By Tom Cesarini
The Convivio Now and Again Series comprises oral histories from Italian community members. In this excerpt from an interview with Jim Bregante, local historian and Convivio docent, Jim discusses the close-knit neighborhood from his childhood that he remembers so fondly.
“I’m a product of people,” Bregante declared emphatically, referring directly to the many influential people that contributed to his upbringing in San Diego’s Italian community during the 1940s and 1950s. He was raised in “seven little yellow cottages,” built by his grandfather, Gerolamo Bregante, in 1922. Today, those cottages are still standing, and they have served as one of the many topics that Jim writes about in his historical essays on the community that helped to shape him.
Jim recalls those cottages fondly, as they were “a little community among the larger community of what’s called Little Italy today,” he said. An interesting component of the diminutive, but distinctive homes was the courtyard in the center of the cottages, which had the clotheslines, and “that was the meeting place for the ladies.” In the courtyard, Jim noted, “You became familiar with everyone’s garments.”
Jim’s recollections of his family members, particularly his grandfathers, remain vivid and riveting. Jim’s maternal grandfather, Agostino Ghio, came to San Diego via Ellis Island, settling first in San Francisco, as many other Italian immigrants had done. He began a fishing career, and he discovered a large Italian community in that city. Upon relocating to San Diego, he continued his career as a fisherman and also became a boat owner. Notably, while living in San Francisco, he had also sailed on San Diego’s famed ship, the Star of India.
Jim’s paternal grandfather, Gerolamo Bregante, also first settled in San Francisco but much earlier than Jim’s maternal grandfather — in 1886. He also worked as a fisherman, but he then went into the retail/wholesale business and became a buyer for a fish market. Jim’s grandfather was in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake, and he moved to San Diego in 1910.
Interestingly, while in San Francisco, Jim’s grandfather became good friends with AP Giannini, the founder of the Bank of Italy, which was later to become Bank of America. Giannini asked him to serve on the bank’s board of directors in San Diego. Jim mentions at this point, proudly, that his grandfather did not have a lot of education, but he was “good with people and had an entrepreneurial spirit.”
Jim explains that the primary businesses were on India Street, which served as the main thoroughfare in the neighborhood: “[The] bakeries, grocery stores, drug stores, barber shops, shoe shops — all within a three to four block area.” Regarding restaurants, Jim recounts, “When I grew up there was only one restaurant — Ortega’s Mexican Food,” which was operated by a Mexican family living in the neighborhood. Eventually, other restaurants started to be established through the 1950s. Today, Jim says, “People laugh when I tell them there was only one restaurant in Little Italy—they don’t believe it.”
You can visit with Jim on Saturdays at Amici House in Little Italy and learn more about the history of the neighborhood.
— Tom Cesarini is the executive director of Convivio. Reach him at email@example.com.