History of Italian-Americans in Buffalo, NY

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Year City of Buffalo Population Italian-American Population in Buffalo  
1850 42261 7  
1892 Roughly 260,000 2,500  
1900 352,387 6,000  
1910 423,715   More than 3/4 of all Buffalo residents were foreign immigrants. Buffalo ranked behind only New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Newark, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Jersey City as an Italian-American city.
1920 506,775 16,000 Italian-Americans represented 10% of foreigners and 7% of the total citizens. Only Poles and Germans outnumbered Italians in the city of Buffalo.
1930 570,760 20,000 Italians and Canadians were the only groups to continue to emigrate in large numbers after 1930

The Italians in Buffalo - An Overview

Excerpts from
"Ethnic Heritage Enriches Buffalo," by Anthony Cardinale, pub. in the October 12, 1980 edition of The Buffalo News

Although he was not a settler here, Paolo Busti is remembered as the general agent for the Holland Land Co. who conceived the plan for what is now Buffalo. in July 1802 this native of Milan wrote to Joseph EIlicott, the company land agent: "I take upon me to request you to lay out a plan for the town at the mouth of the Buffalo Creek."

Click on illustrations for larger size

Mayor Frank Sedita


Mayor Anthony Masiello


St. Anthony's RC Church


Holy Cross RC Church

Lafayette High School


Grover Cleveland High School


Holy Angels Church, Porter Avenue

The first Italian settler here was Luigi Chiesa in 1848. His name became Louis Church, and the former Italian revolutionary opened a shop at Genesee and Elm and sold bird cages and mouse traps.

Alter the first wave of immigrants from northern Italy came a larger wave from farther south -- from Abruzzi province in central Italy, from Calabria In the boot, from Sicily in the Mediterranean, Many Sicilians came to Buffalo at the beckoning of Francesco Barone, who arrived in 1882 from Vaile D'Olmo (Valley of the Elms). He shepherded the families of the unskilled farmers and encouraged them to send their sons into the medical and legal professions.

Arriving first on the waterfront, the Italians extended their area up to Niagara Street and Front Park and down to Eagle and Chicago streets. Their traditional neighborhood has been the West Side, but they were moving out past the city limits as early as 1900 and today are scattered throughout the area. Veriy much at home In the world, many second-generation Italians are indistinguishable from the general public except for their names.

Because of their dispersion, the city's ltalian-Americans have not had the political clout they might have had. They have elected only one Italian-American mayor -- Frank A. Sedita -- yet his three terms In office have made a lasting impression on all ethnic groups In Buffalo. [Since this newspaper article, written in 1980, Anthony Masiello was elected mayor in 1994.]

Italian Immigrants in Buffalo

Excerpts from
"Second Looks: A Pictorial History of Buffalo and Erie County," by Scott Eberle and Joseph A. Grande. Donning Co., 1993, pp. 93-95

Arrival of Italian immigrants: The forces that pushed and pulled immigrants from the various European countries were uneven. The misfortunes of war, famine, persecution, population growth, and economic collapse did not happen everywhere in Europe at once. This is why immigrants tended to arrive in waves, nationality by nationality.

In Italy drought and crop failure combined with heavy taxation to force people to leave. Fourteen thousand came to Buffalo in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. The opportunities that attracted immigrants often depended on some prior settlement. For the Italians who came to the Buffalo area, it was often the case that someone from a local village needed to blaze a trail before others would follow. They sent for their families later, when they had gotten a stake. It is estimated that (after 1001) as many as fifteen hundred passages to Buffalo per year were financed by relatives.

Work: As a rule men came first to do heavy labor in industry , to toil on the docks or work in construction. Often their labor was contracted for by the padrone. As a "patron" the padrone eased the transition to American industrial society. Labor organizers charged that often the patron became an exploiter who found jobs in construction or industry, but levied extortionate fees for his services. One sympathetic newspaperman estimated that "nine tenths of the failures of the Italian people in this country are due to the systems of these self-possessed friends of the working class." At best the work that they could get for their clients was not steady. Most could spend half of atypical year unemployed.

