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NYFS Newsletter 1999-vol20-no2-2
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Fall/Winter 1999 Newsletter

West Side Stories: Memories of a Saratoga Neighborhood
Mary Ann Fitzgerald

At wakes and funerals, amid all the sorrow, people tend to comfort one another with stories and memories. Hearing stories at my Uncle Phonsey Lambert’s funeral gathering was so appropriate because he was one of the best storytellers on the West Side. When a family member died, he would sit with us in the afternoon after the funeral and tell us stories that made everyone recall the good old days. We would laugh, we would cry, we would be together in another time, though we were from three or four generations.

The idea for a West Side Oral History Project emerged from the gathering that followed Uncle Phonsey’s funeral in March of 1998. There we were in the midst of family and friends with West Side roots. After visiting with several folks at the gathering, I caught the eye of my old West Side friend, Lee Signor, and we started to talk. Had she gotten away that day, none of this would have happened. As we renewed our friendship and explored our mutual interests in history and writing, we discovered that we both had a special place in our hearts for the West Side neighborhood.

Parading Saint Michael
Parading Saint Michael through the neighborhood in 1949. Photograph by Mario Izzo.

Lee had a dream to write a book about the West Side. I had written papers for my Skidmore College courses based on interviews with families and friends from the West Side Neighborhood and was interested in doing more of the same. Lee invited me to join the West Side Neighborhood Association. At the next meeting she was named historian, and the two of us launched a collaborative project as cohistorians to document the lives, traditions, and culture of the West Side of Saratoga Springs. Over the next months we met frequently in a corner booth at Friendly’s on Broadway in Saratoga Springs to plan our project.

While Saratoga’s West Side dates back to the eighteenth century, many working class immigrants settled there after 1832, when the railroad cut through the area. The Irish came first, calling their section "Dublin." Later, when the Italians arrived in the 1870s and 1880s, the name remained. Lee and I decided to focus our project on Dublin and nearby Congress Street, which was primarily African-American.

Early on in the project Assemblyman Robert D’Andrea, R-Saratoga Springs, and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick helped us secure a small grant to be used for the project’s start-up funds. As a result, the Saratogian, our local newspaper, featured an article on the project that June.

Marian Welch called Lee right away. Marian’s grandmother, Mary Ann Ferrara, was known as the midwife of the West Side. Not only did Marian have an interesting story to tell, she also had artifacts: her grandmother’s medical bag, shoes, petticoat, and certificates to practice midwifery. They, along with the narrative we recorded, were a ready-made exhibition in themselves.

Our inaugural exhibition—"Mary Ann Ferrara, Midwife of the West Side"—took place at the Feast of St. Michael Festival in August 1998. This feast has been celebrated in the West Side Neighborhood since 1914. It was begun by the Princepessa Elena Society, a fraternal organization started in 1900. Nick Palmetto, of Palmetto Fruit Company very generously lent us his 1917 Model T Ford truck. The truck was once owned by Anthony Adinolfi, who often provided transportation for Mary Ann Ferrara. Just about everyone who stopped by to see the midwife exhibition told us they or someone in their family had been delivered by Mary Ann Ferrara. We started a list of people delivered by Mary Ann Ferrara and it continued to grow during the three-day festival as others heard about it and added their names. The exhibition was successful in bringing people together to share their memories and personal experiences. It brought awareness of our project to the neighborhood where we hoped to continue our work.

We seemed to meet all the right people as we went about our plan to document the lives of those who are West Siders. After the exhibition, John McKee, Director of the Historical Society of Saratoga Springs contacted us and suggested that we create a joint exhibition with the Historical Society. We applied for and received a grant from the Saratoga County Arts Council to mount the exhibition at the Historical Society’s Museum in late summer 1999. Encouraged, we set forth to collect oral histories and artifacts to be featured in the exhibition.

The following March, I met folklorist Vaughn Ward at the Public Historians Conference held in Saratoga Springs. After applying to the New York Folklore Society’s Mentoring and Professional Development Program, we received a mentorship for Vaughn to lead a series of workshops to train volunteer interviewers for our project. They were very successful and resulted in the addition of new volunteer interviewers to our project: Collette Fox, Courtney Reid, and Margie Van Meter. Dora Stanley, executive member of NAACP, joined the project later in the summer. We changed our name to The West Side Oral Narrative Project as we found that we were dealing more with "remembrances" and not so much with "historically" correct stories. With professional training provided by Vaughn Ward, the addition of four interviewers, and the purchase of new equipment, we were now prepared to gather more oral narratives from the community. By the time we mounted the exhibition, we had collected nearly fifty.

