New museum chronicles colorful past in black and white

Street Stories

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ You know Walter Potenza, Master Chef, but this story is about Potenza the historian.

Over the years, the well-known restauranteur and cooking instructor has pulled together what might be one of the largest collections of its kind.

“We have in totality about 4,000 pictures,” Potenza says while walking through the Italian Heritage Center on Atwells Avenue.

But now these black-and-white visions of the neighborhoods around Federal Hill are on the move.

After deciding to sell the building that housed the Heritage Center, Potenza went looking for a new home for at least part of the collection that takes you back to a time when thousands of Italian immigrants filled local triple-deckers.

“Atwells is here,” he explains, pointing to a picture from the 50’s showing an Atwells cross street that no longer exists. “And right here is where the fountain is today. It’s called DePasquale Plaza.”

Potenza, who came to America in 1972, sees his own ancestors and others in the still frames from the past.

“They worked very hard to become very successful,” he says. “And to me every time I look at these pictures, it is a sign of the greatness of this country.”

Finding new walls to hang his favorites on was not difficult, and the history is not moving far.

“Ladies and gentlemen, The Federal Hill Room, shaping up,” Potenza says while lugging a framed picture up the stairs of the Italo American Club on Broadway.

About 50 pictures, depicting everything from a long-gone farmers market to a young girl sewing in the parlor of a home, will be displayed in an upstairs room of Maria’s Cucina.

Potenza started cooking in Rhode Island in the early 70s and began tracking down the forgotten frames of history about 20 years ago.

“Providence was the second port of entry into the United States next to Ellis Island,” he says, referencing an image of a line outside a Providence port building. “Immigrant people trying to have a better life for themselves or for their family.”

Potenza’s favorite of all 4,000 is also number one on Club President George Lazzareschi’s list – a silouette of two adults and a child with the Statue of Liberty in the distance.

“That’s how it started here,” Lazzareschi says. “By someone with a vision and a dream, coming over to the United States and starting a family and a life.”

“You take a look at that picture it says, “Wow. I’m relieved. I’m out,” Potenza adds. “And this is what’s confronting me which is a welcoming sign and the greatness of America.”

The pictures that show families in mostly Italian neighborhods will be hung in an Italian restaurant inside an Italian club.

But Potenza emphasizes they represent the struggles shared by everyone looking for their future in America – a century ago and now.

“It makes no difference in my eyes whether you’re Italian, French, Greek, Spanish, or Mexican,” Potenza says. “Immigrant people are the people who with their sweat and blood have made and built this country.”

Email Walt at wbuteau@wpri.com with your story ideas and follow us on Twitter: @StreetStories12 and @wbuteau.

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