Many had left a shattered, postwar Italy hungry and broken, hoping to find work in Hamilton’s steel mills or factories, as well as an opportunity to rebuild their lives. The train station’s architectural articulation may not have been foremost on their minds but it would, in time, become the fulcrum and metaphoric piazza of their nascent community.
Hamilton’s North End, the neighbourhood surrounding the CN station, was gritty and rough, even inhospitable, but rents were cheap and the immigrants settled there in numbers. This Italian invasion, particularly in the 1950s, profoundly affected not only James Street, but the entire city of Hamilton, injecting vitality into a stagnant zone vacated by English, Scottish and Irish residents who had moved on to more affluent neighbourhoods.
It didn’t take the Italians long to make that neighbourhood and stretch of James Street North their own, opening grocery stores, barbershops, bakeries and café-bars. All Souls Church on nearby Barton Street gave Catholic services in Italian. The neighbourhood became known as Little Italy, and then Corso Racamulto, in homage to the Sicilian town from which some 10,000 of Hamilton’s Italian immigrants hailed. According to the most recent Canadian census data, Hamiltonians of Italian descent number some 72,000 and comprise the fourth largest ethnic group behind English,
Scottish and Irish. An estimated 30,000 of the Italians are from Sicily. “Italians have contributed to the very fabric of Hamilton,” says Nick Zaffiro, 87, whose parents came from Racalmuto in the early 1920s. Zaffiro, a lawyer, made his own pioneering contributions to the city, partnering with John Agro in 1949 to co-found one of Hamilton’s most prestigious and influential law firms. “The Italian community has thrived and prospered in Hamilton,” Zaffiro says, “not only as contractors and builders, but also as lawyers, doctors, accountants, educators and politicians.” This, despite serious impediments. During the Second World War, Zaffiro’s father, like so many Italian immigrants, was interned. “But my father, by then a Canadian citizen, never criticized the government. He knew he wasn’t a threat but understood the precaution.” Rather than gripe about bygone injustices, Zaffiro stresses that opportunity awaited those who persevered. “The great equalizer was education,” he says. “Italians have made inroads into every aspect of
Hamilton life,” says Pat Mostacci, 49, executive director of Villa Italia and vice chair of Festitalia Hamilton, a well-attended annual celebration of Italian culture and heritage. “After the Second World War, opportunities for work in the foundries keyed the community’s initial successes. But education allowed for full integration and participation.”
Anthony Macaluso, 37, vice-principal of Cardinal Newman High School in Hamilton, and the chair of Festitalia, echoes Mostacci’s conclusion. “Many immigrants came over uneducated,” he says, “but almost universally convinced that education as well as hard work was paramount – a belief that continues to resonate.”
Although Little Italy was always a warm and inviting place, the Italians had no wish to be ghettoized and spread out into the wider city. Like the English, Scots and Irish before them, they sought bigger and better houses to live in as they prospered and moved on. That said, Hamilton’s Little Italy has never lost its heart. Today it anchors a revitalized and vibrant downtown art and café scene – the haunt of artists, hipsters, bohemians and newer immigrants. The CN Station still stands in all its Beaux Arts grandeur. Now a National Historic Site, it was rebranded in 2000 as LIUNA Station after the Laborer’s International Union of North America (appropriately enough) bought and transformed it into an events centre with catering facilities.
And the Italian spirit remains as strong as ever in this steel town. “We may not be Italian-born,” concedes Mostacci, “but we’re made with Italian parts. And it’s important we pass on our cultural legacy to the next generation of Hamiltonians: our food, music, language and commitment to family.”