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Oral history interview conducted by Gregory Ruf
May 17, 1994
Call number: 1994.007.04
RUF: This is an interview for The Brooklyn Historical Society/Chinatown HistoryMuseum Oral History Project on Sunset Park, Brooklyn, 8th Avenue. This interview is with Lou Castaldo. It's being conducted by Gregory Ruff. This is May 17th, 1994, and the interview is being conducted at Vinnie's Pizzeria on 59th Street and 8th Avenue.
CASTALDO: May I also interject that it's May 17th, happens to be the day ofNorway's independence. I wanted to mention that because 8th Avenue not very long ago was very much a Scandinavian community. My name is Louis Castaldo, and I'm the son of Vinnie Castaldo, who owns Vinnie's Pizzeria, which is now located at 1:005912, 8th Avenue. We were originally located, in 1970, at 5904 8th Avenue. We were there for a period of fifteen years.
RUF: That's right across the street from where you are now? Or a few doors down.
CASTALDO: A few stores down. 5904 now is the donut store.
RUF: That's the Greek place? That's Pete's place? [Interview interrupted]
CASTALDO: My father is the third owner of the pizzeria, when Dad came to work inthe store in 1969. He hesitated at that time to purchase the business, because 2:00there was a bad element of drugs on 8th Avenue, which frightened two previous owners away from the store. Both were younger than my father, but my father being a fighter remained these years, and I thought that was important to mention. So many people, in discussing the past, seem to only remember the glory and the nice things, but I think it's important with history to remember the truth, and 8th Avenue in 1969, 1970 had its share of problems. Drugs was one of them. Already in 1969 the Scandinavian families had moved from the community, and other people were moving because of the fear of a neighborhood that was decaying like a rapid cancer at that time. 3:00
RUF: What do you attribute that to?
CASTALDO: Well, many families on 8th Avenue, their children no longer wished tostay in the neighborhood, and they moved away, and, how can I say --what can I say? Why does a neighborhood decay? There's various reasons why neighborhoods decay, but people were moving, and out of the neighborhood. A lot of people who lived in the neighborhood weren't putting money into their real estate. Many of the people were already older who were then living here, but all the reasons, I really wouldn't know why. 4:00
RUF: Up until that point, it had been predominantly Scandinavian? Is that fairto say?
CASTALDO: Well, I was told that the neighborhood started to change by the mid1960's, about 1965. When my father purchased the store in 1970, many Greeks were already here. It seemed to be the new flow of immigrants were from Greece, and many remained here and still are living in the community. Others had left it and moved to upper Bay Ridge.
RUF: When they moved out, who came in to take their place?
CASTALDO: When the Greeks moved out?
CASTALDO: Well, it seemed that the neighborhood went from Scandinavian, and thenactually, various ethnic groups were coming into the neighborhood, but it seemed the Greeks were probably the largest in the mid 1960's late 1960's along the 8th 5:00Avenue in 50's, 60's and 50'ss, in streets.
RUF: Were the late 60's difficult times economically?
CASTALDO: I wasn't on 8th Avenue in the late 60's, so I don't really recall whatwas going on here.
RUF: How about when your dad bought the shop and turned it into his store? Howwere the first few years?
CASTALDO: Well, as far as business is concerned? Business was fine. We had avery lively business going for quite a few years. It seemed as though everyone kind of liked pizza, and we tried to fit in, I recall, very much. My father first purchased the store, we didn't want to seem as though we were stereotype 6:00immigrants, so we had found a Sicilian cart, and we had found scenes of Italy, and I chose to remove all that from the store to make it appear to be more American, as the neighborhood was very much American at that time.
RUF: Your clientele was quite mixed?
CASTALDO: My clientele was predominantly Scandinavian, and many Irish customers.We had a couple of Italians and quite a bit of Greeks, but it was mixed. Mostly Scandinavian, but mixed.
RUF: Now, you mentioned before that your father bought the store on [dateredacted for privacy] 1970?
RUF: Dos that give you a particular personal affiliation with the place? Do youfeel somehow tied to it?
CASTALDO: No. I always had a love for the people in the community. I would saythat this area retained very much of the small town atmosphere.
RUF: In what way? How would you describe that?
CASTALDO: I would say that everyone pretty much knew each other, and mycustomers who came in the store, you addressed by Mr. and Mrs. so-and-so. It was Mrs. Coffee, and Mrs. Gallo, and you did address your customers by their last 8:00name. At that time I was yet a boy, so I addressed my customers by their last name. Since I was fifteen years old, I lived in many different areas, never knew any neighbors for such a prolonged period of time as I did here, so that alone, the time that I've known so many people, it makes you feel close to people. I think so.
RUF: Were you the only one that worked in the store along with your father, ordid you hire people outside the family?
CASTALDO: Well, we had a man by the name of Tony who worked with my father forsome time, and Tony worked with us from 1971 until his unfortunate death in 1982. He was an epileptic, and he had passed away one day with an epileptic seizure. 9:00
RUF: Now, you mentioned a few minutes ago that when you opened up the store andyou found the Sicilian cart and things like that that you made a decision to sort of make the store rather American, as much as you can. Was that a big concern in your mind at that point in your life? To present yourself as an American, per se, as opposed to an Italian, or whatever other forms of identity you had?
CASTALDO: Well, in 1970, I think attitudes towards immigrants were a little bitdifferent. You wanted to melt in. You wanted to be part of mainstream America, and therefore you did not separate yourself if you wanted to be considered an American. And I personally felt that all the ethnic scenes of Italy and the 10:00Sicilian cart and all of that would kind of label me as being an Italian, and I felt I was an American first before an Italian.
RUF: Did your father feel the same way?
CASTALDO: Yes, yes indeed he did.
RUF: He was first generation? He immigrated himself?
