Back then the nation had yet to whip the Great Depression, but the society and it 300 members had more than $14,000 in the bank. For such a time and for such an organization, this was an incredible sum. Seeing an opportunity, two members, Dr. Albert Moriconi and Sylvester Stella, decided the money should be used to allow Italians to do what Italians do best: cook.

And so the society, with its own money and its own labor, built the Roman Hall, a meeting place, restaurant and banquet facility. It was built in the Chambersburg section, a Trenton neighborhood filled with supportive Italians. The building is there still. It’s the Italians that have gone.

For many years the Roman Hall did well. Renovations and expansions were common. As a child I remember hearing people say with delight and anticipation, “We’re going to the Roman Hall tonight!” My family moved out of Trenton when I was young so I don’t have early memories of the place. When I grew up, however, I had the urge to return and erase this blank spot.

I visited shortly after the release of the film, “The Godfather.” I was home from college and living in a Philadelphia suburb with my parents.  My goal was a good meal but more importantly I wanted to experience some of the dripping Italianness I had seen in the Coppola film.

While I didn’t bump into any mobsters, the food and service were first-rate. The building – large, with many rooms — was brilliant white on the outside with black trim. The exterior was somewhat boxy but attempted a Romanesque style. The interior was heavy on columns, statues, gilded mirrors and chandeliers.

After I joined the society, it felt cool to be a member of an organization that owned something like the Roman Hall. I’d take my friends there for dinner, use my discount card and say only half in jest that I was a part owner.

Of course, I’d walk around like I was.

One of the reasons I joined the society was because my father said the hall paid dividends to members who held shares, that with each year you gained more shares, and that when a father died his member son would get his shares.

It seemed like a good investment.

But best of all were the Christmas parties.

They were lively, even though most attendees were very old. There wasn’t much going on except for talk, but this talk generated such energy. Much of it was about old times in the old neighborhood, Chambersburg. I would attend with my father, now 93, and mother, my wife and son, and sometimes my sisters’ families.

Often, there were people at our table we didn’t know. Still, after names and old addresses were exchanged, near ancient connections were always found.

“I knew your great-aunt,” a white-haired woman might say. “She lived down the street from the bakery, near the grocery store. Your grandmother was Cecelia. I knew her. She made great biscotti.”

One man asked where my family originally came from.

“My father’s father is from Perugia, in Umbria,” I said.

“You’re a Mountain Lion,” he responded. “A Mountain Lion.”

“What do you mean?”

“Your family is from the area around Monte Leone – the Lion Mountain. That makes you a Mountain Lion. You’re very stubborn and very strong. You will not let life defeat you.”

Pieces of information like that made the parties fun and deepened my identity; made me feel more complete.

Still, underlying all this frenetic chitchatting was an understated sadness. Chambersburg, home to the Italian culture, with modest but well-kept townhouses, great restaurants and bakeries, had somehow evaporated. People moved away as they prospered and became real Americans. Bankers, doctors, lawyers, politicians, publishers, commercial pilots. There was no longer a need to huddle together for protection. The immigrants and children of immigrants now could make it on their own.

As they did, something of inestimable value was lost.

What had been Italian transformed into something Hispanic.

Still, some refused to give up. They stayed.

“I was mugged for the fourth time last week,” a frail, wiry woman told me without a trace of fear in her voice. “They took my purse.”

Part of the problem with crime is the lack of good jobs in Trenton. It was once an industrial town with a broad manufacturing base. The dominant presence was the John A. Roebling mill that produced wire rope. The city was so proud of itself that on a bridge across the Delaware River it erected a huge sign proclaiming: TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES.

I cannot recall ever seeing such a pronounced, public boast by a city. I certainly cannot recall one that remained so public so long after it ceased to be true.

In Jersey, an amusing pastime is to update, add to, or parody the slogan with something like: WHAT TRENTON USES, THE WORLD REFUSES.

But when Trenton thrived, the money earned by Trentonians helped support local businesses, including restaurants like the Roman Hall. Its three banquet rooms – for groups of 55, 160 and 300 – were places where Italians and non-Italians celebrated joyful events.  Like many restaurants in Chambersburg, the Roman Hall had a reputation outside the city. It fed the likes of George H. W. Bush, Larry Holmes, Derek Jeter and an assortment of famous governors and senators. We lost out on Sinatra, who went down the road to Creco’s, perhaps the best of the Chambersburg restaurants.

