Bookmarks: Growing Up in New York’s Italian South Village

Book by Tony Vivolo, ’66

Written by Maura Beth Pagano, '12 (reviewer)
October 11, 2011
In his memoir, Growing Up in New York’s Italian South Village, Tony Vivolo paints a vivid picture of a time and place rich with culture. Readers are invited along for a nostalgic journey through his childhood and family history, transporting them to 1950s New York City.

Before the dawn of corporate storefronts and astronomical living expenses, New York City was home to vibrant immigrant communities like the one that shaped Vivolo’s boyhood. He fondly remembers the grocery stores, cafés, restaurants, bakeries, bars and candy shops where his family and neighbors hung out, socialized and conducted business—“the Starbucks of yesteryear,” as he calls them.

Central to the narrative of his early years are Vivolo’s numerous family members. He was raised in the top floor apartment of a five-story tenement at 120 Sullivan Street; his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins occupied the units below. Of living in such close quarters with family, Vivolo writes, “As a child, I always had somebody nearby to love, someone to love me, somebody to get in trouble with and someone to be forgiven by.”

The chapters of Vivolo’s memoir are centered on his family, neighbors and places, all characters in scenes that paint a charming childhood. Vivolo takes great care to give detailed descriptions of each relative, yet it isn’t hard to see one’s own extended family members in the illustrations of Vivolo’s kin.

In the chapter titled “Uncle Joe,” Vivolo remembers admiring his uncle’s wild imagination and unpredictable sense of humor. In a chapter about his mother, Vera , Vivolo reflects on her tireless dedication to running her household, even joking that she graduated with a “master’s degree in hard work.” The section Vivolo dedicates to his Aunt Helen, or “Head Aunt” as he calls her, speaks to her role as the family’s director, always ensuring her relatives’ respect for one another.

The family pictures Vivolo placed throughout the book help put a face to this wonderful cast of relatives and those important in shaping his life. The images are a complement to Vivolo’s evocative descriptions of names and places that provide powerful visual clues.

Vivolo divides his memoir pleasingly between humorous, heartfelt memories and family history, an element of the book that helps provide context for his multitude of stories. Growing Up is made all the better thanks to Vivolo’s skilled writing that provides a look into his past and may conjure up fond memories of readers’ own childhoods.