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You may know that Salem had a Polish neighborhood and a French-Canadian neighborhood, but did you know the city also had a Little Italy?
The neighborhood between Margin, Summer, and Gedney streets was once known as Roast Meat Hill. According to Fred Gannon’s “Nicknames and Neighborhoods and Album of Pictures of Old Salem” Roast Meat Hill was where “an ox was once barbecued” Hence, the name. The area was predominantly Black throughout the 19th century; home to successful Black-owned businesses and active members of the abolitionist movement. The neighborhood transitioned into Salem’s Little Italy around the turn of the 20th century.
Prior to 1870, there were around 25,000 Italian immigrants living in the United States. Many were refugees of Northern Italy, relocating to flee war as Italy struggled for independence and reunification. Hardship increased over the coming decades as malnutrition, mistreatment, and disease became widespread. Between 1880 and 1924, more than four million Italians immigrated to the United States. The majority traveled from Southern Italy and Sicily. More than two million Italian immigrants arrived in the United States within a single decade, between 1900 and 1910.
The Great Salem Fire of 1914 destroyed many homes in this neighborhood, but it was quickly rebuilt in just a few years. After the fire, names like Vincenzo, Spinali, Buccheri, and Rizzatti began to appear in city directories. Rumor has it that many of the new homes in Salem’s Little Italy contained a wine press in their cellar which came in handy during prohibition. Much like Salem’s other immigrant neighborhoods, the church was the community hub.
St. Mary’s Italian church began in 1914 and was named an official parish in 1918. A new church was constructed on Margin Street in 1925. It is said to be modeled after the Church of Santa Chiara in Assisi, Italy. The new building was heavily funded by the community. Parishioners not only donated funds but also their gold jewelry to be melted for the creation of the church bell. The church offered a nursery school for the neighborhood children which encouraged the creation of a park behind the building.
The High Street Playground first opened in 1928. At the time, it contained a wading pool, play area, two quoit courts, a bathhouse, and a swing set. During the dedication ceremony, an ornate cup was gifted to the Park Commissioner from the neighborhood’s residents. The 22,000 sq ft park was later dedicated to Peter A. Giuggio, a member of the High Street Playground Association for “his untiring efforts…to the advancement of children of the playground.”
The neighborhood flourished in the 1930s and 1940s, with several Italian bakeries, markets, butchers, barber shops, and retail shops opening. The only surviving business is Steve’s Market at the corner of Margin and Gedney streets. The market originally opened in 1932 in a small wooden building and was named for the owner, Steve Ingemi. The Salem Depot was located just yards away from Steve’s Market and many travelers recall being attracted to the neighborhood by the smell of fresh bread.
Following World War II, the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 (G.I. Bill) assisted veterans with purchasing homes and seeking higher education opportunities. This served as a catalyst for many second and third-generation Americans to move away from the tight-knit communities of their immigrant parents and grandparents.
Italian-Americans still continued to invest in Salem’s Little Italy, opening the Christopher Columbus Society in 1948 at 24 Endicott Street. The hall served as a social club and event space. Down the street, St. Mary’s prospered into the 1950s and 1960s, when it was remodeled with Italian marble. Italian artists were flown in to paint religious murals on the walls and ceilings. A grotto was added outside, and a youth center was created.
With this prosperity also came more shifts in culture. Masses at St. Mary’s were no longer held in Italian and Latin but were instead offered in English. Steve’s Market was also changing. In 1959, they replaced their small wooden building with a modern brick market and began offering items that would also attract a wider variety of shoppers. Neighborhood businesses slowly began to shutter as generations passed away and others relocated within the city or beyond.
Salem’s Italian community got a boost in 1983, when Anthony V. Salvo defeated incumbent major, Jean Levesque. Salvo became Salem’s first Italian-American Mayor and served the city from 1984-1989.
St. Mary’s Church held its last mass on January 12, 2003, marking what many viewed as the end of the neighborhood’s designation as Salem’s Little Italy.
Salem's Little Italy Photographs and Ephemera