CASTALDO: My father came here from --actually, my father came to the UnitedStates prior to the Second World War, and he went back and he lived in Argentina, and then Dad came to the United States after living in Argentina for a number of years.
RUF: So he went from Italy to the States, and then from the States back to Italy?
RUF: And then from Italy again to Argentina, and then from Argentina again tothe States? Wow, that's a long, circuitous route to come back. What originally 11:00motivated him to leave Italy and emigrate?
CASTALDO: Well, my father was a he worked on boats. My father was a worked onthe boats, and he was also in the navy for awhile. The Italian Navy.
RUF: Did he have relatives, or family here in the States when he made his firsttrip here?
CASTALDO: No one. Absolutely no one.
RUF: He came sort of carving his own path.
CASTALDO: He had friends, several friends, but as far as family, absolutely no family.
RUF: And what was it that took him back to Italy? How long did he stay in theStates the first time?
CASTALDO: Well, my father stayed in the United States for his first trip just ashort while. Of course he went back. His family was there, brothers and sisters, and his mother. My father then left Italy and went to Argentina, which I know he 12:00lived there more than a year. After Argentina Dad went back to see his family, and then made his final trip to the United States, and he's been here since 1947.
RUF: Oh, wow. What part of Italy did his family come from?
CASTALDO: My father comes from a little island off of Naples called Procida.
RUF: Why Argentina? Why make a trip down there?
CASTALDO: I unfortunately don't know. Many Italians were going to Argentina forwork in the 40's. Argentina was a country where there was work and a lot of money. That actually I do know.
CASTALDO: So should I answer that?13:00
RUF: No. When he came, do you know anything about what it was like for him whenhe first arrived?
CASTALDO: Yes. My father settled in an old community which is today calledCarroll Gardens. Carroll Gardens at the time my father arrived in 1947, many people from his own hometown had settled there, so Carroll Gardens was predominantly an Italian community. Not only was it Italian, but many of the people were from the same regions in Italy that Dad was from. If they weren't from Procida, they were from Monte di Procida, or they were from Naples. So he found it easy for that. I know the area at one time had many Scandinavians, but 14:00by 1947 there was a large Italian population in that part of Brooklyn.
RUF: Did he find it easier to find an apartment or to find work because therewas an established Italian community there already?
CASTALDO: Well, he definitely found it easier. He ran into two friends from hisown hometown, and they took an apartment together. They had a floor for themselves, and they were pretty happy. Men cooked each night, one would take on the cooking, and one would take on the cleaning of the dishes, and that's pretty much the way they lived.
RUF: The three of them, in a one bedroom? Two bedroom? Do you know anythingabout the apartment?
CASTALDO: Well, the brownstones down in Carroll Gardens section were row rooms.I don't know the arrangement that they had, but I'm sure that they had enough 15:00room. They were certainly not crowded conditions.
RUF: What did your father do for a living when he first got here?
CASTALDO: Well, my father is a baker by trade, a bread baker, and Dad bakedbreads. He also did deli work in Italian salumeria as far as cold cuts, so whatever he was offered, that's what Dad would take.
RUF: This is something he had learned in Italy?
RUF: The trade as a baker? Is it something his family had done, or he broke into that?
CASTALDO: No, my father and his brother broke into it. My uncle is a baker. Hebakes professional cakes for weddings and special occasions.
RUF: Did your father maintain a lot of contact with his family and relatives inItaly after he settled here?
CASTALDO: Maintain a lot of contact? Unfortunately my father did not go back to16:00Italy the way he would have liked to. Dad could not afford to go. He was working hard to raise a family. Dad did write much and he did speak a lot on the telephone to his mother and father, but as far as going back and forth, no. I think Dad would always regret that he couldn't go back and forth the way he wished to.
RUF: He arrived in the states in '47, right?
RUF: And when did he become a citizen?
CASTALDO: I believe my father became an American citizen before I was born, soit had to be 1954. 17:00
RUF: And when did he get married?
CASTALDO: In 1951.
RUF: In '51. And how did he meet your mother?
CASTALDO: They met on an Italian show. My mother always liked Italian music, andDad went to an Italian show. I'm not sure if it was at the Brooklyn Paramount, but they were at a show, and Dad had met her there for the first time.
RUF: What was her background like?
CASTALDO: My mother comes from an Italian American family.
RUF: She was born here in the states?
CASTALDO: Mom was born in Brooklyn on Carroll Street in Carroll Gardens sectionof Brooklyn. My mother, like her mother, married an Italian from Italy. I say from Italy -I prefer non-Italian American. I don't want to use the word immigrant. My grandfather arrived in the United States in 1923, and my 18:00grandfather was certainly an American citizen by the time my mother was born in 1927. My grandparents were married in 1926. Grandma met my grandfather at--[Interview interrupted.]I'll finish that, I'm sorry. My grandmother met my grandfather at a movie theater. Grandpa used to play music, clarinet and saxophone. He played background music for one of the theaters in the city.
RUF: For the cinemas? Where they would show movies?
CASTALDO: Right. The silent movies.
RUF: Was that an Italian orchestra? Or he just happened to get a job with other musicians?19:00
CASTALDO: No, I believe he just got jobs with other musicians.
RUF: Now, in terms of your family, do you have many brothers and sisters? Didyou have a big family growing up? Small family?
CASTALDO: I have a brother who's two years older than I am. I have a sisterwho's five years younger than I. And my mother had her last child when she was in her late 30's who's considerably younger than the rest of us. She was born in 1966, so Mom had her first child in '53 and her last in '66, so we're thirteen-from the oldest to the youngest is thirteen years apart.
RUF: Wow. And where were you living when you were born?
CASTALDO: I was born in Brooklyn on 76th St. and 21st Avenue.
