Hammonton’s Little Italy is coming into its own
A couple of days ago, I noticed that the barber pole that had been fastened to the front of John Arena’s Barber Shop on Third Street for many decades was no longer there.
How long it had been gone? I’d just be guessing.
I saw it as a reminder that change continues, even in Hammonton, even in places like Hammonton’s Little Italy. I think John Arena, who was a staple in that area of town for many, many years would like what’s happening there now.
Houses are being renovated and filling up with families. Commercial properties and institutions like the Sons of Italy on Third Street, the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Society on the Mt. Carmel Lane section of Tilton Street, the Knights of Columbus Pallotti Council on Pratt Street and the Italian Sons and Daughters in America on Pratt Street are all thriving and, in most cases, expanding.
They keep their buildings up well and contribute to the neighborhood in a positive way.
I included a photograph in this column taken at John Arena’s Barber Shop in April of 2004. There are several reasons I wanted to run the photo this week.
First and foremost was the person who took the photo, Candice Atwell, who has returned to The Gazette after nearly a decade. She was mentioned in Gazette Editor-in-Chief Gina Rullo’s excellent column two weeks ago. Then, as now, Atwell takes outstanding photos.
I remember commenting to her in 2004 that the photo of John Arena giving me a haircut could have been taken anytime between 1954 and 2004. It’s an amazing snapshot of an era that lasted, thankfully, longer than it did in most places in America.
That’s true about Hammonton’s Little Italy as well. It doesn’t fit neatly in 2022, but it has adapted and changed, almost always in a good way.
The second reason I ran the photo was because the photos we ran in our June 29 25th anniversary edition drew a lot of response. Yes, I had a lot more hair back then, and yes, the years have helped make it disappear.
Even Joseph F. Berenato commented on our mutual hair loss on a recent “Blueberry Skies” weather report. Those comments, coupled with the missing barber pole, made me think back to the photos I had taken in 2004 of Arena giving me a haircut.
It also made me think of how the Little Italy section and all its improvements is part of the amazing story of Hammonton’s rebirth and renewal during the last 25 years.
For the uninitiated, Hammonton’s Little Italy is the section of town that was once predominantly Italian. Its borders are roughly that of the procession on the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel each 16th of July, minus Bellevue Avenue: Third Street (the main drag of Little Italy), Fairview Avenue, N. Egg Harbor Road and Orchard Street. Pratt Street and French Street, which border the Mt. Carmel Society Festival Grounds, are also involved.
The town’s Public Works Department erected signage as well as red, white and green reflectors on each street sign in Little Italy a few years ago to help delineate the area. It would be fun to have permanent banners on the light poles on Third Street. Who knows? Maybe there could be a gateway to the area at the corner of Third and Orchard Streets, near Marinella Funeral Home. There is a nice sign at Ricca Bros. Brick Oven Pizza.
Back in 2004, the view of Hammonton’s Little Italy as I looked out the plate glass window of John Arena Barber Shop was markedly different. It seemed like the neighborhood could go either way at that time. Fortunately, it went up instead of down, thanks to investors and long-time stakeholders who decided it was worth saving.
While Arena, his barber shop, and the barber shop talk about the town, Philadelphia and local sports, who was related to who and several other topics, all told to the music of my cousin Jimmy Rodio’s WRDR (“Unforgettable” big band music) playing in the background are long gone, 18 years later, they still live on in my memories of Hammonton’s Little Italy. I even have the photos to remind me of those days—and if you look close enough at the top right-hand corner of the photo, you’ll see the tub of Bazooka Joe gum that Arena always handed out, comic and all. I got a piece at the end of my haircut that day in 2004, just as I had in the 1980s when I went there as a kid.
You can’t manufacture this history, and that’s what helps make Hammonton’s Little Italy such an outstanding section of town. It’s original and real, just like the people who lived, worked and visited there, and the ones who still do today.
Gabriel J. Donio is the publisher of The Hammonton Gazette.