Partly out of necessity, but one suspects, in large part out of choice, Italian-Americans moved into family enterprises. They were particularly successful on the margins of Buffalo's industrial economy, in selling food, fruits and vegetables, or pasta products, and very occasionally as street musicians. Many later found success as barbers, greengrocers, cobblers and restauranteurs. Eventually these enterprises were a passport to the middle class.

Women had always worked seasonally in the fields in Italy, tending their children at the same time. In Buffalo, Italian women, wives and daughters, often worked under the direction of relatives. , Sometimes they earned extra money by seeing to the needs of boarders in their own homes. Unlike women of other ethnic groups, they did not often work outside the home. (Polish women were ten times more likely to do so). When they did venture out, it might be as migrant labor in the farms, canneries, and vineyards in Eden Center, or Fredonia. A respite from the crowded city, this was also work that could be done as part of a family group This way the traditional authority of the male head of the family could be sustained.

Work was never allowed to interfere with the task of raising children. Whatever had been lost in the potential of greater freedom and latitude for women (or for educational advancement for children) was gained in family stability. Divorce, desertion, and abandonment were very rare in Buffalo Italian society.

Prejudice: Italian immigration coincided with the worst nativist period in American history. Prejudice against these newcomers ran high.

Part of this stemmed from their very success at holding together, part in slipping between the cracks of the new industrial order. If they ingeniously found ways to recycle fabric, they were denounced as rag. pickers. When they spent long days selling fruit, starting early in established neighborhoods, and ending early in their own, they were accused of indolence. Successfully maintaining their community brought nativist charges of clannishness.

Neighborhoods: Even though Italy was officially united in 1870, that nation still reflected the divided history of its many feudal strongholds. Where other groups found unity here that transcended locality, Italian settlement in the city recalled the intensely local character of the old country. No fewer than five distinct colonies emerged in Buffalo:

Attachment to the old country remained deep. Even the poorest sent back money Not a few returned to Italy
with a relative fortune. The birth of children in this country helped cement the new bond.

It was true that the Italian neighborhoods were more densely populated than any other. To be sure, the teeming, noisy, and poor Italian neighborhoods had their share of street conflict and violence Lacking an indigenous tradition of fist-fighting probably had something to do with the frequent charge that Italians fought among themselves with knives. Clashes between Irish and Italian newsboys on Main Street are still part of local lore.

Language: Language of course is not just a matter of the printed word; conversation was a vital part of Italian-American identity. Originally there was a greater separation of dialect in the neighborhoods, but the language still acted as a kind of brotherly code. Elaborate nuances of gesture and body language made possible a special expressiveness of emotion and humor, a subtext that went beyond words.

Sometimes history leaves a trace that is audible. Linguists have identified a distinct Buffalo-Italian "ethnolect" that continues to be detectable in contemporary pronunciation. Outsiders are likely to call this the "Buffalo accent." The "a's" are flatter, the tones slightly nasal, and sometimes the grammatical constructions expose Italian or Sicilian roots. If, for most, fluency in the Italian language has long since evaporated, a familiarity lingers. Specialized vocabularies of dining, friendship, and insult hang on the longest.

Newspapers: A journal called "II Coriere," which began publishing in 1898, was the most solid of the Italian publications Twice weekly it carried notice of parish events, local crime stories, news from Italy, and serialized romance novels.

Lively political journals also flourished; among them, "L'Imparzial (hardly impartial)" and the partisan "La Voce Della Verta" ("the voice of truth").

The Italian community briefly supported a fearless lampoon called "Senza Paura," which after a name change reappeared as "La Vendetta." It proved to be a little too determined in its satire for what was, after all, a tightly knit community.

Italian Community in Buffalo
An Excerpt from
The"High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York." by Mark Goldman. Pub. by State U. of New York Press, Albany, 1983, pp. 180-181, 212

When Italian women did work outside of their homes, it was in such a way that their primary domestic functions were only minimally threatened or compromised. During the summers, for example, hundreds of Italian women, along with their mothers, grandmothers, children, cousins, and aunts, made pilgrimages to the orchards and canneries in the farm areas surrounding Buffalo. Here whole families worked together, picking and canning fruit and vegetables.