RUF: And what was life like for you as a child?20:00
CASTALDO: Well, I grew up in an area that was predominantly Jewish American,Italian American. Bensonhurst. With the exception of Israeli families that had recently moved in, the Golumbus', that my brother and I became very close with later on. Most of the kids in the community were Jewish American. Their parents were born here. Very often their grandparents were born here. But the Jewish people were originally from either Poland or Germany. How was it growing up in a Jewish community? Well, on Saturday, when all your friends would go for delicatessen you would want to go for delicatessen, and on the Sukkos holiday 21:00sometimes we were a little envious for not having a Sukkos tent and having a feast outside, just I'm sure, as many Jewish friends of mine wished to have a Christmas tree. So it's kind of humorous, but yeah, I remember that. I remember being envious of not having the tent for Sukkos.
RUF: Would you ever go in a tent or observe or participate?
CASTALDO: Of course I would.
RUF: What would one do at a Sukkos?
CASTALDO: Well, Sukkos is a feast. It's a harvest feast.
RUF: Now, were you very close with your siblings? With your brothers andsisters? You're all spread out like that.
CASTALDO: I was not very close with my brother, not having an interest inbaseball and football. My brother is a big Yankee fan, and growing up my brother 22:00was all for baseball, and my interest was more in coins. I was a coin collector since the time I was ten years old, and I had a love for antiquity, and an interest in the past.
RUF: Did you find much support for those interests and hobbies? Were there otherchildren your age, or adults that -
CASTALDO: Well, I met a friend of mine who --we're still very close friends. Hisname is Raymond, and he lives outside of the town that you're from. He's living now in Hopewell. And Ray and I met in 1965, and he's been my closest friend all my life, and he was interested in coins, and we shared that together. 23:00
RUF: How'd you meet?
CASTALDO: Actually, his mother just picked me up off the street shortly aftershe moved in, and she asked me how old I was. And I had said that I was ten, and she says, "I have a son just your age, and I want you to meet him."
RUF: Oh really?
CASTALDO: Yeah, that's how I met Raymond.
RUF: That's great. Were you very close with his mom as well?
CASTALDO: Oh yes. Mrs. Gulinovitch was a wonderful person. A woman who wasn't inthe best of health. She had a heart condition since she was sixteen years old, but somehow with all her sickness, she was always so full of life, and always enjoyed being around her to this day.
RUF: Now, when you were born, were you still living in Carroll Gardens at that time?
CASTALDO: No, my family had left Carroll Gardens a long time before. My motherhad left Carroll Gardens when she was just a little girl. So, my family had --my 24:00grandparents had moved into Borough Park by the time of the Second World War, and that's where they bought their first home on 43rd St. and 10th Avenue.
RUF: And how long did they stay there?
CASTALDO: They stayed there until they had a home built on Ocean Parkway andAvenue X, it was a new home, until 1954.
RUF: Now, when your father and mother were married, did they live with yourmother's parents at all?
CASTALDO: Yes, they did for one year.
RUF: For one year. The first year of their marriage?
CASTALDO: The first year they were married.
RUF: And then got their own place?
CASTALDO: Well, but I understand from my mother and my aunt, in 1950 my aunt wasmarried. My aunt, my mother's sister Vincenze. She was married in 1950, and Mom was married in '51, and it was just right after the war, the Korean War, and 25:00apartments were very scarce to come by in Brooklyn. So even if you had money it was just scarce. I know my mother's first apartment, she had a two room apartment and was paying some 60 dollars, which was considerable money in 1952 for an apartment. And I had an aunt who lived down the basement. There were just no apartments available.
RUF: When you were a child growing up, aside from your coin collecting, yourantiquities interest, what did you guys do for fun?
CASTALDO: What did we do for fun? Growing up in Brooklyn? Well, many of the boysplayed stickball in the street. We played Skelly in the street.
RUF: Skelly. What's that?26:00
CASTALDO: Skelly is a board game that's very much an old Brooklyn game, I wouldassume. RUF: How did you play? How do you play that?
CASTALDO: Well, [Interview interrupted.] there were two small disks and theobject of the game was that you would have to go through each number and then go backwards to one, and you would have to go around these S's that were called Skelly, and if you went into Skelly, you were out of the game. But I don't know if I'm describing that all very well.
RUF: No, that's interesting. I'm not familiar with this game. So it was a streetcorner game? A sidewalk game?
CASTALDO: That was a street game. It's hard to imagine, but since the 1960's,27:00the amount of traffic in Brooklyn has more than doubled, so it was a little bit easier to have such street games in the street, such as Skelly, without cars passing every other minute.
RUF: Lou, are you married yourself?
CASTALDO: No, I'm not.
RUF: You're not married. When did you first get introduced to 8th Avenue?
CASTALDO: Well, actually I came to 8th Avenue prior to my father having thestore. I came down here when I wasn't supposed to come down. Leave that neighborhood as a young boy, the Sons of Norway, which was located directly across from our store, where the present day mosque is, was the Sons of Norway. And they had coin shows, and being interested in coins, I would go to the Sons 28:00of Norway for their shows and purchase many nice coins at the shows.
RUF: Did your father or your mother, would they approve of that if they found out?
CASTALDO: Well, my father was always a lot easier. It's funny that I'm sayingthat because my father was a very --always had a long face, but actually my father was a little bit easier as far as allowing me to do what I really wanted to do, where Mom was more the overprotective one. She didn't want you out of the neighborhood. She didn't like the idea. And if I was spending money, she was concerned that I wasn't sure of what I was doing. That I would lose lots of money buying these coins. But it took a long time before she trusted me and realized that I did in fact know what I was doing a good deal of the time anyhow. 29:00
RUF: Was money a big concern for the family when you were young? Did you have towatch pennies, watch quarters, watch where you would shop carefully?
