Sunnyside History: The Story Behind The Name Of The Lou Lodati Playground At 43rd Street & Skillman Ave
Renovated Torsney / Lou Lodati Playground Re-opens
On June 22nd the Queens Park Commissioner, Dorothy Lewandowski and Sunnyside NYC Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer announced the re-opening of what most of us know as the Lou Lodati Playground in Torsney Park in Sunnyside. Over the past two years, a number of renovations have been made to renovate the park facilities, and a dog run was added to accommodate a growing dog population in the Sunnyside neighborhood.
This story includes a brief description of some of the changes made to the park, including a few before and after renovation photos. But this story primarily delves into the story of the man after whom the playground was named in 1999 - Sunnysider & one of the Lowerys Wine & Liquor founders: Lou Lodati. The Lodati story is about early 20th century immigration to America, about the evolution of the wine business in the borough and nation, and about an evolving Sunnyside community.
The photo to your right was taken circa 1937 when Lowerys Wine & Liquor store opened to the public. In the photo from left to right are Alfred & Louis Lodati, Albert Garbarino [Maria Lodati's husband], Valentino Simone [Philomena Lodati's husband] and Anthony Lodati.
Click here for a snapshot of NYC neighborhood history of Italians in NYC.
Sunnyside History: The Story Behind The Name Of The Lou Lodati Playground At 43rd Street & Skillman Ave
Renovated Torsney / Lou Lodati Playground Re-opens
Two years ago, in early June 3rd of 2011, the Queens Parks Commissioner, Dorothy Lewandowski, and City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer came to the Lou Lodati Playground to announce changes planned for the park.
In the photo shown to the right and in the slide show below, you can see the plans which included a new dog run to accommodate a fast growing Sunnyside dog population as well as upgrades to the baseball diamond, the addition of volleyball courts, the movement and accommodation of the basketball half courts and improvements to the seating area adjacent to the kids playground. On June 22nd, 2013 these same government officials returned to formally unveil the playground improvements upon which the city spent approximately $1.5 million.
So who was Sunnysider Lou Lodati?
I began my inquiry some time ago, and over the years picked up little bits of information here and there, the sum of which is presented herein. As mentioned in the introduction, this story is a mix of the history of early 20th century Italian immigration to America, a very brief account of the development of the wine business, and a small window into the evolving community life and institutions of Sunnyside over the past century.
Louis Lodati was Dominick and Antoinette Lodato’s son [see photo to left - Lou Lodati in the 1990's]. Dominick Lodato and his wife Antoinette were born in a small village named Cava de’ Tirreni near Salerno, in the Campania region of Italy [see map below right]. Salerno is about 30 miles south of Naples and about 150 miles south of Rome. And the Campania region is well known as food and wine country - even to this day.
Campania Region of Italy - A Culture Of Food & Wine
The Campania region's reputation for food and wine goes back centuries and likely millenia. The region has rich fertile soil, some of which is comprised of the volcanic ash of Mount Vesuvius. Fine vineyards and wines evolved with the passing of time and Campania cuisine was influenced in part by periodic invasions by the French. The region is well known for its Neapolitan pizza, spaghetti puttanesca, great tomatoes, grapes, red peppers, lemons and fish. Luigi [aka Louis] Lodato was born to Dominick and Antoinette in the cultural milieu of Campania Italy in 1908, and he lived in the village of Cava de’ Tirreni until 1916, at which time his parents emigrated to America.
Italian Immigration To Queens & America
The vast majority of the 19th and early 20th century American immigrants came from the German Empire, the Austria-Hungarian Empire, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy, Russia and Scandinavia. It's been estimated that nearly 30 million immigrants came to America in the century leading up to WWI. And the Lodatos entered through Ellis Island, like many of the other nearly three and a half million Italian immigrants that came to America during the early part of the 20th century.
