Walter Potenza (Founder of Federal Hill Heritage Center in Providence)

Federal Hill, la Little Italy di Providence, Rhode Island

Oct 12, 2014 16589 ITA ENG

Italians in Rhode Island have a long history to be told. The smallest State of the Union welcomed several fellow Italians: most of them arrived to Providence's Little Italy, Federal Hill (also called "the heartbeat of Providence"). In particular, the jewelry and silverware industry in Providence attracted Italian immigrants to Rhode Island at the turn of the twentieth century.

Today, according to the 2010 census bureau, Rhode Island is the State with the highest percentage of Americans of Italian heritage: 18.9%. Besides, the American city with the most residents of Italian ancestry is also in Rhode Island: in Johnston, a town in Providence County, 46.7% of the population has Italian roots. In Providence, one of the leaders of the Italian community is Walter Potenza, who in these very days is about to open the Federal Hill Heritage Center, dedicated to the story of the Italian immigrants in Rhode Island.

Walter, you are a professional chef, a culinary consultant and the founder of a cooking school ... what's your story?

I'm from Abruzzo, from Mosciano, a small town in the Teramo province. Here in Rhode Island I have been in the food business for 35 years, and along with a restaurant I own a cooking school which is programmed to educate American public to Italian cookery. To do this we have several classes where we teach how to cook Italian, with recipes from all over Italy. We not only teach adults, but also children, and even professional chefs. We moved the school to the center of the city, in Providence, and we are expanding now: we are under construction right now to build 2 more kitchens.

We are also part of an organization called Italian Chefs in the world: there's about 5,000 of us, all over the world, and we connect through the internet. We share ideas and methods, it is a big network.

Even if it is a small State, Rhode Island has been the goal of a massive flow of Italian emigration during the decades. Can you tell us something about this topic?

We have about one million people living here in Rhode Island, which is the smallest State of the Union; but we have about 240,000 Italian last names here. It is a considerable amount: Providence was one of the port of entry for immigrants at the beginning of last century, and many Italians came up here to find a job. Italian language has been for a long time the most spoken foreign language, here.

We've had a lot of brilliant people running for political positions, or scientists, doctors, people working in emergency, education and technology fields. Italians made a big contribute for the development of this area.

Rhode Island has been for years the capital of jewelry business in America, and it's also the place where the first American industries began. The idea of assembling big machineries with several people working on them was born here: and then the jewelry business grew and had a lot of success, until unfortunately it died in the mid 1960's.

Is there a big Italian community in Rhode Island, nowadays?

We have several different Italian associations here in Rhode Island. Most of them obviously belong to the 2nd or 3rd generation and we have a large concentration of Italians who were born here.

We have independent clubs or cultural and religious societies from different parts of the central and southern Italy, particularly from Campania, Puglia, Sicily, Calabria: because the immigration that arrived here started mostly from these regions.

About the new Italians, here we have what we call the "education immigration", that means we have a lot of Italian students who come to Rhode Island to attend some of our fine Colleges and Universities. This is called "education immigration" because they don't intent to stay, but they want to go back to Europe, when they've got their degrees or masters.

Please tell us something about the Federal Hill Walking Tours that you organize in Providence. Is Federal Hill your city's Little Italy?

We put together several people, along with the churches. We believed that the focal point of any Italian area has always been the church, because religion is fundamental in the Italian life; and so together with the churches we organize different events such as the Feast of the Republic, Ferragosto, the Columbus Weekend to celebrate the memory of Christopher Columbus and then we do small events in my restaurant and cooking school, regional events. Every month we change region and we have people speaking about that region in Italian language. We try to provide to community different events that may be of interest.

Right these days another important initiative of yours is going to open: the Federal Hill Heritage Center ... where will it be, and which activities will be organized?

Our building is located in the middle of Providence, in Little Italy. It's one of the oldest colony of immigrants in the USA. On the 1st floor I have the school and on the 2nd floor we're putting together an Italian Heritage Center, with a very interesting collection of photographs about the life of Italian immigrants since 1900: many people have memories from their past and they're glad to contribute to this project.

We want to build a permanent place where to honor those Italians who worked and contributed to the life, the culture and the growth of the southern New England. We're also getting support from a State College that has a large collection of items, and several other historical entities: everybody seems to be very excited about it, because in Rhode Island nobody ever did something like this before.

This is an idea I've been having for a long time, and finally now it's happening! I believe that our culture and our ability to share it is fundamental to teach the future generations about their roots: if we miss this opportunity we'll have young Italian Americans completely forgetting their homeland and what their ancestors suffered to come here in America. I often ask to the Italian Americans who attend our classes or take our tours if they know about the places where their family came from, and many of them don't know anything about it.

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