CASTALDO: Oh, definitely. My father worked and he was the only one working inthe house when I was growing up. We did have to watch our money, although -
RUF: Was he baking at that time?
CASTALDO: My father worked as a baker. Worked baking pizzas before he bought hisown place. We were never really deprived of anything as far as clothing or having an opportunity to go away places, but I mean, I look at what the kids do today and how they spend money, and it's so very different.
RUF: What's the biggest thing that stands out in terms of your perception ofwhat kids spend money on today?
CASTALDO: What stands out in my mind with kids? It's not one particular thing.30:00It's the whole fact that they have a great deal of money in their pockets and make decisions to purchase what they want when they want it that really surprises me.
RUF: When you were a kid the purse strings were much more tightly controlled?
CASTALDO: Without a question. I mean, when we were growing up Christmas was aspecial time. Birthdays were a special time, because we didn't receive presents throughout the year. I mean, there were exceptions where Mom or Dad did treat us, and that they did, but basically, it was Christmas and your birthday that you would receive presents. Easter time was a time of the year when it meant 31:00getting a new suit or a sport jacket, but you always got new clothes for Easter. You didn't just buy clothes when you needed clothes. Most of your shopping was done prior to school opening and Easter time, when you had to look a little special to go to church on that Easter Sunday. So I would say that was very different than today.
RUF: Were there particular gifts you would expect to get a Christmas time or ona birthday? Is there a type of gifts? Something along the line of clothing [inaudible]?
CASTALDO: Well, Easter time I remember my father's brother had a bakery, and wewould usually get a chocolate egg, and we would always hope that it wouldn't be Italian chocolate, because that was quite bitter, and I remember how I despised the Italian chocolate, and I always wanted milk chocolate, not that bitter chocolate. 32:00
RUF: Do you ever miss it now? Bitter Italian chocolate?
CASTALDO: No. I have never acquired a taste for it. Matter of fact, I don't evenparticularly care for chocolate at all. But I think that was special growing up. There were certain days that were special. One day was not the same as another day, and that was certainly true about the holidays. Christmas time was a very special time.
RUF: In what way?
CASTALDO: Well, certain foods that were served during that holiday. You didn'talways have, and there were special baking that was done that was not done all the time. So that was special. And the whole family being together was always a warm, beautiful feeling.
RUF: When you say the whole family, who would that include?
CASTALDO: Well, at that time of course, the family was always, coming from an33:00Italian family, Grandpa was the head of the household. And after his death, it was like, really someone very important did pass away. But your grandfather was the head of the household. It was your grandparents, and you would spend it with, usually your mother's family, which was my mother's sister, who passed away a few years ago.
RUF: So it was a time that would bring cousins together as well.
CASTALDO: Right. But I grew up in a house which my grandparents owned, and welived in the same house, and so did my mother's sister. So we did see each other practically every day.
RUF: What do you remember about going to school as a child in Brooklyn?
CASTALDO: What do I remember about growing up, going to school in Brooklyn.Well, I went to a very small school located on 21st Avenue, Public School 247. I 34:00can still remember the cornerstone, dated 1936. I remember that we had a lot of elderly teachers when I was in school, a lot of elderly teachers. And what I can remember that really stands out in my mind, I guess it will forever, is the assassination of JFK, and how teachers ran in the hallway and just left us in the classroom, panicking -well, perhaps panicking is the wrong word, but crying and carrying on that the president was assassinated. I remember that. I remember walking to school. I remember the terrible, terrible smell from the cafeteria, that I always thought was the cooking, but later on in life I realized that 35:00there was always broken windows, and it was the glaziers who left the smell, and it wasn't the cooking at all. In fact, I go to that school to vote today, so I'm living in that neighborhood again. But I remember that. The elderly teachers, and always having to wear a tie, and assembly day was a white shirt and navy blue pants and a red criss-cross tie.
RUF: This is public school?
CASTALDO: Public school, yes. We had a code of dress right up until Junior high school.
RUF: Was religion a big part of your life growing up?
CASTALDO: Was religion a big part of my life. I think I chose religion to bepart of my life. I came from a family, perhaps, where religion was more a tradition than -religion was in many ways a tradition. We inherited being 36:00Catholic like an old family heirloom, and there was no --we were told we had to go to catechism, and we went to catechism or religious instructions twice a week. We made our first Holy Communion at the church. Later on we went to a, went on for our confirmation. I was a boy scout from the age of 11, and I guess our scout leaders were both Jewish. Mr. AI Merenstein and Mr. Franklin were two 37:00wonderful, wonderful men, but they always enforced that the Catholic boys would go to church on Sunday.
RUF: Oh, they would?
CASTALDO: Yes, so we were forced to go to church in the boy scouts.
RUF: What was your scout troops like? What sort of composition did it have?
CASTALDO: Well, we met at the Jewish War Veteran post on 20th Avenue and 67thSt., and it was a storefront, and our --most of the boys that were members of the troops were Jewish. Some of them were from --well, they lived in France, originally from Egypt, came to the United States. In the early 60's when many 38:00Jews were forced out of Egypt, they went to France and Italy in the early 1960's. You ask me what was it like being a member? It was a whole lot of fun. It was a whole lot of fun. We always looked forward to our outings, and we went to scout camps in the summer. RUF: Where?
CASTALDO: We went to Ten-mile River, which is in Pennsylvania. We used to havejubilees and jamborees --jamborees, excuse me --in New Jersey. I recall that. 39:00
RUF: And that would bring a whole bunch of young people together?
CASTALDO: It would bring scouts from all over the city to compete with oneanother. I remember one particular year in 1966 I had this very foolish thing that I had to light ten matches, wooden matches that have a white head on, and I came in third place in the city. And my fellow scouts, they were proud of that.
RUF: How did you light them?
CASTALDO: An axe. Yeah. We had to light the matches with an axe.
RUF: So you sort of just grazed the side?
