The Northside Oral History Project

Sam Catania: Unofficial Historian of N. 12th St.

by Robert Preissler

Sam CataniaSam Catania and his wife, Alice, were the first to welcome us into our Northside home near N. 12th St. and Taylor, and they made us feel like we had chosen a place where we could feel comfortable and happy raising our children. Its simple but immaculately kept yard makes theirs the nicest home on the block. Always working in his garage fixing something for his children, neighbors' or his own, Sam, at 77, is as active as a man half his age. He is always coming and going; he is never one to put a job off until later. It is Sam who has been there so many times when we needed that tool or an extra hand, right up to big projects like building an iron gate to protect our young children. Sam and Alice have been good neighbors and have always been there for us from a morning chat to a helping hand.

Our corner of the Northside neighborhood is full of houses dating back to the early 1920s. In the sidewalk cement are the names of families who had once built and lived in the homes. We knew this was a unique area. Sam told us about our home being built in 1923. And it was from Sam that we slowly began hearing the stories of the family that had lived in our house and about the history of our neighborhood. As the unofficial historian of 12th St., Sam has been here for more than three-quarters of a century. He was born just two doors up from where he lives now. His childhood house is still where his father built it and is where his older sister still lives today. Sam's father made wine in its basement.

Every time we talked, more and more of the history came out. I gathered the stories in my mind for future reference. Finally, I asked Sam if he minded if I recounted here the whole story. This is what he told me.

Sam's was a large family with roots back to Italy. His grandfather immigrated to America, arriving in New Orleans to work in Louisiana's sugar fields. The family moved to San Jose, where Sam=s father met his wife, Rose. The Catania family lived in a barn until they built their Northside home in an area that was at the time full of apricot groves and prunes, an area known for being where the poor people lived. It was in that barn that Sam was born in 1923, by mid-wife. "When you were poor, you could not go to a doctor," Sam says. Sam was baptized at Holy Cross Church, which had been built along Jackson St. in 1922.

During Sam's early years, N. 12th St. was unpaved and families cooked outside because natural gas was not yet available to them. "Everyone cooked outside in outdoor ovens; my mother had an oven where she baked her bread. You had to wait in line," Sam recalls. Northside was a hard-working neighborhood at the time. "Most of the people pruned trees, worked in the canneries, saving their money to get ahead. Most of the homes had gardens and chickens and most people only went to the grocery store for essentials."

Chiaramonte's Market, still operating on 13th St., "was the best grocer around," according to Sam. "They made Italian sausages; they were good people and treated everybody fair."

Sam's childhood happened at a time that is hard to imagine in present-day San Jose. "My grandfather lived on Mission and 12th. He had two acres of almonds and prickly pears. He used to come by with two horses and a wagon selling produce to the stores and the markets," Sam recalls. Sam's father worked for the City of San Jose and rode a bicycle to work; he never learned to drive a car. Sam can still name the families of the houses that lined the street during his childhood. He says there are some old friends who still live in the area; others are long gone.

The Gordon Biersch bottling plant along Taylor St. used to be a cannery. The cannery tried to hire Sam during the Second World War, but it was too noisy for Sam's tastes. "For work, the vegetable market, the cannery, and that was it," says Sam. "You had to look around to make a living."

Like many of his friends, as a youth Sam worked unloading water, cutting grass, selling newspapers and magazines - anything for a little pocket change. "We had a guy who delivered water from Oakland. We waited for him. He paid us kids three dollars to help unload it. I think his name was Mr. Fox, Fox Water Company, and he was bought out by Alhambra."

Although he worked hard, Sam remembers that his youth was also a time of play. One year the San Jose Chamber of Commerce held a Santa Clara Valley a marble contest at Backesto Park and Sam and his good friend, Bud Barrone, won first prize. "I still have the ribbon," Sam smiles proudly.

I was curious to know more about Backesto Park, which is the center of our Northside neighborhood. "The park had a big swimming pool; it was really a wading pool. The City pumped in water and changed it on the weekend," Sam recalls. "People would practice fly-fishing, but after the War they dug it up."

Another fun sport was Luna Park, an amusement park along 13th St. and the old section of Berryessa Rd. "It had boxing matches, entertainers and walk-a-thons where people would compete for prizes in dance marathons to see how long they could stay on their feet," says Sam. "It was a park area where people would go and have a picnic and spend the day."

It's hard to imagine that the open space which existed at the time. Our house was built up high with a cement border because N. 12th St. was dirt and when it rained the street turned to mud. Sam had a horse that he kept in the yard and on weekends he and his friends would ride out to the mountains and stay for the whole day. At Coyote Creek, they had rope swings. "There were no dams. There was always four or five feet of water. It was not contaminated," says Sam. "The Civic Center was a 60-acre cauliflower patch owned by Joey Franco. The City condemned it and then bought it for $125,000."

Then there was "Barberia Field," between 4th and 10th Sts., "where people went to hunt jack rabbits and squirrels. It also had a baseball field where the local Japanese team played touring major league teams."

Sam and his friends loved going to the movies. The movie theaters were old-time movie palaces, and they had names like The State, The American, Lyric, Victory or Padre. Sam and his friends would see the films of Roy Rogers and Tom Mix. Sam liked the musicals best.

Model T's ran up and down Oakland Rd., stopping in small crossroads such as Milpitas and Fremont. Streetcars ran along Santa Clara St. and out as far as Campbell. A bus traveled from Luna Park to downtown. "Downtown was pretty much the same," according to Sam. "But with no parking meters."

Every year in the neighborhood, after Christmas, everyone burned all their Christmas trees on Tenth St. in a bonfire. "They served Italian pastries called sivingees," says Sam.

It was in sports that Sam had the greatest sense of camraderie and friendship. Sam loved playing baseball for the Grant School team. Sam's memories were most vivid when he shared his stories of this time. "Mr. Holland was our school principal," remembers Sam. "He had a red Nash automobile and took us to baseball games. He was a wonderful person." On the baseball team, everyone got to play. "It was not who won, it was that you got to play."

The 1936 Grant School baseball team. Top row (l to r): Sam Catania, Bud Barone, Vince Navarra, Bob Welch, Nick Baggese, Anthony Saso and Wesley Stevenson. Bottom row (l to r): James Caputo, Sal Ciraulo, Dom Zoccoli, Nick Tanner, Ben Turturici and Jack Barcelona.

In his teens, Sam attended San Jose Tech, where he studied drafting. Later, Sam worked at Hendy Ironworks drafting and building the engine for the Jeromiah O'Brien Liberty docked in the San Francisco Bay. "They would all smoke and you couldn't breathe," Sam recalls. He lasted only about four or five years. He couldn't tolerate sitting still.

At 23, Sam was married to Alice. Right after his marriage, Sam went to work as a truck driver for Amerian Brothers Produce because he disliked sitting behind a desk. The Amerians started with 20 ft-by-20 ft stand at the vegetable market now occupied by a condo complex between Jackson and Taylor Sts. Sam woorked for Amerian Brothers for almost 40 years as the "go to guy" until he retired as a Teamster's union member in 1986.

Sam's children, a boy and two girls, all went to Grant School. His three grand-daughters are the apples of his eye.

Had the neighborhood changed, I asked Sam. "The neighborhood has changed," Sam replied. "The quietness has not. It is still the quiet part of town."

I asked Sam why he had lived so long in the Northside neighborhood; why he hadn't ever lived anywhere else. Simple: "I promised my mother I would not move out of the house until my mother died. She lived to be 99." Spry at the age of 77, it looks like Sam will be around for a long time himself.

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