The History of Belmont
The Belmont neighborhood’s interesting history dates back to the 1700’s. In 1760, French Huguenot Pierre Abraham Lorillard came to New York and started the first tobacco company, P. Lorillard & Co., which is still in business today. At that time, they manufactured snuff and originally opened in lower Manhattan shortly before moving up to the Bronx where they purchased a large tract of land along the Bronx River and built their estate which they named “Belle Mont.” Their original plant, the “Old Snuff Mill” still stands in the New York Botanical Garden.
In 1870, the manufacturing facilities were moved to New Jersey and Catherine Lorillard Wolfe, Pierre’s great granddaughter, inherited the vast estate. One section of the estate was divided into various streets and avenues, while the famed Lorillard mansion was donated to become St. Barnabas Hospital and Medical Center. A great admirer of President Chester A. Arthur, Wolfe named the main street of this community, “Arthur Avenue,” in his honor. Other portions of the estate were transformed into the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden. Construction on these institutions began in 1898, which drove Italian immigrants to move and work in the Belmont community. By the beginning of the 20th century, the neighborhood was established as “Little Italy” and often referred to as the “Italian colonies” in the Bronx.
Other parts of Belmont also have interesting histories. Hughes Avenue was named after John Hughes, the first Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, and founder of Fordham University. Hoffman Street was named for John Thompson Hoffman, a judge (1860), mayor of New York (1866-1868), and the 23rd Governor of New York (1869-1872). Bathgate Avenue was named for Andrew Bathgate, a Scottish immigrant, who managed a nearby estate for Gouverneur Morris, one of the founders of the Bronx, and later purchased his own estate from Gouverneur Morris II. Meanwhile, Crotona Avenue was named for Croton, a Greek colony in Southern Italy known for its athletes. And of course there’s Lorillard Place, a small four block long street, so named because this was the place where the homes of Lorillard’s servants were located.
In the many years since, Belmont has been home to tens of thousands of immigrants from Italy and all over the world, providing inspiration for movies, musicians, literatures, and theatre. Some of these include the 1950’s classic film, “Marty,” the 1970’s film “The Seven-Ups,” and the 1990’s film, “A Bronx Tale.” Academy Award-winning actress Anne Bancroft, “A Bronx Tale” writer and actor Chazz Palminteri, author Don DiLillo, “The Sopranos” and “The Godfather: Part II” actor Dominic Chianese, and rock star Dion DiMucci, of Dion and the Belmonts, were all born and raised in the Belmont area of the Bronx. Upon moving to the Bronx, Larry Chance formed his group The Earls, and Joe Pesci began his acting career after being discovered by Robert DeNiro at a local neighborhood restaurant, where Pesci worked as the maitre’d. From the century old Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church to Ciccarone Park up to the Enrico Fermi Italian Cultural Center, Belmont has something to offer for everyone.
Since its beginning during the earliest days of our nation, Belmont has been critical in the development of our borough and the city. An economic as well as a cultural engine, Belmont serves as host to thousands of regional and local shoppers as well as domestic and international tourists every year, making it one of the busiest, and best-known communities of NYC. Visitors from the tri-state area and beyond come to sample the tastes and traditions of a century old community where many of our shops and businesses are still owned by descendants of their original founders. Our restaurants, cafes, bakeries, butchers, pizzerias, fish markets, delicatessens, pastry shops, etc. are some of the very best New York has to offer. No other neighborhood can boast all we have to offer on just a few short blocks. But it’s not just the food, it’s a way of life; a sense of family and community from the past that is seldom seen today.
The History of Ferragosto
Next to Christmas, Easter, and New Year’s, Ferragosto is one of the most celebrated holidays in Italy. This Italian holiday traditionally takes place on August 15th and you can pretty much bet that most businesses are going to be closed as Italians head to the mountains, lakes, and beaches for some rest, relaxation, and an escape from the summer’s heat.
