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.