RUF: Wow. That's sounds pretty impressive.
CASTALDO: It was a lot of fun.
RUF: So the activities in the jamborees would be related to camping?
CASTALDO: Right, the jamborees was an opportunity once a year where various40:00troops in the city would compete with one another in their scout skills. Our troop would build a monkey bridge. We would compete in how fast one could make a sling and bandage someone up. Very often I would be the person they would bandage all up, and it was fun. A whole lot of fun. But I remember growing up in Brooklyn all those years is that what was very popular were racing cars. We would go to --the HL cars, I should say. We would go to these hobby shops on Kings Highway --there were two of them. One was Sal's, and Saul's. Sal was the owner of the cars, and Saul ran a little coin and stamp store, which was part of the hobby center, and that was a very popular thing in the late 60's, was to go 41:00to a hobby shop and race cars. Probably equally as popular --well, maybe I can't make the comparison --but, as a lot of the pinball games are today, or what do you call them?
RUF: Video games.
CASTALDO: Video games, today.
RUF: You have been familiar with life on 8th Ave. since about when?
CASTALDO: Since the 1970's when we came here.
RUF: Since you came here. Now originally you were a few stores down?
CASTALDO: Two stores down.
RUF: And you moved up here. What motivated the switch?
CASTALDO: Well, the reason we had moved was we didn't know that building, andthe homeowner had sold the building. We had an option to buy it. My father chose not to, and we had to get out when the new owner was there, so we moved in here.
RUF: Do you rent the storefront?42:00
RUF: Is your landlord Chinese? There are many Chinese in the area
CASTALDO: My homeowner is Chinese, yes.
RUF: Is this the only storefront in the building? I didn't notice what thebuilding looks like outside. The homeowner for this building, is this the one piece of commercial property attached to the building?
CASTALDO: We have two families living above.
RUF: Two families living above.
CASTALDO: Above the store, but Mr. Fung, who is our homeowner, has been on theAvenue as long as we have, so I've known him for many years before the neighborhood has changed so much.
RUF: Does he own many buildings in the area?
CASTALDO: I don't know. I don't believe so. To my best knowledge, this is theonly building he owns in this area.
RUF: You mentioned when the area started to change. Could you put a time frame43:00on that? When did you begin to notice important changes?
CASTALDO: Well, I think, you know, this neighborhood like other neighborhoodshas been changing gradually, but as far as the change that became so apparent --the change from an American neighborhood that had many different ethnic groups into a neighborhood that was predominantly Asian --started taking place probably, I would say, in 1979, 1980.
RUF: And has the growth of the Asian population been very fast?
CASTALDO: Has the growth been very fast? Well, time passes so quickly, it's hardto say. I would say it's been pretty fast. Particularly the stores along the 44:00Avenue. But a there was a period where there were many empty stores along 8th Avenue, so it made it very easy for those who wanted to come into the community just to take over those empty stores.
RUF: Why do you think that happened, that stores closed up or emptied out? Whenwas that?
CASTALDO: Well, we came here in 1970, and there were a number of stores thatwere empty and there were many stores that were turned into apartments, like it was in other parts of the borough. Why did that happen? Why did the neighborhood have so many empty stores? It's really various reasons, but the number one 45:00reason is that people who were here just felt that they could not make it on 8th Avenue, and a little difficult to stay on 8th Avenue, and -
RUF: Were there problems with crime?
CASTALDO: There was problems with crime, yeah. There were problems with crimealong the avenue. How much that influenced people not to have a store, I don't know.
RUF: What sort of turnovers have you seen in terms of the business? When you gotsettled here in 70 or so, the stores that were open and still running, what were they sort of like? What services, or what businesses, did most of them cater to when you came?
CASTALDO: When we came here in 1970, we had a lovely German delicatessen across46:00the street from us, and we had a Norwegian bakery called Peterson's on the corner from us. We had a--well, there was a discount store that did quite well, and there were more delis and more bars. There were many bars on the Avenue.
RUF: Many bars?
CASTALDO: Yeah, on the average, I would say there were two bars on every block.
RUF: No kidding? Did they have mixed clienteles? Or did people patronize aparticular bar all the time? Were there loyalties to certain owners?
CASTALDO: Well, coming off of 62nd St. there was a bar on the corner which isnow a Chinese fruit and vegetable store, that particular bar, I recall, had gone 47:00topless, so that was a certain element that you would have in there. Then you had, as you walked down a little further, the soccer tavern, which is still there. That was predominantly --it was an Irish owned bar, and many Norwegians would go there, as they still do. Then we had, on the corner of 60th St. and 8th Avenue, excuse me, the Matchbox, which seemed to attract a motorcycle gang for a long time, so that was all very young people that would go to that bar. And the other bars were for older people.
RUF: [Interview interrupted.]Some people have referred to this area of Brooklyn,48:00particularly along 8th Avenue, as New York's third Chinatown. How do you react to that sort of characterization?
CASTALDO: I personally?
CASTALDO: [Interview interrupted.] I was going to say, I personally resent it. Ithink rather than moving forward, we're moving backwards. [Interview interrupted.] 49:00
RUF: Yeah, backing up then, some people have talked about the area being a thirdChinatown. What are your reactions to that sort of characterization?
CASTALDO: I resent the characterization of our community being called Chinatown.first of all, when you call an area a Chinatown, to me it's disregarding all the other people that still live in this community. I find it a bit arrogant. It's saying, we're here and no one else who's been here counts anymore. When I use the word -when I said that I resent the word Chinatown being used, I think it's 50:00time for us to move forward, and not backwards, and I think by having little ghettos, whether they're Chinese or Italian or Jewish communities, I think it too frequently breeds racism. I think it's time for people to live together in communities, various groups of people. That's what New York City's supposed to be, the melting pot. And I resent very much that it's a melting pot that has not begun to melt yet. Through all these years, we still have little ghettos, and I resent that that continues to happen in our city.