The holiday is routed in ancient history, going back to the beginning of the Roman Empire, when in 18BC, the emperor Augustus declared that the month of August, named after himself, would be dedicated to the Feriae Augusti (Festival of Augustus). This month long festival of food, wine, and celebration honored the goddess Diana, the virgin goddess of the hunt and moon. The month of August also honored the gods Vortumnus (god of the seasons, change, and plant growth) and Opeconsiva (goddess of plating and the crops). These two gods were worshiped to ensure that there would be a fruitful season and good weather to make certain that the harvest would be bountiful.
Diana was also the goddess of maternity, and the 15th of August was the most important day of the month long festival. The ancient Roman holiday was a celebration of maternity and fertility, whether it was in the fields with their abundant crops or in the bedroom with lots of (male) children to carry on the family line. Other days in August, such as the 13th and 25th, included elaborate religious rituals in honor of the pagan roman gods to ensure both fertile fields and fertile wives.
In Christianity, August is believed to be the month in which the Virgin Mary rose to heaven. The Roman Catholic Church teaches as dogma that the Virgin Mary “having completed the course of her earthy life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” This doctrine was dogmatically and infallibly defined by Pope Pius XII on November 1, 1950, in his Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus. Christians turned to and prayed to The Virgin Mother to intercede on their behalf for a good harvest and an abundant crop.
Now the modern holiday is a time of rest and relaxation where the entire country slows down and Italians enjoy their summer holidays. August is also the hottest month of the year so Italians generally flee their cities for the cooler countryside. The religious aspects of the holiday coincide with the ancient origins to many Italians who see this as a time of rest, relaxation and beating the heat.
The History of the Giglio
To those of you that are fans of the Giglio, this is an old story. But for those who have never heard of the Giglio, this is a story that dreams are made of; a story that sounds more like fiction than reality, but it’s all true.
The origin of the Feast of the Giglio dates back to 410 A.D., when San Paolino di Nola (St. Paulinus of Nola, Italy), the town’s Bishop made a great and noble sacrifice. San Paolino was born in Bordeaux, France in 355 A.D. as the son of a rich Roman who had property in France and Italy. He was a distinguished lawyer and official of the Roman Empire. After many childless years, Paolino and his wife,Theresa, had a son, but he died one week after birth. This occasioned the beginning of a life of great austerity and charity, where he gave away most of his property and earthly goods. He was ordained a priest shortly after and moved to Nola, Italy to fulfill his religious obligations.
In 410 A.D., North African pirates took over the town of Nola and abducted young men as slaves. San Paolino was able to escape with many of the children of the town. Upon San Paolino’s return, he was greeted by a widow whose only son was taken captive. She pleaded for help and San Paolino vowed to go to barter for the freedom of the widow’s son. When the leader refused, San Paolino sacrificed his freedom for the freedom of the widow’s son.
While in North Africa, word of the courage and self-sacrifice of Paolino spread and became known to a certain Turkish sultan. Taken with the tale of altruism, the sultan intervened, negotiating for the freedom of this holy man. Through the sultan ‘s efforts, Paolino and the rest of the men were freed.
Upon his return, the people of Nola met Paolino at the shore carrying “gigli,” Italian for lilies, symbolic of love and purity. Shortly after his death, people from the town started to carry bouquets of lilies to the church’s altar. Gradually the faithful started to mount their lilies on poles in decorative arrangements and marched them to the center of Nola each year on San Paolino’s feast date, June 22. Eventually a base was created to support these structures of lilies and a statue of San Paolino was placed on top.
Today, these structures are 100 feet tall, can weigh over 8,000 pounds, and take a crew of 200 men to carry them. The Giglio festivals in Nola, Brooklyn, Harlem, and Long Island are an awe-inspiring commemoration of all ages. After an absence of many years, Belmont, the “Real Little Italy of the Bronx,” was honored to raise the Giglio in conjunction with the Festa di San Antonio at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church for several years.