In the early part of the 20th century about 600 American government officials would process about 5,000 immigrants per day. In 1907 a law was passed to limit the number of immigrants passing through Ellis Island each day. The 600 government officials working on Ellis Island, included about 100 medical personnel, about 50 interpreters and the remainder of the government workers included security, administrative and sanitation personnel.
Dominick Lodato Becomes Dominick Lodati
While passing through the immigration process at Ellis Island, a government official asked Dominick Lodato if his name was Lodati. Dominick's command of the English language wasn't very good at the time and he nodded his head affirmatively – hence the family name was thereafter changed to Lodati.
In the photo above left are Antoinette [Baino] and Dominick Lodati in the 1920's. In the photo above right are the Lodatis and their children Louis, Anthony, Alfred, Maria and Philomena.
Dominick and Antoinette Lodati first moved to Waterbury, Connecticut along with Dominick's seven brothers and sisters, before eventually settling down in the Long Island City / Sunnyside neighborhood. Dominick found a job in the Astoria Chiclets Gum Factory, while Antoinette took care of their five children: Louis, Anthony, Alfred, Maria and Philomena.
Development Of Queens: Subway & Sunnyside Gardens 1917 - 1928
In the 1920's, as Dominick and Antoinette Lodati were settling into the Sunnyside neighborhood, it was comprised primarily of Irish immigrants with some Jews [there was a synagogue on 41st Street] and some Italians spread throughout the neighborhood. The subway between Queens and Manhattan had opened in 1917, enabling working class people to buy homes in Queens and work in Manhattan.
Sunnyside Gardens was erected from 1924 - 1928 with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt who was the New York Governors wife. The model for the new development was to incorporate open space into urban development.
Prohibition Ends: The Lodatis Open A Cordial Shop & Then Lowerys
The Prohibition ended in 1933. During the 1930's and 1940's, most of the wines consumed in America were primarily from the European countries, most notably Italy, France and Germany. And as Italians, the Lodati’s cultural knowledge of wine made them well suited to become knowledgeable wine vendors.
At the age of 21, shortly after the Prohibition ended in 1933, Louis Lodati and his brothers [Alfred and Anthony] opened a store that sold cordials. Cordials are a strong sweet liqueur. The shop was opened on Queens Blvd between 39th and 40th Streets, within a block of where they would subsequently open Lowery’s Wine and Liquor store in 1937.
They named the wine and liquor store Lowery’s after the #7 subway line stop at 40th Street in Sunnyside. At the time, there was a Lowery’s Bakery Shop, a Lowery’s Hardware Store and a Lowery’s Drug Store. Only the bakery has survived along with Lowerys Wine & Liquors, although the bakery goes by another name and is under different ownership. See photo in story introduction of the three brothers in front of the Lowerys store not long after it had been opened.
In the photo above right are the three Lodati brothers [sons of Dominick] at an Italian Charities event. Anthony Lodati [far left], Alfred Lodati [third from left] and Lou Lodati is on the far right.
Lowerys Wine & Liquors: Expansion & Renovations
Lowerys Wine & Liquors started out as a one store front shop and later expanded, taking over the store next to it. During the expansion, Lou Lodati hired some local Italian craftsmen to install store wall shelving that made the store reflect an ambiance of a fine wine cellar of a vineyard [see photo at left]. They built finely crafted oak shelves that were assembled without nails, and still have the solid oak look, feel and finish, even to this day.
Cassel's Bar In Sunnyside
Next door to Lowerys Wine & Liquor store, members of Antoinette Baino's family [Louis's mother] opened a bar which they gave one of the family names: Cassel's. Cassel’s bar was run by the Cassel family for many years before it was sold sometime in the late 20th century. The Lodati’s and the Cassel’s planted deep roots in the Sunnyside community as their families grew up in it. The three sons of Dominick - Lou, Alfred & Anthony [see photo at beginning of story] worked the wine and liquor store, while their sisters and wives raised the children. Over time some members of the Lodati family pursued other jobs in the wine and liquor business such as working for wholesalers as salemen.