The communities created by Buffalo's Polish and Italian immigrants were similar in many respects. Sharply defined by class and ethnicity, identified by and named after a virtually endless litany of parish churches -- St. Anthony's, St. Gerard's, Assumption, Annunciation, St. Florian's, St. Stanislaus, Holy Angels, Holy Family, Corpus Christi, to name but a few -- they flourished, tribelike and tightly-knit, revolving around home, family, and neighborhood.

Behind the curtain of ethnicity that separated these communities from the rest of the city (contemporaries referred to them as "cities within the city"), there were great diversity. This was particularly true of the Italians. By 1910 Italians from hundreds of villages in sixteen different provinces -- such as Abruzzi, Calabria, Campobasso, and Campagna -- in southern Italy and Sicily lived in different parts of Buffalo. An intricate network of communication passed on the message about the New World in general and Buffalo in particular from person to person and family to family in Italy. Migrating by villages,

Whole communities were thus uprooted and transplanted virtually intact in Buffalo. In 1910, eight thousand of a total population of twelve thousand in the village of Vall D'Olmo, Sicily, lived together on the waterfront on Buffalo's lower West Side. Living in two-family wood-frame houses, with a smaller unit in the rear of the lot, three-generation extended families were the norm for the Italians in this section of the city. Brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, cousins, grandparents, grandchildren, and paesani living with them as boarders, all clustered tightly into these homes. No wonder the streets were crowded. Using them as an extension of their living quarters, the streets in Buffalo's immigrant communities served a public function unknown in more Americanized neighborhoods.

Migration by whole families, clans, and even villages provided strength and security, creating islands of refuge within the city where family, faith, home, and community sustained them against a new and uncertain world. For these communities were predictable, and in them the immigrants could find many of the same people and institutions that they had left at home. They knew where they were going; they had a place to stay and oftentimes a job waiting for them; and, more often than not, there were people to count on. There was always room for another paesan.

Employment for Italian Immigrants in Buffalo
Excerpts from
Family and Community; Italian Immigrants in Buffalo 1880 - 1930
Virginia Yans-McLaughlin
by Beverly J. Bauda

As indicated in PART 1, local Italians tended to send for families in Italy because of a strong support system here, and they usually clustered together with other "paesani". The 1905 census reported that over half of Immigrants coming to Buffalo were with families. This was very different from the statistics of other ethnic groups at that time, who generally left families behind.

Employment: Due to extremely poor housing and inadequate nutrition, infectious diseases and high infant mortality rates were prevalent. Economic hardships were severe because Italian families were still large, and many men worked only about five or six months per year.

Early twentieth century Buffalo was considered one of the world's great grain ports. Because Italian men were largely used to agricultural work, especially with grain and fruit production, they tended to stay away from factory work, unlike the Poles who were more used to industry in eastern European cities.

Due to their previously established work patterns in Italy, Italians here generally turned toward seasonal and part time outdoor work to supplement their incomes. This included canning factories and work in the Niagara and Chautauqua area vineyards. This was a natural adaptation for the Italians and canning factories here offered several advantages. First, jobs in canneries were considered more respectable than other industrial work. This allowed women to enter the workplace and to eliminate the stigma of welfare, which was avoided at all costs. Italians had one of the lowest rates of welfare acceptance than any other ethnic group.

Sicilians and the Lower West Side
Excerpts from
"Houses of Worship: A Guide to the Religious Architecture of Buffalo, New York," by James Napora. Master of Architecture Thesis. Found at Buffalo Central Library, pp. 99-101

Lower West Side: Encompassing the area from behind city Hall to Porter Avenue, the Lower West side has long been recognized for its Italian heritage. But long before their arrival here, the area served a pointedly different purpose.

