Pueblo's Goat Hill
The place itself is still there, but Goat Hill will never know another place in time quite like the years that will be the focus of an upcoming reunion of former residents. Interstate 25 wasn't yet even a dream. The air hung thick with coal dust and the smell of goat cheese, and no one locked their doors. Across the railroad tracks was Smelter Hill, and just beyond that the smelters where Italian and Mexican immigrants toiled day and night to feed and clothe their American-born sons and daughters.
Potestio, Langoni, Patti, Bacino, Madrid, Garcia, Gonzales, Armijo.
Bound together by the poverty of the era and their Catholic faith, these kids never thought to argue about who discovered America. Many of them grew up to become successful business owners and civic leaders, joined by the bonds created in the dusty streets and sandlot ballgames that spawned their dreams of a better life.
Known as Tenderfoot Hill before the 1921 flood, the neighborhood took its new name after a wave of immigrants moved in with gaggles of children and, it seemed, at least one goat per family. Goats roamed the hillside where the men placed washtubs full of dirt to keep the mound intact, eating flowers planted by the women to spruce up the collection of ramshackle shacks and adobe abodes
The kids roamed the neighborhood, too, in search of bread fresh from the oven, a penny for a treat, or enough boys for a game of baseball that would last until they could no longer see the ball or the pitcher's face.
Smelter Hill, also known as Toledo Heights, was founded by a group of squatters who fought city government years later to keep their homes. After several federal projects brought water and sewer service to the area once it was annexed to the city, many of its residents eventually were paid to relocate and their homes were razed to make way for a new highway. Part of the neighborhood now is a police department shooting range. The project shaved off part of Goat Hill, too, but many of the original houses remain and even a few of the early residents. Tony Bacino is one of them, and he'll be among those who gather next month to reminisce about growing up "on the hill" during the years leading up to the Great Depression and the decade that followed.
On summer nights, boys played baseball in an empty dirt lot until it was too dark to see the bases and the diamond lined out with flour. The same lot in the fall was transformed, in the same way, into a football field. The games often spilled onto Ash Street, even after it was paved. Some of the city's top high school athletes developed their skills, their muscles and their strategies on Goat Hill. As John Langoni remembers it, "You had to play well ? cause if you didn't, you'd end up with a mouth full of shale."
If they could pool enough change from their pockets, they'd gather outside the Potestio family's grocery store at Kelly Avenue and Beech Street, and rehash their greatest games over cold Coca-Colas foaming out of the bottles and peanuts soaking up sugar at the bottom. "The biggest treat was Tom's peanuts, if you could find em and if you could afford em," remembers Jim Mastrini, who said the grocery store - the only general store in the neighborhood - was the place for pre- and postgame male bonding, and later, for watching girls and scheming about how to get into one of the nightclubs in town that didn't allow Italians to drink or dance there.
The neighborhood girls did their bonding and growing up at church, or gathered together in steamy kitchens canning tomatoes and fruit or making tortillas and tamales. If they ran out of sugar and had no money, they could get what they needed on credit at the Potestio's store - or from a neighbor next door or blocks away. Jim Potestio said his storekeeper father was a generous man whose relatively good fortune he readily shared with neighbors in need. "We knew all the families from the top to the bottom of the hill," he said. "If they needed something and they couldn't pay, my dad couldn't say no.
Mastrini remembers many cold nights when his mother would send him to a neighbor's house with a big hunk of coal or fresh cheese, and he'd walk back home with something given in trade stowed inside his jacket. His favorite was a stack of tortillas fresh from the frying pan, but hot bread was a common gift-in-trade. "Of course, I could never resist sneaking a tortilla and I thought my mom wouldn't know," he said. "I couldn't eat the bread ?cause she'd know." Not that it mattered. His sister Bea was known around both neighborhoods for her bread, which she baked every Friday.
Concha Avina made the best tortillas, at least to Mastrini's taste. The kids walked en masse to and from Riverside School. Most of it was torn down years later to make way for a new police department building. The auditorium was saved and now is the city's municipal court. Every mom in the neighborhood was a surrogate mom to every child, but certain moms were favorites among all the kids. Josie Langoni topped that list. She was the one to clean skinned knees and elbows and offer gentle advice. "If you had a cut hand, you went to Josie. If you needed a dime, you went to Josie," Mastrini said. It was usually Mrs. Langoni who donated sacks of flour to line the baseball field, as well. And she never said no when young sons John and Tony invited every kid they knew to watch the family's new black-and-white TV when it was the only one in the neighborhood.
The family patriarch, a smelter supervisor, would come home tired and grimy from work each day "and when he walks into the living room, he sees 20 kids sitting around on the floor watching TV. He can barely make his way to his chair, but he doesn't say a word," said Mastrini. When dinner time rolled around, moms from blocks around sent younger siblings to fetch older ones from Josie's house. Evenings often found a full house at the Mastrinis, where mom Mary held sway as the neighborhood's translator, legal advisor and political activist. "She read letters for immigrants who couldn't read, or she'd translate letters from relatives in Italy and even some that were written in Spanish. She helped people get registered to vote - and she'd tell 'em who to vote for, too," Mastrini says with a laugh that heaves his broad shoulders and pinches the creases around deep-set eyes. When she wasn't dispensing advice or translating news from the old country, she was baking bread or chopping meat.
Mastrini and his seven siblings grew up in a small portion of a combination boarding house/grocery store run by his grandparents until most of it burned down. The whole family - three generations - made a home of what was left. Long after the storefront was gone, the Mastrini household remained a favorite gathering place for the men of the neighborhood. They often played cards long into the night, or gathered around outside for hours of conversation made more colorful by glasses of homemade wine.
After advertising for next month's reunion of Goat Hill and Smelter Hill residents from the old days, Mastrini received a letter from a former milkman who said he always made the Mastrini house his last stop so he could have a mug of vino or two before heading home. Mastrini said he and a few other members of the reunion committee started talking about the idea after the events of 9/11. The wave of patriotism that has swept the nation brought back memories of watching young soldiers going off to war in railroad cars that chugged past Goat Hill and Smelter Hill. "Sometimes the trains would stop for a minute, and we'd wave. All the women would be crying and sometimes it made me cry, too," Mastrini said.
So did the news clips of family members waiting for bodies of loved ones to be pulled from the mountain of rubble left behind after the terrorist attacks. With the whole nation rethinking the value of family and community, a handful of old Goat Hill buddies decided it was time to gather once again with old friends who grew up knowing what a younger generation is just beginning to discover. "It was a simpler time. We were all poor, but it didn't matter. We had our families. We had each other. We had love. What else could we have needed?" Mastrini said.
Response to reunion invitations and flyers has been overwhelming, Mastrini said, adding that he's received numerous letters from elderly former neighbors who want to come but don't know how they'll get there.
"It's just so heartwarming. I mean, the neighborhoods have basically been gone for 30 years. But there's still this love between a lot of us that you just don't see anymore."
Published Aug 2, 2002; Updated Aug 25, 2002