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History: Italian-Americans Maintain Gardens in Albert Park

When Albert Park showed signs of neglect in the 1990s, a group of Italian-Americans stepped in to revitalize the park where many of their parents and grandparents had played bocce in years past.

Decline of Albert Park 

San Rafael residents played baseball and picnicked at for years, but by the early 1990s, in 1937 by had become run down. Transients and druggies called unkempt corners home. Albert Park no longer felt safe.

Aiming to revive Jacob Albert's dream of a park that all residents could enjoy, the city of San Rafael formed the Albert Park Renovation Committee, a team of diverse community members dedicated to renovating the area. The Gruppo Lonatese, a local organization that celebrates San Rafael's rich Italian-American heritage, joined that team and provided significant funds and energy to the park's renovation.

Lonatese at McNear's Brickyards

The Gruppo Lonatese is named for the emigrants from Lonate Pozzolo, a small town near Milan, who made their way to San Rafael in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Between 1880 and 1924, nearly 1,000 Lonatese left their village to find a better life in the United States. Many of them settled in San Rafael and in other towns in the Bay Area.

The first Lonatese in San Rafael found work at McNear's Brickyard, which had been producing bricks at San Pedro Point since 1868. Many lived in bachelor quarters on the McNear property. Friends and relatives followed, and soon McNear's had a crew of hard-working Lonatese, including Tony Rostoni, Dominic Arbini and Frank Locati.

With savings, the men sent for their wives or returned to Lonate Pozzolo to bring back a spouse. Some married “picture brides,” girls they brought over after seeing a photograph from a relative or friend of the family.

San Rafael's Little Italy

The Lonatese settled in the area surrounding Gerstle Park, forming a closely-knit community that became San Rafael's Little Italy. Emigrants from other areas of Italy and the Swiss Ticino Canton gravitated to this enclave of Italian-speaking residents.

In her oral history, Jennie Rostoni, who emigrated from Lonate Pozzolo in 1921, described her first impressions of San Rafael's Little Italy:

“The second day I was here...I looked down, down C Street, and it was beautiful..every fence, all paint, all morning glories, baby rose, dahlias in front. Oh, it was a beautiful place.”

Making a Living

The Italians opened grocery stores, butcher shops, bakeries and bars. Some of the men, including John Zaro, Peter Turrini, Anibale Egisti and Pasquale Rossi, worked as gardeners on the estates of Marin County's wealthy elite. Caesare Bettini became the beloved head gardener at the Gerstle Estate. Mario Soldavini took over the position when Bettini retired.

Some of the men had been stone workers in Italy and found work with James Ghilotti's construction company. Others, including Frank Garatti, Domenico Gondini and Paul Rossi, worked for the Marin Municipal Water Company.

The Northwestern Pacific Railroad employed many of the men, among them Dominic Cerutti, Frank Locati, Battista Borzini, Mario Regalia, John and Peter Rossi, Nathan and John Soldavini, Giuseppe Garatti, Frank Brusatori, Dominic Arbini, Tony Rostoni and John Polacci.

The Sausalito News of January 17, 1920 noted:

“The funeral of Lonate Pozzolo, better known here as John Polacci. a blacksmith in the Tiburon shops of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, was one of the largest held in San Rafael for many years as almost all the Italian speaking people as well as many others were present... He came to this country 20 years ago and for over 16 years has been in the employ of the Northwestern Pacific at Tiburon and was liked by all.”

Working Women

Women who had worked in silk factories in Lonate found factory jobs at the Carson Glove Factory. Jenny Rostoni recalled the commuters to the American Biscuit Company in San Francisco:

“There were a bunch of girls who left at six or six-thirty in the morning at the B Street station and go to San Francisco. They'd get there at 8 o'clock by the train and the boat...A lot of people worked at American Biscuit..Sixteen dollars for two weeks.”

Other women worked in local shops or took jobs as domestic workers. Paulina Pina Franzini served for decades as a cook and caretaker for Louise Boyd. The bachelors needed housing, so some women took in boarders and did laundry. On Sundays, the women baked bread and cooked big pots of stew to offer home-cooked meals to the brick makers who rode their bicycles in from McNear's to pick up their laundry.

Over time the younger generations became Americanized. Milanis, Arbinis, Brusatoris, Zanonis, Canzianis and many other descendants of the original Italian settlers contributed immeasurably to San Rafael's development.

Eleanor Garatti, whose parents sold ravioli and salami in their grocery store on B Street, brought home Olympic medals for swimming in 1928. Ceasare Bettini's son, C. Paul Bettini, became San Rafael's mayor from 1965 to 1979. Another Lonatese descendant, Jim (Bertolli) Farley, has been director of the for over 20 years.

The Dalessi Sisters

Despite these contributions, details of San Rafael's Italian-American legacy would be nearly forgotten if not for two sisters, Olivia and Teresa Dalessi. Now in their mid-eighties, the Dalessi sisters have lived their entire lives in San Rafael's Little Italy.

Their father, Leo Dalessi descended from Swiss-Italian dairy ranchers. Their mother worked in the silk factories in Lonate Pozzolo before emigrating to San Rafael and marrying Leo. Both Olivia and Teresa taught for years in Marin County schools and have an abiding interest in their family and community history.

In 1986 the town of Lonate Pozzolo published a book on its history that included a chapter on emigration. The Dalessi sisters received a copy, sparking curiosity in their community's ties to Lonate Pozzolo. Their correspondence to Italy prompted the town of Lonate to send a researcher, Ernesto Milano, to discover more about the history of the Lonatese in San Rafael.

