Little Italy a lively place in southwest downtown
There once was a place in Grand Junction where the aroma of freshly baked bread filled the air, kids played in the street, and everyone knew everyone else by name. It was a close-knit neighborhood, where neighbor looked out for neighbor.
This was Little Italy. The boundaries were approximately from First Street on the west to Fifth Street on the east (excluding Whitman Park) and Colorado Avenue on the north to South Avenue on the south.
There were three Italian grocery stores from Pitkin to Colorado avenues. Longo’s was where Simmons Lock & Key is now. Raso Grocery was on the east side of the 200 block of S. Second Street. And, last but not least, was Stranges Grocery at 226 Pitkin Ave., owned by Carl Stranges.
Steven Stranger, Carl’s great-nephew, said that the location of Little Italy was a good fit. Most of the men worked for the railroad, which made for an easy commute to work. It was also a great place to raise children in a neighborhood where everyone felt safe. And the climate here was much like that of their former homes in Italy.
Steven said that what always amazed him when talking with his father about the grocery store was that the Italian community was tight-knit, and its members were that way for survival. The reason you worked side by side was that you had to eat.
Daily, the aroma of freshly baked bread floated through the air from the bread being baked in brick ovens in the backyards. The women took turns baking and shared the bread with the other families. That way the load was shared, and women didn’t have to bake bread every other day.
“When my family came from Italy, the government was very corrupt (there) so there was no trust in the government, and the immigrants figured that the banks were part of the government and didn’t trust doing business with a bank,” Steven said. “If they needed money they would either sell some of their land or borrow among themselves. The belief was that the banks would get you into trouble.”
From the records at the Mesa County Clerk and Recorders office, it would appear that is what Carl Stranges, Steven’s uncle, did. The records show that Carl sold land at the same time he was starting work on the grocery store.
Carl hired Nunzio Grasso, a respected Western Slope mason who had done much construction, to build his store.
Al Grasso, grandson of Nunzio, said the building was constructed with a flat roof. In the 1920s Nunzio put on a truss roof and covered it with cedar shingles. In the 1930s Al’s Uncle Mike and his father, Louie, contracted to build a chimney for the furnace, using stone from the same place in the Bookcliffs where Nunzio had quarried the stone for the store.
Al said Carl and his first wife, who simply disappeared one day, lived in an apartment above the store. However, Annuziatta, Carl’s second wife and Al’s grandmother, never lived in the apartment. Al said that he believes the back porch was added in the late 1920s.
Steven said the Stranges family had several restaurants, one of which was the Manhattan Café in the 300 block of Main Street, and a couple of grocery stores. One was Carl’s and the other was Mae Paonessa’s, which later became Longo’s. After Carl moved to California the Stranges Grocery became Mae’s Grocery store. The Paonessas also owned the Third and Pitkin property where Catholic Outreach is building housing for veterans.
According to Steven, his uncle and his Italian friends believed that the Irish, who ran St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, didn’t like the Italians and didn’t want them in their church. For those reasons the Italians for years celebrated Mass in the basement of a house in the Little Italy neighborhood. Steven said that is why his folks, from what he has been able to learn, changed their last name Stranges to Stranger. Their name was never legally changed; his family just started using it.
Carl died in 1943 in California and was buried in the Orchard Mesa Cemetery.
The Stranges Grocery was placed on Colorado Most Endangered Places list in 2001.
(Next week: the Grasso family.)
Kathy Jordan is retired from The Daily Sentinel. She is involved in many local preservation efforts and is on the board of directors for Colorado Preservation Inc.