Hemmed in by the Erie Canal on the West, the land immediately adjacent to the canal functioned in capacities related to the canal and shipping. Along the canal slips were cut inland to serve the water related industries such as boat makers and riggers. Numerous other industries competed for space on the lands immediately adjacent to the docks including several cotton and wool textile mills and a paint factory.

During the mid 1850s, residential development of the area began to occur. Unusual in the city, both rich and poor lived together in the area. Amongst the modest frame and brick cottages of the workers stood the larger, more imposing homes of the merchants and factory owners.

One of the most interesting areas in the Lower West Side can be found north of Virginia Street and west of Busti. Reduced to an area of two city blocks by well intended urban renewal efforts, the Efner/Trenton district is a reminder of the living conditions of dock workers in the 1870s and 1880s. Two blocks of small cottages line both sides of the streets providing the last visual link to the appearance of the area during its canal years. The street is named for Elijah D. Efner, a former president of Buffalo savings Bank, whose estate, Elmstone, originally included land in the vicinity of present day Seventh street.

Sicilian immigrants: The Sicilians settled on the Lower West side. Forced from their homeland by high taxes and continued crop failure, they arrived here seeking improved living standards. Initially, they did not find life here easy. Living amongst the cramped, dirty quarters of the Lower West Side, their numbers grew to the point that the area contained one of the highest population densities in the city. It was not unusual to find three generations of the same family residing in one two family home. Additionally, not all of them could find work. Conditioned by the agrarian lifestyle of their homeland, many sought 'employment in the fields south of the city. But the nature of that type of work left many of them unemployed for long periods of time. Others labored on the nearby docks while still others worked on constructing the infrastructure of the county.

Sicilian immigrants -- Social networks: By 1922, fifty benevolent societies existed in the city. Many of them, including the Madre Addolorata Society at Holy Cross Church, were founded by immigrants who banded together once again on a parish level. Organized in response to the dire poverty they encountered upon arriving here, members of such societies contributed to a fund and thus ensured that upon their deaths, they would receive a proper burial.

The most important outlet the Italians had however, was the church. Devoutly Roman Catholic in their convictions, their first house of worship, St. Anthony's, was organized with assistance from the homeland. It was here that the immigrant population of the Lower West Side met for spiritual fulfillment.

The parishioners also established the first Italian language school in the United States.

The parishioners also established the first Italian language school in the United States.

Sicilian immigrants -- Dr. Borzilleri: One of the most honored members of the Little Italy community was Dr. Charles R. Borzilleri. An immigrant from Valle D'Olmo in Sicily, he was a graduate from the University of Buffalo School of Medicine. Attune to the needs of the Italian community, he was instrumental in organizing Columbus Hospital as a community hospital in 1906. Primary to his objectives was to provide proper health care to the Italians. Here they were certain to be understood and would receive a diet suitable to their tastes.

Upper West Side: In the shadows of Fort Porter and the Connecticut Street Armory resided a considerable portion of the city's Italian population. As their numbers increased, it was only natural that their community expand laterally. By the 1920s, they had settled north of the Little Italy area on streets which originally bordered the Village of Black Rock.

Displaced by the decay of and Urban Renewal efforts in their original enclaves, they fostered a sizable community in the North Park area.

Louis Onetto
Excerpts from
"Buffalo: Lake City in Niagara Land,"by Brown, Richard C. and Watson, Bob. USA: Windsor Publications, 1981., pp. 122, 186-188

If Father John Pitass could be called the "Patriarch of Polonia," then Louis Onetto deserves a similar title for Buffalo's Italian-American west side. An early member of that community, he arrived as an 18-year-old in 1868, a generation before the heaviest immigration from Italy to the United States. He lived until 1943, only seven years shy of his 100th birthday.

Onetto's beginnings were modest, as were those of most immigrants. But he succeeded far above the level of the majority. . His businesses were different from the grain, steel, and chemical industries that dominated Buffalo's economy at the time. He opened an ice cream factory, a wholesale fruit business, and Buffalo's first macaroni factory

By 1892 Onetto was well known throughout Buffalo, and he was chosen to portray Christopher Columbus in the city's parade honoring the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America.

