Reno's Italian Amerians

For almost 150 years Reno, Nevada, has had an Italian American presence. In the late 1860s, Italian immigrants began migrating to the Truckee Meadows and its surroundings. After arriving in American ports on the West Coast as well as the East Coast, the immigrants who had the means moved to more amenable locations in the interior of the country. They sought out areas of the United States where the climates would be similar to those they had left behind in Europe. They also desired to move to locations where either a plentiful number of jobs were available or where the land was cheap enough so that they could earn a living from farming or ranching. Northwestern Nevada satisfied all these demands. The dry, mountainous terrain is similar to that of many of the provinces in northern Italy where most of the local Italian families emigrated from. Furthermore, the Truckee Meadows was a rare oasis of cheap and fertile land within the vast and barren Great Basin region.

Initially, Italians streamed into the area to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. Most early local Italians were young single men living in boardinghouses in and around the small town of Reno. After the completion of the railroad in 1869, Italian immigrants continued to move to the area in significant numbers to work at the local ranches and lumber companies, and this trend lasted through the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Most of these families engaged in “chain migration.” This is a process whereby the initial immigrants reported their experiences in their new home back to the people they knew who still lived in Italy. Those still in Europe, attracted by these accounts, then gradually migrated to the new country. In the Reno area, this process repeated itself numerous times over many decades, eventually resulting in the local development of a close-knit community of Italians by the mid-twentieth century.

After arriving at their new home, Reno's Italian Americans gradually created distinctive ethnic neighborhoods throughout the valley. Three major Italian areas developed in the Truckee Meadows starting in the late nineteenth and continuing throughout the twentieth century: one in central Sparks along Prater Way, one in north Reno along Washington Street, and one along the Truckee River just west of downtown. These districts were conveniently located within easy walking or driving distance to some of the major employers of local Italian Americans—the Union Pacific freight depot in Sparks and the many Italian-owned shops, restaurants, and other small businesses located along Lake Street in downtown Reno. Furthermore, these neighborhoods represent different levels of achievement on the local socioeconomic scale for members of this ethnic group. Many of the houses located in the Washington Street neighborhood, for instance, are larger and were built with sturdier materials than those in Powning Addition near downtown or in the Sparks district. This is due to the fact that many of the Italian Americans who lived in that neighborhood were older immigrants who had more firmly established themselves economically and socially in the community. Often they had moved to the Washington Street neighborhood after spending an initial period in other ethnic enclaves.

Each of these neighborhoods features an abundance of one particular style of domestic architecture. From the 1910s until the 1940s, Italian immigrants constructed many Craftsman-style homes in their Truckee Meadows enclaves. These houses distinctively feature shallow sloping roofs, upstairs dormer windows, and tapered columns. The immigrants built these wide, low-rising dwellings to take full advantage of the small sizes of their neighborhood lots. While this style of home design is not exclusive to the Italian American community, this particular local immigrant group did make almost exclusive use of this style because of its efficient use of lot space, its simple design and construction, and the inexpensive nature of the required building materials. In fact, many local Italian Americans would even pass the same small collection of house plans around from family to family, thereby saving each family the cost of having to purchase their own plans for their individual homes.

Today, many Craftsman-style homes remain in all three of the major Italian American districts in the Truckee Meadows. The City of Reno's Historic Resources Commission even officially designated the Powning Addition neighborhood west of downtown as a conservation district in 2008. While not carrying the weight of a full historic district, this designation does enable the city to provide guidance and information for neighborhood homeowners interested in restoring their historic properties. The valuable historic character of this collection of homes and streetscapes so important to the area's Italian American community is now being painstakingly preserved by volunteer residents with the official backing of the City of Reno.