In the photo above left are: FRONT ROW: Lou Lodati far left, Tina Lodati [Lou's son Robert's wife - first woman from left], Robert Lodati [front / center with mustache]. BACK ROW: Alfred and Louis Lodati III [Louis Lodati Jr's sons], Frank Mastronardi, Claire [Anthony Lodati's wife], Anthony [Lou Lodati's son] and Suzanne [Lou Lodati Jr's daughter].
Lowerys: A Microcosm Of The Wine Business In Queens
I met a wholesaler / distributor on one of my visits to Lowerys while preparing this story. He carried with him an old black and white photo of his father who had also worked as a salesman in the wine and liquor business. Over the years, Queens family wine and liquor distributorships have been bought up by larger entities. The salesman told me that the distributorship his father had worked for, Alpine, had been purchased by Empire Merchants many, many years ago. In the photo to your right is Salvatore (Tuttie) D'Angelo circa 1950 standing in front of the cargo entrance of his wine & liquors distributor truck.
In the 1950’s the wine market in America began to change. Companies like Gallo had taken it upon themselves to grow great grapes on California soil and produce wines which they could sell at prices affordable to the average American. By the 1960’s American wines were gaining ground on their European counterparts, and by the 1980’s American wines had achieved near parity status with respect to making quality wines.
Lowerys: Wines From Around The World Available In Queens
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, South American, Austrailian and New Zealand wines began making inroads into the American market, helped by favorable foreign exchange rates as the strong dollar enabled them to provide great value to the American consumer. This phenomenon persists on a much smaller scale today. But the quality of these regional wines has improved significantly, following a trend started by the California vintners in the 1950's to make competitive world wines. Today Lowerys Wine & Liquors buys and sells wines from around the world and their store reflects the now global nature of the business.
Over the past 30 to 40 years the family collected promotional mirrors which hang from the walls, given by the wholesalers as promotional prizes. The mirrors reflect a blend of the art and history of the wine and liquor business over the past quarter decade. We have included some photos of the mirrors in the slide show below. In the photo to your left is one of the mirrors, showing Willie Mays of the New York Giants, which hangs on a store wall at Lowerys Wine & Liquors. Lou Lodati was a huge baseball fan.
1946 - 1947: Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce, Kiwanis Club & Drum Corps
As the wine business grew, so did the Lodati family. All five children of Dominick Lodati became parents themselves. During this time Lou Lodati also became actively involved in the governance of Sunnyside, by helping to form the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce in 1947 along with other community leaders such as Joe Sabba, Publisher of the Woodside Herald; Ed & Mary Lynch of Lynch’s Funeral Home, and Henri X. Billharz of Harz Plumbing. All of these family run businesses are still operating today, with Lynch's Funeral Home on Queens Blvd, Harz Plumbing is on 47th Street next to the Anorac Democratic Club, and the Woodside Herald is on Greenpoint Avenue.
As early as in 1951 a dinner was held in Lou Lodati's honor by the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce in recognition of his contributions to the community. In the photo above you can see other community leaders like Ed & Mary Lynch of Lynch’s Funeral Home, Joe and Sylvia Sabba of the Woodside Herald, and possibly Henri X. Billharz of Harz Plumbing on 47th Street.
The Sabbas, Lynchs, and Billharz are shown in the photo above. We have isolated them in close ups in the slide show below.
It's worth mentioning that Joe Sabba founded the Sunnyside Drum Corps in 1946 and Henri Billharz founded the Sunnyside Kiwanis Club in 1947 with the support of Lou Lodati. All of these people joined together to help each other create some of the Sunnyside institutions that continue to this day. The Sunnyside Kiwanis Club is dedicated to helping those less fortunate than the members.
'Mayor of Sunnyside': Lou Lodati & Community Service
Lou Lodati’s kids remember him as a tireless worker, spending twelve-hour days in the store, nearly every business day. They remember how he helped organize and run many civic charities to raise money for those in need.