I’m not sure what’s there now, but it’s not Creco’s.

When people stopped coming to the Roman Hall, the society tried different approaches to keep it going. None worked. Members debated over what to do. Some couldn’t stomach the idea of a sale. Others said it should have been done years ago. As the talk continued, things got worse. In 2009 a buyer was sought and found and the Roman Hall, as the Roman Hall, was no more.

It was replaced by something more fitting for the times: a Hispanic nightclub called the Infinity Lounge. The society holds the mortgage, so the detachment is not yet one hundred percent complete. I’m unsure if that is a consolation or a concern.Infinity Lounge

As might be expected, the Infinity Lounge has its critics. At a city council meeting there were complaints of loud music, public urination, unruly crowds and sex acts. On an Internet site, one person complained of vacant storefronts being plastered with posters for the Infinity and other “ghetto nightclubs.”

At the council meeting, Antonio Martinez, a lawyer for the club owner, defended the Infinity saying the neighborhood had been a “ghost town” and now life had been restored. He added that the Roman Hall never had a chance, that it existed only because it was being propped up.

“That restaurant survived because it was funded by the society of Roman Hall … otherwise it would have closed years ago,” he said.

He didn’t realize it was the hall that was supposed to prop up the society.

For the last three years or so, the society’s Christmas party was held at a place in suburban Trenton called Cedar Gardens.  The name is grander than the building, which resembles a down-at-the-heels relic from the 60s. The food was not bad, but the much-loved red and white pasta was no longer homemade fettuccine. It was penne and rigatoni from a box.

Another casualty was the children’s party.

Decisions on the fate of the Roman Hall were made at the hall during monthly meetings of the society. Before the working sessions there was always free pasta and beer. Throughout my membership I only went to one or two meetings. The hall is about an hour’s drive from my house and I couldn’t get there in time after work. Also, I guess the interest was never very strong. The society was really run by an old guard with ties to Trenton. As a Pennsylvanian, I felt like an outsider.

In addition, I somehow thought the Roman Hall would always be there.

Now that it’s over, now that the Roman Hall has lost its flesh and has been reduced to stories and memories, I wish I had been more involved. Maybe I could have found a real estate speculator to invest in the area. Much of dilapidated Philadelphia is coming back, with a strong interest in forgotten neighborhoods.

Why not Trenton?

I actually like the row houses in the blocks surrounding the Roman Hall. If they were fixed up, if the restaurants came back, the neighborhood would be ideal for employees of the one vibrant industry left in Trenton, state government.

In recent decades, the forces of decline have taken hold of so much that was enviable and worthwhile. Sure, we moved out of the city on our own, but – naively — we didn’t know that would destroy it.

Could it be that we deserved all the good things then and don’t deserve them now? Could it be that we wanted them then and really don’t want them now?

Either way, it troubles me how we casually watched it all go away. There was no fight. Was there even a way to win?

In science there is a concept called entropy, a gradual tendency toward disorder. A college professor told me time was the path on which entropy travels. Living today, in an eclipse, one can easily believe that. Little gets better. Instead, it unravels and decays.

Entropy.

But if science shows us anything, it shows us nature favor the cyclical. This leaves the possibility that the macro entropy of our cities, our economy and our culture will halt and reverse. Rebirth and growth might lie ahead.

With respect to the cities, the trend has already started. Young people like the urban culture, even with its grit and danger. They are moving back. Our cities may one day be great again, reverting back to the creative founts of thought, energy and commerce that would never be squandered or abused.

I can see it.

It just a shame that it won’t happen in time for next year’s Christmas party at the Societa Romana Di Mutuo Soccorso.

 –By Lanny Morgnanesi

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2 Responses to “A Christmas lament: Arrivederci to all that was great and is lost”

  1. Marie December 26, 2012 at 2:06 pm #

    As a fellow (female) Italian, i admit that i was hoping that the Roaman Hall would have a happy ending – although the title promised otherwise. Funny how we like to hold on to our roots as long as someone else does the work. I enjoyed and identifed with the story and it made me wonder why would we think that Trenton could hold on to an historic building when many in Italy motherland are meeting the same fate.

    Like

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