A religious man, Onetto helped in the building of St. Anthony of Padua, the first Roman Catholic Church in Buffalo with a congregation made up largely of Italian-Americans.

He was also instrumental in launching II Corriere Italiano, the first Italian-language newspaper in the city (photo).

The Italian Community of Buffalo and the Pan-American Exposition
Excepts from
The Italian Community of Buffalo and the Pan-American Exposition, created by The Libraries at University at Buffalo

Indeed, of the ethnic groups populating Buffalo during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Italians were the most residentially segregated. While this fostered a sense of identity among Italians, it also facilitated their exclusion from Buffalo's wider social life.

Italians were not well represented in the police force or in the political life of Buffalo. Supporting a family required considerable ingenuity, and usually several wage-earners, so most young people were unable to attend school beyond age 13. A few Italian immigrants had become doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs in Buffalo; the whole community celebrated when became the first Italian graduate of University at Buffalo Law School in

Buffalo's Italians and the Pan-American Exposition: It is not surprising to find that Italian immigrants in Buffalo worked as stonecutters, skilled craftsmen, and laborers in the construction of the Pan-American Exposition.

In addition to their contributions in building the Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo's Italians were represented by the many who staffed the Midway concession, "Venice in America" (photos). The gondoliers and mandolinists, some hired directly from Italy, some from the Italian community in Buffalo, were a memorable part of the Exposition. "Venice in America" highlighted many of the cultural treasures of Italy. Some of the mandolinists or guitarists employed at the Venice in America concession were: Antonio Gugino, Giuseppe Leone, Ciro Laduca, Luigi Lomanto, Liborio Maggio, Giuseppe Ortolani, Salvatore Ortolani, Giuseppe Vacanti.

The following excerpt from Richard Barry's "The Grandeurs of the Exposition," certainly romanticized "Venice in America".

Venice in American is the chief landing dock of the boats that make the most delightful trip within the Exposition grounds: the canal route that circumnavigates the rainbow city by day and the city of light by night.

The Venetian gondoliers chant their gay songs there, and many a carol of midnight joy rings across the silent water. Not even the clearest, softest note from the silvery throat of the most celebrated contralto can equal the lustrous diapason of delicious melody that floats as free and languorous from the lips of those Venetian boatmen and laughing soubrettes as the song of the red-breasted thrush at daybreak.

It dies away in the night air like the memory of a dream while in the distance, with soft lamps from the neighboring bazaars shedding their soft radiance on the canal, and with boatloads of people gliding through the luminous water to tinkling guitars and clattering castanets buxom girls in blue dance and blithesome tarantella.

At the turn of the century, Italian music, especially opera, popular songs and instrumental music, was very popular in Buffalo and throughout the United States. Italian-American bands including the Scinta band (Buffalo) (photos) and the Fanciulli band (New York), played at the Exposition and were in high demand for concerts, dances and social events. There were no microphones or electric amplifiers, and recorded music on wax cylinders was only available to the wealthy.

The Johnson Immigration Restriction Law
An Excerpt from
The"High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York." by Mark Goldman. Pub. by State U. of New York Press, Albany, 1983, p. 212

The Johnson Immigration Restriction Law: In late 1923 and early 1924 it became increasingly clear that the Johnson immigration restriction bill, favored by die-hards throughout the United States, would become law. The bill, more so than the legislation of the early 1920s, threatened to end completely the whole character of American immigration. The bill was a direct assault on the eastern European Catholic and Jewish communities in cities throughout the Northeast. A major source of urban vitality was ending.

The number of Poles permitted to immigrate dropped from 26,000 to 9,000 a year, Italians from 42,000 to 4,000, Czechs from 14,000 to 2,000, Hungarians from 5,000 to 688, and Greeks from 3,000 to 235.

Families, neighbors, and villagers would far less frequently be united on the streets and neighborhoods of America's cities. And yet, for some unexplained and mysterious reason, there was little attempt within these communities, at least in Buffalo, to fight the bill.

Italian-influenced Styles of Architecture in Buffalo

Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 1985
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