An example of this sort of community charity work showed up in a photo [at left and see slide show], where a number of the community leaders got together to help the family of a young boy who had lost his leg in a car accident. They raised money by pumping gas, checking the oil and putting air in the tires of customers at the 43rd Street Mobil gas station, [which still stands to this day] and raised enough money to buy the young lad a prosthetic leg. Over time, because of his civic involvement, Lou Lodati came to be known as the unofficial ‘Mayor of Sunnyside’.
In the photo above right are: Lou Lodati [standing at left], Ed Lynch [lower at left], as Heimie Nussbaum [center] and Dr. Nussbaum [far right] and two other unnamed Kiwanis members observe.
Third & Fourth Generations: The Lodatis in Sunnyside
The third generation of Lodatis carry many of the same family first names as the second. Anthony is the middle son who now runs Lowerys; while Louis Jr, the oldest son retired from the wholesaler / salesman business. Both of Anthony's brothers, Louis and Robert, and his sister-in-law Tina [Robert's wife], still work at the store. It seems their participation in the family business is more out of a love for the business than for anything else.
During a time when so many locally-owned businesses change hands or disappear, it’s nice to see others - like Lowerys - carry on the family traditions of serving the community. Small businesses must strike the balance between staying true to the values of old, while adapting to and staying abreast of the new. To this day, Lou Lodati's children own and manage Lowerys Wine & Liquors with a daily family presence in the store and community.
The Lou Lodati Playground & The Gold Star Of Italy
Lou Lodati's father, Dominick, had left behind seven brothers in the small town of Cava de’ Tirreni in Italy. All of these brothers had visited America, but all except Dominick, had decided to return home to Italy. Hence there was a strong family connection to the Italian homeland, which the younger Lodatis didn’t forget. In the photo to your left is the new dog run adjacent to the Lou Lodati Playground at Torsney Park in Sunnyside.
Lou Lodati sent back money from America to help his relatives and the larger community in which they lived, by helping fund a youth organization. For his contributions to those in Italy, in the mid 1960’s [we believe 1966] he received the Gold Star of Italy.
One of Lou Lodati’s passions was baseball. For 25 years he headed up the Kiwanis baseball program. The Lou Lodati Playground was commemorated in his honor with some recognition to his passion, as in the corner of the park on 43rd Street and Skillman Avenue is home plate [see photo at left].
Lou Lodati died in 1999. In 2001 the Lou Lodati Playground at 43rd Street and Skillman Avenue was designated in his honor by Mayor Rudolph Guiliani in tandem with City Council Member McCaffrey, who recently died in July of 2013.
Lou Lodati's surviving sisters, Maria and Philomena, along with his three sons – Louis, Anthony and Robert [note many of the first names are the same as those of the prior generation which can be confusing] – were in attendance at the Mayor’s signing at City Hall and the commemoration at the park. In the photo to your right are [from left to right]: Robert [son], Philomena Simone [sister], McCaffrey [City Council Member], Anthony [son], Maria Garbarino [sister] and Louis Jr [son].
Lou Lodati’s legacy lives on. It lives on in the park, and it lives on in Lowerys Wine & Liquors continued community involvement. Lowerys Wine & Liquor store has been a family run business serving the community for 76 years and I hear tell that Anthony’s son, John, has shown an interest in keeping the business in the family for years to come.
Hence the story of the Lou Lodati and the Playground named after him, is a story about how people came to America in search of a better life and found it by taking risks, working hard and serving their community. It's also a story of American generosity, as having achieved some measure of success for themselves, they shared it by helping others.
Photos of the History of the Lodatis of Sunnyside Queens & of the Renovated Lou Lodati Playground in Sunnyside
The following slide show contains photos of the history of the Lodati family of Sunnyside Queens. Click here to go directly into the photo album containing photos of Lodati Family of Sunnyside Queens.
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