RUF: I noticed outside nowadays the flags that are going up along 8th Avenue onthis block.
CASTALDO: Well, I was told that originally the flags were to represent the51:00Olympics, the 24 countries of the Olympics. But I think here on 8th Avenue it's taken on a new meaning. It's the diversity of people that are on 8th Avenue, and I think that many stores, including myself, it's our way of saying, hey, the Chinese aren't the only people here. We've been here a long time, and we intend to remain here whether certain people like it or not. This is our businesses, this is our neighborhood, and we want to stay. This represents the diversity, and hopefully, to many of the Chinese, it also represents the fact that we can get along, all these different nations in one community. Whether you're Chinese, or Greek, or Lebanese, or Italian and Irish and Norwegian. We can all work together in the neighborhood.
RUF: Do you find that nowadays there are particular sorts of businesses that52:00face particularly uncertain futures? You talked before about the delis virtually disappearing along 8th Avenue. Are there other businesses that cater to a particular trade or service that are also facing rather precarious or uncertain futures?
CASTALDO: I really believe most of the non-Asian businesses are facing this,including myself. My business is still more than two-thirds non-Asian, despite the change in the neighborhood. As you can see sitting in here, the different groups of people that come in. Asians don't represent the majority of my 53:00customers, by no means.
RUF: Do you think that Asians tend to patronize Asian stores, and non-Asians tendto patronize non-Asian stores? Would that be a fair characterization to make?
CASTALDO: Well, I think many Asian people, particularly grocery shopping, theylike to buy in large quantities, so if there is a store that's non-Asian, such as the Mideastern store across the street that sell 50 pound bags of flour and 50 pound bags of rice, and bulks of certain foods, I believe the Asians will patronize. I don't think that they're discriminating against non-Asian stores, but perhaps our stores don't have what the Asians are looking for. 54:00
RUF: I'd like to continue a little bit about the flags. How'd that get started here?
CASTALDO: Well, I really don't know how exactly that started here. I was toldthat it was originally on 8th Avenue, I was told that it was originally to represent the 24 countries of the Olympics, but I think on 8th Avenue it's taken on a different meaning.
RUF: Just looking out your window here, you know, we start at the corner of thestreet on --is that 58th St?
CASTALDO: 59th St.
RUF: 59th St. We begin, there's a mainland Chinese flag, there's a
CASTALDO: Greek flag -
RUF: There's a Greek flag.
RUF: Norwegian. South Korea.
CASTALDO: And Syria will be next to me.
RUF: Syria will be next to you. You mentioned something to me before about aMalaysian owned shop a few doors down where they weren't yet able to decide what flags they were going to fly.
CASTALDO: Well, one of the workers told me that they wanted to put a flag, butbeing their country has three different flags, they aren't certain which flag they will choose. So they want to have a little conference about that.
RUF: Are most of the storefronts also purchasing American flags to go next tothe nationality flags?
CASTALDO: Yes, the American League would have it no other way, and I happen toagree with that.
RUF: Have you found a voiced reaction among customers or pedestrians who walkby? Have people noticed it?
CASTALDO: It's too soon to say.
RUF: Too soon. This is something very, very new.
CASTALDO: Yeah, it's too soon to say. Perhaps if I spoke with you in a week or56:00so, I could give you a better idea about how the people feel about that. The reaction right now is that it's very colorful.
RUF: You're hoping that it's gonna go up and down 8th Avenue? Or is it somethingthat this one particular block can take some pride in?
CASTALDO: No, I would hope that it would go beyond our block and go into the50's and into the 60's in the other direction. I hope to see that.
RUF: I wanted to ask you, some people have voiced concerns about other changesin the neighborhood. People have talked about fish markets or seafood markets. People have talked about trash piling up or recycling. Do you see these as contemporary problems that are facing the community? Are these important concerns?
CASTALDO: Yes, I think that some of the restaurants are extremely careless in57:00how they leave their garbage, and they don't hose down where the garbage was, and the sidewalks in front of many restaurants are very, very filthy, and I think they should be encouraged to wash them down with some sort of bleach or something.
RUF: Do you find that there are certain types of behavior, or any ways of livingor ways of acting --I guess primarily in public --that are done by different people who live in the community and which tend to exasperate tensions or to lead to misunderstandings, or even stereotypes? What are some of the problems?
CASTALDO: Well, one of the greatest problems I see that Americans have58:00absolutely no tolerance for, including myself, is the spitting on the street. It's unsanitary, it's disturbing, and it's extremely offensive. I don't believe that the Asians see it as being that way. But we would hope that they're in America, and that they would do as the Romans would do in Rome, and realize that it is offensive to many people, not only Americans with European backgrounds, but American Asians as well would find it mostly offensive and gross. It's not the American culture --accepted American culture. I also think --the hollering 59:00across the train in conversation people find unbearable. Again, I don't think people are discriminating. I think they just really find it offensive. I think when it comes to space, most of us Americans are accustomed to giving a little bit of space to people. Too often Asian people will cramp up against you, and people would find that offensive. I see this as some of the cultural differences. I'd rather use the word cultural differences. I don't believe this is done to offend anyone, and hopefully certain people can learn that why do 60:00something if we're really offending people.
RUF: Some of the Chinese have raised concerns about the availability of varioussocial services. Some of the more newly arrived immigrants, non-English speaking immigrants, especially from China, I would say. How in touch do you feel you are with these concerns or these needs? Have people ever talked to you about their needs as recent immigrants? Any of the Chinese for example. Are you conscious, or are you aware of the need for particular types of social services in the area that don't exist now?
CASTALDO: Well, I'm very aware that there aren't enough classes for adults to61:00learn to speak English, and I think it's extremely important for the adults that are coming to learn to speak the language.