While their houses functioned as symbols of their rising social status, the many small business enterprises run by northern Nevada's Italian Americans functioned as a major means of achieving financial stability and social mobility among members of this ethnic group. Many local Italians, lacking a formal American education as well as inherent knowledge of American cultural norms and even the English language, saw the formation of small shops, restaurants, and other enterprises as an accessible path to financial and social success for both themselves and their families. Some of Reno's most popular businesses, past and present, have been owned and operated by local Italian Americans. The Eldorado Hotel and Casino, the Mizpah Hotel, the Sportsman, First National Bank of Nevada, and Pioneer Citizens Bank are a few examples of prominent establishments that were started by local Italians.

Once local Italian immigrants established these small businesses, they then often used them to provide needed employment for their fellow immigrants. Specific local enterprises were known around town for providing gainful employment to members of the Italian American community. Various employees of the First National Bank of Nevada, for example, recall in their oral histories how Italians had a notable presence in the organization, from the executives in the top offices down to the tellers on the main floor. On a smaller scale, Italian American–owned neighborhood shops such as the Dainty Cake Shop and Pinky's Market were also staffed mostly by Italian Americans who were either related to or were close friends with the owners.

Small business operations were also a way for Italians in the Truckee Meadows to wade through the conflict of assimilating to a new culture versus maintaining aspects of a traditional heritage. Members of this ethnic group used their businesses to maintain their Italian traditions in the face of the dominant American culture, to reach out to their fellow Americans and embrace the symbols and ceremonies of their newly adopted homeland, or to engage in a complex mixture of both. One interesting way that this is evident is through the items sold in the various Italian American–owned grocery stores in the Reno area. Some stores, like Brunetti and Patrone on Lake Street, served traditional Italian fare such as imported olive oil and sardines. Others, like the Reno Public Market, on the corner of Second Street and Lake Street, primarily sold standard American food items, such as lamb chops, ham, and pot roast. Over the course of the twentieth century, a serious game of identity politics played out through the various Italian-owned shops, restaurants, and other enterprises. By the final decades of the century, though, most members of this ethnic group had become assimilated into the dominant American milieu.

In the areas immediately outside of Reno and Sparks, truck farming was a popular occupation for Italian immigrants and their families. These families took the utmost pride in land ownership and self-reliance. This drove many of them into agriculture, where they could take advantage of the fertile Truckee Meadows land to have their own self-sufficient property. Both Italian immigrant parents and their children would then work the family land together to bring produce and meat to markets in Reno, Sparks, and small rural towns throughout the region.

In addition to their influence on the nature of work and business in the Truckee Meadows, Italian Americans also had an impact on the nature of local leisure activities through the games, gatherings, and other things they did for fun and relaxation. Some of the popular leisure activities that local Italian immigrants engaged in include gardening, winemaking, and bocce ball tournaments.

Italian American residents often had vegetable gardens in their backyards, where they grew modest amounts of food for personal consumption. Gardens were a way for these immigrants to promote communal ties and familial bonding. Many local Italian Americans recall in their oral histories how they and their neighbors would regularly visit each other's gardens to compare the success of their crops and to exchange food and recipes. A vibrant and healthy level of neighborhood cohesion resulted from these friendly interactions.

Winemaking was another popular communal activity. Reno's Italian Americans often conveniently kept wine presses in the basements of their homes. They would eagerly purchase grapes from traveling vendors, who would bring the fruit in truckloads from vineyards in California. Groups of families would then gather at a neighbor's house and spend entire evenings stomping, pressing, and bottling the homemade wine. Children would even get involved in the process by pretending to make their own wine. One Italian immigrant recalls in her oral history how she and her cousin used to extract dye out of crepe paper, which would result in a red-colored water that they believed to be their own version of the popular alcoholic drink.

Italian Americans in the Truckee Meadows also uniquely engaged in neighborhood bocce ball tournaments. This was an activity especially popular among the older Italian men, who had lived most of their lives in Italy and for whom this had been a regular leisure activity for decades. Often these men would gather at local parks or just empty lots around their neighborhoods on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon to play bocce ball and interact with fellow countrymen. Interesting to note, though, is that women were discouraged from participating in these games, as these activities were seen primarily as bonding opportunities for the Italian men.

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