Old Little Italy neighborhood in East Napa revitalized during popular walking tour

2010-08-09T00:00:00Z 2013-12-12T14:13:41Z Old Little Italy neighborhood in East Napa revitalized during popular walking tourCARLOS VILLATORO cvillatoro@napanews.com Napa Valley Register

The past came alive in east Napa Saturday morning as a group of about three dozen history buffs hit the pavement and strolled the neighborhood that once made up Napa’s Little Italy. The area east of the Napa River at Third Street was once a bustling community of Italian immigrants who worked and lived near the river and helped shape Napa into what it is today.

Today, signs of a generation long gone can be seen in the architecture of many of the buildings and homes of east Napa. Cindy Watter, a Napa High School English teacher and history enthusiast, led the tour sponsored by Napa County Landmarks and Napa County Historical Society.

Using Lauren Coodley’s book “Napa: The Transformation of an American town,” Watter spent six months researching east Napa and shared her knowledge with Saturday’s group.

“I’m interested in local history from the viewpoint not of the great sweeping events but the histories of everyday people. I believe from the houses we can tell a lot of how people live,” she said.

Napa’s Little Italy was a working class neighborhood that helped keep the railroad and riverside economies going Watter said. It was also a neighborhood where employers would live in big elaborate homes next to the more modest homes of their workers.

“It’s a story that repeats itself,” Watter said, “It’s a story of the immigrants who are coming to the area. They encounter prejudice, they are bounding together for strength and they are coming together in an economic force.”

The tour began on the Third Street Bridge and went east to Third Street, where it spread out onto Lawrence, Taylor, Juarez and First streets. From the Third Street Bridge, Watter and her group set their sights on the Borreo Building that’s situated on the northwest corner of Third Street at Soscol Avenue.

Watter said, “It’s the oldest commercial building in Napa. It’s a two-story, native-stone building.” Built in 1887, the Borreo Building was once a grocery store, grain-and-feed store, winery, yacht club and packing-and-shipping hub, she said.

The group walked east into the heart of Napa’s former Little Italy where people like Dave Cavagnero — who operated the Brooklyn Hotel, which now houses Hot Ink Napa and other businesses — gained status and respect.

“The Cavagnero family was legendary in hospitality,” Watter said.

The Brooklyn Hotel served as a boarding house for Italian workers and was one of the largest hotels in Napa in the late 1800s. It was at the Brooklyn, with its classic revival architectural style, where tenants would sing, play bocce ball and drink.

Cavagnero was a peculiar man, Watter said “He was a circus buff and would be a roustabout for the circus every summer.”

At the height of the Prohibition Era, Cavagnero’s hotel was often flush with beer and wine, Watter said. Sometimes Cavagnero himself helped local brewers hide their beer at the hotel, which was easy for him to do, Watter said, because his brother was a local police officer.

“It’s not like they were flouting the law, they were blindly ignoring it,” Watter told the group. “These were upstanding citizens, who were breaking the law.”

Nevertheless, Cavagnero’s hotel and his reputation in the community earned him the nickname Mayor of East Napa, she said. At the start of the 20th century, the many Italian families who moved into east Napa turned the neighborhood into Little Italy. Their homes were close to together, had no fences and were full of fig and plum trees.

“People were not as obsessed with privacy as they are now,” Watter said. “You can see the people live very closely together and you can see that integration of income levels.”

Telltale signs of old Napa could be openly seen at some of the homes. A stable that used to house horses is being used for storage at one Third Street home, many of the homes have no fences and some have been deemed landmarks. As time marched on, the neighborhood began to transform, Watter said.

“After Word War II, you had the growth of suburbia,” she said. “Just changes in the way people lived.”

Some of the businesses that existed during that era have held true to their original purpose, Watter said. For example, the Harley Davidson dealership along Third Street stayed true to its transportation roots — it was once a large horse stable.

Copyright 2015 Napa Valley Register. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(5) Comments

  1. bittersweet
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    bittersweet - August 09, 2010 7:43 am
    While I applaud the effort to keep Napa's history alive, it is a monumental mistake to use Lauren Coodley's book which contains many many errors.
  2. KAS
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    KAS - August 09, 2010 11:22 am
    Thank you for the comment on our tour! Napa County Landmarks’ staff assisted Cindy Watter in researching the tour script. Ms. Coodley’s book was one source of information, but we also looked at the recently completed city-sponsored surveys of the neighborhood, several other published volumes of local history, and primary source documents from the Napa County Historical Society Library.

  3. AO1982
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    AO1982 - August 09, 2010 2:12 pm
    napawalkingtour.com. George Webber is the man
  4. TruthSeeker
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    TruthSeeker - August 09, 2010 4:58 pm
    All three editions of Coodley's books are poor resources for Napa researchers. Taking another look at the book, there are only three paragraphs related to the Italian community of Napa and the information she includes does not present an overall analysis of the social aspects of the community. A more reliable source would have been Lin Weber's books. She not only thoroughly researched many of the more prominent Italian families but she also sourced her information. Cecelia Setty recently self published a book on the Paisano Poker Club which provided an extensive history of the Italian community. Those are sources. I don't put much credibility in an article when I see the Historical Society and Landmarks listed as the source of info. It is a well known fact that the Society has sold much of its collection throughout the last few years and serious researchers are unable to reproduce research done prior to 2005. They are supposed to preserve our county's history not destroy it.
  5. KAS
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    KAS - August 12, 2010 10:46 am
    Sources other than Lauren Coodley's book were used, such as Richard Dillon's Napa Valley Heyday.

    As for the historical society allegedly selling its collections-that is not completely accurate. Duplicate items and items not related to Napa County or California's history were sold to raise funds for new acquisitions. For example the history of the USSR pre-1960 was sold. Research is able to be reproduced and a file of previously done research is kept. The Society is dedicated to the discovery, preservation and presentation of the people and history of Napa County and its place in California's history.
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