RUF: Is it your impression that those adults themselves who are coming now lookupon that the same way? Do they feel there's a pressing need to learn the language?
CASTALDO: No. As long as people have an attitude that it's Chinatown, then theycan take up a certain given [Interview interrupted.] a certain, I'm sorry. 62:00People come from another country, and they create ghettos, then there is no need for anyone to learn to speak the language? Why should they have to speak a language when they can go up the street and order whatever they wish in their native tongue? I don't find that, again, healthy for any group of immigrants. What 'I very much resent is, I don't understand what's happening in our city, how our politicians are allowing people to live in such crowded, crowded conditions. People are turning two-family homes into four, and five and six family homes, and there are people who live in such tight conditions, and nothing is being done about it. Also, what I think of New York City, which is 63:00absolutely terrible, is the fact that anybody can buy a home, and if it's a two, three, four, or five-family house, they can have the whole building cleared out because they want to put in their own people. And I think that's what happened here. Many white people were forced out simply to put in Chinese, and I think this is all some of the things that many people really resent about Chinese.
RUF: I have heard accounts that when a building's ownership changes hands, thatsometimes the homeowner will offer existing tenants money to move out. Is that true? Have you ever heard accounts like that?
CASTALDO: I heard of accounts such as that. Whether it's true or not --I dobelieve it's true. I do believe it's true, because many people have moved out 64:00rather quickly and didn't seem to fight. I think it's just a shame. It think it's just a shame that people come in, and this is what we want to do, this is our Chinatown, and this is America, and I don't think any property should just be owned by one group of people.
RUF: Are there any forms or contexts in which Asian residents can mix withnon-Asian residents? Are there activities in the community? A merchant association?
CASTALDO: Well, there is an 8th Avenue merchants association. There are churchgroups. 59th St. church here tries to encourage fellowship with the Asian people. The Knights of Columbus had held a few Las Vegas nights, where there's 65:00contact as far as gambling goes on casino night. But that's about the only contact that I really know of.
RUF: They staged that at their space? The Knights of Columbus?
RUF: And that was quite popular among Asians and non-Asians?
RUF: What about for children? What's the sense that you have of children mixingin the community? Do you see much of it on the streets?
CASTALDO: Chinese and non-Chinese alike?
CASTALDO: Being I'm a business person, I don't have any children, I may not bethe best person qualified to answer that question. . I think the best person 66:00would be someone who has children living in the community.
RUF: You talked a moment ago about the crowded conditions that are increasing,especially in some buildings. Do you have any sense of the dangers or the problems of crime in the area nowadays? Let's say, in the 1990's. Some people have told me that there is considerable crime, but Chinese tend to victimize other Chinese, or non-Chinese tend to victimize other non-Chinese. Is that true? I don't know how to express it in those words. Do you get what I'm driving at?
CASTALDO: I understand exactly what you mean.
RUF: It's a terrible way to phrase a question.
CASTALDO: No, I understand exactly what you're driving at. No, I think most of67:00the crimes committed on the subway are non-Asians towards Asians. Again, if I had said earlier in the interview, perhaps because the Chinese don't report. Also, the Chinese people are not yet street wise enough. I think they have to learn to be a little more cautious. Not paranoid, but cautious to someone you feel behind you, let that person pass you by. If you feel uncomfortable about a situation, I think the Chinese are gonna have to learn it's OK. If someone in the subway car doesn't look right, well then, by all means walk into another subway car. I think the Asian people have to be educated in that sense, and not 68:00that it could not happen to someone who's not, but I think perhaps we could bring down the crime in that area if people are a little more cautious, and if the Asians learn to cooperate with the police. As far as Asian crimes committed on whites, I know as a fact there has been certain stores that were --I believe there are a number of Asian stores that are extorted by their own kind. As far as my knowledge, there has not been any American-owned stores that have been extorted by Asians. The neighborhood could have not been [Interview 69:00interrupted.] I'm sorry that some of the old stores that dotted 8th Avenue, such as the Irish and German delis, are no longer part of 8th Avenue. I'm sorry to see the Atlantic restaurant leave, which was a Norwegian restaurant. Now it's 70:00the only Chinese and Norwegian restaurant. I'm glad to see that the food is still served, but the ambience is not the same. I would have liked to see 8th Avenue be a little bit more mixed than a Chinatown.
RUF: What do you see in the area looking five or ten years from now?
CASTALDO: I would say it seems as though it will definitely be a Chinatown asmore and more stores close and more and more people move out, that is the direction it's going in.
RUF: You as a businessman or store owner, do you have much contact with themerchants association of 8th Avenue? Are you a member?
CASTALDO: I'm a member of the 8th Avenue Association. There's not a great deal71:00to say.
RUF: Is it dominated by Chinese?
CASTALDO: It is now.
RUF: It was there before the Chinese merchants began?
RUF: Do you find it difficult sometimes to voice your concerns or get themacross?? Do interests
CASTALDO: It seems like the attitude is that certain people have a time, andit's like our time is over, and I again resent that very much.
RUF: Now you feel that in the course of meetings and discussions?
CASTALDO: Yes. l resent that very much. I think we're just as vital as anyChinese store that's on this avenue.
RUF: How does the merchants association work? Is there a board of directors?72:00
RUF: Are individuals elected to that?
RUF: By general vote?
CASTALDO: By general vote.
RUF: Are there any non-Asians on the board?
CASTALDO: Oh, yes.
RUF: How many people are on the board?
CASTALDO: That I don't know.
RUF: Generally speaking --I know it runs the risk of making sort of a broadgeneralization --but are there different lines of interest or different policies or development strategies that Asian and Chinese merchants would like to pursue that may stand in juxtaposition or contrast to those development schemes that non-Chinese merchants would like to pursue? Do Chinese and non-Chinese store owners see the future in different ways in how to meet their goals? The 73:00strategies of attaining that. Is there general agreement or is there a parting of the ways? Or is this not even an issue?