When we asked folks to tell us about life on the West Side, they took us back to the day they were born, back to the classroom, the playground, the swimming hole; under the grapevine, into the garden, out on the street to play bocce, kick the stick, and roller skate. We traveled with them in narrative to the Black Elks Ball, the St. Michael Festival, Convention Hall, and Public School Number One. We saw the triumph of the Junior Elks Drum and Bugle Corp winning trophies on the state level; we also felt the tragedy at the train station where two young women were killed. We walked the streets as a numbers collector, or a shoeshine boy. We crossed town each day to work at the mill. Some of us labored by day, some by night. We operated restaurants, nightclubs, and grocery stores. We fed the hobos when they came to our door. We fought in the war and stayed behind to keep the home fires burning. We laughed and we cried; we remembered those who came before us to start a new life in the West Side. Dutch, Austrian, Jewish, Black, Irish, Italian, Hispanic, and Chinese, we did everything, from build the railroad, to teach at the local college. We lived here for decades, or a short time, or moved away a long time ago. One thing we all have in common is our awareness that the West Side neighborhood is a special place.

Sixth grade class photo, 1957
Last sixth grade class from Public School Number One, before it was demolished in 1957. Photograph courtesy of Barbara Stevens Eggleston, second row, middle.

The opening night of our exhibition, "Echoes from the Porch: Tales from the West Side Oral Narrative Project" was very exciting. The parlor and gallery of the Casino in Congress Park overflowed with friends and family from near and far. You did not need to be from the West Side, or to be Italian, Black, or Irish to relate to this exhibition. When you read about Edith and Roy roller-skating across town on a summer night, your heart melts. When Carl tells how his grandparents heard the news about his uncle being killed in World War II, you are moved.

The West Side Oral Narrative Project is an ongoing project. The exhibition has provided more visibility and connections for us to pursue. The day after the project, West Side resident Renee Moore came over to my house with several wonderful photographs. These included a dinner at the Black Elks, two relatives who fought in World War II, and a relative who was a groom at the Saratoga Race Track. In addition, Renee offered to help us with interviews in the future.

Many very interesting spin-offs for our project are in the works. Tracy Grimm, from the State Archives Office told us about Local Legacies, a program sponsored by the Library of Congress to foster "community projects to ensure that future generations will have access to important cultural 'snapshots' of American tradition, folklore and everyday life." We decided to present the Feast of St. Michael Festival as our "legacy." During the festival Lee Signor and I observed and took notes to be incorporated into our written report to the Library of Congress. Photographers Mary Beth LaBelle Printsky, Joan Lentini, and Michael Noonan and videographers Amy Friedenberg, Gregg Grygiel, and Michael Worsa documented performances and food preparation. Our documentation will be presented to Congressman John Sweeney in early December. We also hosted Amy Standen, associate producer of the public radio program, Pulse of the Planet. Amy recorded the sounds and the voices of the festival to be broadcast in August 2000.

In November, we are conducting a West Side Neighborhood Walk with Theodore Corbett, History Professor at Adirondack Community College, and we are hosting "Stories in Place" with Vaughn Ward, an event featuring narrators who took part in our project.

It has been an exciting and fulfilling year and a half for Lee and I. I am amazed at all that has come out of that meeting back in March of 1998. Two women had a vision, and are seeing it come true. The sense of community is alive in well on the West Side of Saratoga Springs New York. The West Side gave us an opportunity to share our experiences, stories, hopes, and dreams.


The author, Mary Ann Fitzgerald, and Leona Signor are co-historians of the West Side Oral Narrative Project, the subject of this article. Mary Ann, recently retired from Skidmore College, is currently pursuing an American Studies major at Skidmore University Without Walls. She was born and raised in the West Side neighborhood of Saratoga Springs, as were her parents and maternal grandmother. Lee, a West Side resident, is a retired registered nurse.

The author, Lee Signor and other West Side volunteers are documenting the West Side’s Feast of St. Michael as part of the Library of Congress’ Local Legacies program.

“Echoes from the Porch” will remain at the Historical Society of Saratoga Springs through February, 2000.

For more information about Principessa Elena Society, Feast of Saint Michael and the Black Elks Ball, read the “Tales from the ’Hood” in the Voices section in this newsletter .

St. Michael Parade in the West Side, 1949
St. Michael Parade in the West Side, 1949.
Photograph by ario Izzo.

When we asked folks to tell us about life on the West Side, they took us back to the day they were born, back to the classroom, the playground, the swimming hole; under the grapevine, into the garden, out on the street to play bocce, kick the stick, and roller skate. We traveled with them to the Black Elks Ball, the St. Michael Festival, Convention Hall, and Public School Number One...

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