Gruppo Lonatese

In November 1987 Milani and a group of interested Lonatese descendents met at the home of the Dalessi sisters. There they formed the Gruppo Lonatese to promote closer ties with Lonate Pozzolo. Their first project was a calendar in three languages: Italian, English and the Lonatese dialect. They discovered that traces of dialect and traditions that had faded in Lonate Pozzolo could be still found in San Rafael.

Sister Cities

Interest grew in the two communities half a world apart. In September 1988, 100 people in a delegation from Lonate Pozzolo attended a ceremony at the Marin County Civic Center to proclaim San Rafael and Lonate Pozzolo sister cities. The delegation included a brass band from Lonate Pozzolo that played at the ceremony and at a banquet that evening.

Long-lost relatives reunited at the joyful event. On September 30, 1988, the Marin Independent Journal quoted Claudio Bochin, a Lonate tax collector, who spoke through an interpreter: “It is the first time I have ever made this long a voyage to see a land this far away...I am so delighted to meet relatives, I hardly have words to express it.” The dining, dancing and sharing of stories went into the night.

The next year, a delegation from the Bay Area visited Lonate Pozzolo. A newsletter, Il Corriere del Pomeriggio, served to keep all abreast of happenings at home and abroad.

Lonatese Gardens

Restoring Albert Park became a focal point for the group. Through hard work and many garage sales and polenta dinners, the group raised funds for the project. In October 1992 San Rafael Mayor Al Boro and the Pro Loco President of Lonate Pozzolo Gianpiero Bertoni mixed local and Lonatese soil at a ground-breaking ceremony in the park.

That year Olivia and Teresa Dalessi and July Milani published a self-guided walking tour of the Gerstle Park area around C Street entitled Italian Family Homes of the Gerstle Park Area. It describes nearly 100 homes and families in the few blocks west of C Street where the Lonatese families settled.

Work on Albert Park continued as the Gruppo developed formal Italian gardens adjacent to the community center. They covered the Italianate water fountain at its the garden's center with hand-painted tiles by Gruppo member Brenda Rose de Clario. Some tiles depict family memories, such as the homes left behind in Lonate Pozzolo. Others memorialize relatives departed.

The Lonatese Gardens cost $200,000 when they were completed in 1997. Most of the funds came from individuals and local businesses, including Ghilotti Construction and McNear's Brickyard, which donated 1000 bricks to commemorate the many Lonatese who had worked making bricks for the company.

In 1999 the town of Lonate Pozzolo welcomed Gruppo Lonatese visitors to the dedication of its new town park named Parco San Rafael in honor of its sister city.

Publications

Gruppo member Dorothy Baciocco published a Family Cookbook in 1997 containing recipes that she had gathered from community members. Recipes ranged from a simple fare of polenta and vegetables to old-fashioned dishes of casseoula and tripa calling for such ingredients as pig's knuckles and zucchini flowers.

Throughout the years, the Dalessi sisters have continued to keep the flame of their community's history burning. Teresa conducted oral histories of early residents, including Jenny Rostoni, and in 2004, she compiled family stories from group members into a volume called The Genealogy and History of Gruppo Lonatese. The dedication reads:

“This collection of stories, genealogies and photos is dedicated to our great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and other members of our families who came to the United States. We marvel at the courage and the strength they exhibited by leaving family, friends and native land, with hopes of bettering their lives and the lives of their children.”

Fundraising

The Gruppo Lonatese has revived Jacob Albert's dream for a community park. Their contribution of time, energy and funds helped plan and build the popular that the operates for bocce players of all ages and skill levels. The courts sit on the site where the early residents of Little Italy played bocce.

Members of the Gruppo Lonatese have worked for 20 years, not only raising funds for the gardens but also digging, raking, planting and weeding. As its members age, they are less able to do such hard work. The group is soliciting donations in a “No Work Fundraiser” to keep the gardens fresh and beautiful. If you would like to help, you may send your donation to:

Gruppo Lonatese
c/o Dorothy Baciocco, Treasurer
17 San Pablo Ave.
San Francisco CA 94127

The oral history videos were provided by the . If you are interested in purchasing photographs from their collection please call 415-382.0770x3 or email photoservices@marinhistory.org.

Primary source material were provided by the news clipping collections of the Anne T. Kent California Room of the Marin County Free Library -  http://www.marinlibrary.org/research-and-learning/california-room. 



Jim Goss April 09, 2012 at 07:15 PM
More San Rafael History on Patch, please. When I share these, especially with people who've left the County or the State, these articles draw compliments. Also, so many people in Marin are new [including 20 year residents] and don't know San Rafael or Marin History.
Jonathan Frieman April 11, 2012 at 02:40 PM
Oh, so it's THESE people who are behind the appeal of the baseball lawsuit. I shoulda known. ;)
Marilyn L. Geary April 20, 2012 at 07:10 PM
Thanks, Jim. I'm glad you like them. I enjoy the research. It's like going on an archaeological dig and finding buried treasure.
Jeanne Villa June 01, 2013 at 10:38 PM
I know this thread is sooo old, but Jonathan, your remark deserves a response. I was searching for photos of the garden and came upon your comment. You have NO idea what you are talking about. Not a CLUE. I'm a member of the group and didn't even know there was a lawsuit, so the Gruppo Lonatese is certainly not behind any appeal. Before you post, you might want to try, um, I don't know....thinking? Learning the facts? People like you really screw up the internet.

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