CASTALDO: I couldn't fairly answer that question because I really don't know.[Interview interrupted.] I think when the Asian people were beginning to move to 8th Avenue, they were very much welcomed. Many white people, without a question, rented their apartments to Asians. Now that it's the other way around, there's many Asians who would not even consider renting to white people in the area, and I think these are all the truths that are not being said. 74:00
RUF: Are non-Asian owners growing increasingly hesitant to rent to Asian tenants?
RUF: There's increasing reluctance?
CASTALDO: Yes, I think there's a resentment because many will not rent to anyonebut their own kind, and also very often when Asians rent an apartment, they say there's four and it ends up being seven.
RUF: There was some publicity in the press this year, particularly after theGolden Venture, the boat that ran aground, that there were undocumented aliens being kept in hiding in Sunset Park in the vicinity of this community. Was this something you were aware of?
CASTALDO: No. No, that very much came to a shock to me. Very much came to a75:00shock to me. I did see things that looked rather suspicious on the avenue. I remember some years back learning that a bunch of teenagers owned a six family building, and it just didn't seem right. But as far as the "Golden Venture?"[inaudible],
RUF: Golden Venture
CASTALDO: Golden Venture, it was very much a shock to me.
RUF: Was that a catalyst for a lot of public concern or a lot of public talk or discussion?
CASTALDO: It definitely should be. Whether it's not, I don't know. I think thereare a lot of people right now that just feel very disgusted with their government. I think a lot of Americans feel as though their government has once again let them down.
RUF: The American government?76:00
RUF: By not preventing this? In what way?
CASTALDO: Not only by not preventing this, but by not doing things for it neverto happen again.
RUF: That there's no disincentive.
CASTALDO: There's a lot that can be done about illegal aliens. You don't have tomake it so easy for people to come here.
RUF: I understand that there are several garment factories, small garmentfactories that are opening up in the area here, mostly hiring Chinese laborers or Asian laborers. Is that something new in the last few years? Are they visible? Do you see them, as a non-Chinese resident and merchant in the area? Is that a visible part of your daily life?
CASTALDO: No, I wouldn't say it's a visible part of my daily life.77:00
RUF: Do you have any concerns about unrest in the Chinese community? Some peopletalk about gang activities, for example. Is this a concern for you?
CASTALDO: Without a question, it's a concern of mine. Gangs, yes.
RUF: Have there been any incidents that you can remember?
CASTALDO: During the time I was here, I've seen a few things happen that weresuspicious. I remember one night looking out the window, and a young lady was pulled into a van while she was screaming, so I remember such things as that 78:00taking place.
RUF: Was she Chinese?
CASTALDO: That I would not say anything more about. I would choose not to say.
RUF: I can understand that. [Interview interrupted.] [Inaudible]
CASTALDO: I would like to conclude by saying that I certainly hope that peoplewill try to understand that no territory in America should belong to one race or ethnic group of people. That the land belongs to all. And this was once a community that welcomed Asians in, and I feel that those Asian people make us 79:00feel comfortable in our own home, because we still choose to live here, and we still choose to have our businesses here. Hopefully, we can all work out our differences and live in the community in peace. You said that in the first time, right?
Oral History Interview with Louis Castaldo
The son of an Italian father and an Italian-American mother, Louis Castaldo (nickname Lou) was thirty-nine years old in 1994. Castaldo grew up in Brooklyn. During his childhood, he lived in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn and attended public schools within the area. In the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, Castaldo's father, Vinnie, bought and ran Vinnie's Pizzeria as a family business from 1970 onward. Castaldo worked alongside his father at the pizzeria from his early teen years to the time of the interview in 1994.
In this interview, Lou Castaldo discusses his father's business; Vinnie's Pizzeria was established during the early 1970s in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. He recounts his father's coming to America and life before starting the business. Castaldo describes the various ethnic cultures and neighborhoods he observed while growing up in Brooklyn; including significant events, activities, hobbies, family life and traditions. Castaldo recalls a significant period of change in Sunset Park, beginning in 1979; from a European American neighborhood comprised of Germans, Greeks, Irish, Italians, and Norwegians to an Asian American neighborhood, largely of Chinese heritage. He evaluates other influences that factored into the changing neighborhood; escalating crime rates and drug use, business closures, new Chinese American ownership of businesses and housing, cultural differences and language barriers, and national politics supporting or allowing illegal aliens to enter and live in the United States. He surveys the Sunset Park community's actions to create a more global and shared sense of community-a melting pot of cultures. Interview conducted by Gregory Ruf.
Brooklyn Historical Society collaborated with the Chinatown History Museum (now the Museum of Chinese in America) in order to conduct a series of oral histories with residents of the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. The Cantonese, Mandarin, and English language interviews focused on what was then a new presence of Chinese and Asian immigrants concentrated along Eighth Avenue. Among the topics that are explored in the interviews are tensions between different groups of Chinese immigrants, crime and safety in the neighborhood, Sunset Park's relationship to Manhattan's Chinatown, and how long-term residents of Sunset Park had adjusted to the area's "newcomers."
CitationCastaldo, Louis, Oral history interview conducted by Gregory Ruf, May 17, 1994, New Neighbors: Sunset Park's Chinese Community records, 1994.007.04; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Castaldo, Louis
- Chinese Americans
- Economic conditions
- Emigration and immigration
- Ethnic identity
- Ethnic neighborhoods
- Italian Americans
- Manners and customs
- Bensonhurst (New York, N.Y.)
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Sunset Park (New York, N.Y.)
Finding AidNew Neighbors: Sunset Park's Chinese Community records