Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
Hartford’s Mechanic Street passed away in the early months of 2003; the exact date is not known. It was located near the city’s riverfront for well over 120 years. While the street had functioned only as an entrance to a few small parking lots for the last three decades, it had played a vital role as home for many of the city’s working families. The cause of its death was the construction of Adriaen’s Landing, one more attempt to revitalize downtown by displacing the people who live there.
Known as Grove Lane in the 1850s, Mechanic Street ran north, parallel to Front Street, from Potter to Grove. By 1880 it was listed in Geer’s City Directory as Mechanic Street. The term “mechanic” was a general term for skilled worker, in contrast to farmers and laborers, beginning in the late 1700s. (The Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations, for instance, was formed by carpenters, tailors, stevedores, and others in 1827.)
In fact, Mechanic Street was always home to a wide range of Hartford’s working people, from machinists to rag pickers. In 1914, the street was the residence of teamsters, gardeners, and shop helpers. Cono Cammarano lived at 25 Mechanic Street and walked around the block to open his café on Front Street. By 1929, city employees and state highway workers also called Mechanic Street home, as did a large number of laborers. Mrs. Essie Pitts, tobacco worker, lived at number 17. Ray Jackson, a farmer, lived at 33. Workers from Underwood Typewriter, Pope Automobile Factory, and the Standard Oil Company also returned home to Mechanic Street at the end of their shifts.
While there were probably never more fifteen buildings on the street, at various times during the 1920s and 30s Mechanic Street hosted Giovanni Celia’s grocery store, Nicholas Lippo’s woodworking shop, Shepard’s tobacco store, as well as a medicine shop, poultry supply store, a warehouse and the Aetna Brush Company.
Mechanic Street was part of the Front Street neighborhood, well known as the center of Hartford’s Italian community. The street’s claim to fame may have been that it was home to the DeMaio family. Veteran union organizer Ernie DeMaio was born at home in 1908. In 1920, Ernie’s father and Uncle were rounded up in the anti-communist witch hunt known as the Palmer Raids. Ernie was active in the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti and then with the Unemployed Councils. He began union organizing with the 1934 general textile strike and later with the Metal Workers Industrial Union. When the United Electrical Workers union (UE) was formed in 1936, DeMaio was one of the first four organizers hired at $10 a week. Within three years, the UE had 125,000 members.
Front Street’s demise came with the building of Constitution Plaza, a great scheme to breathe life into the city by eliminating the local neighborhood. Like the Hartford Civic Center a few decades later, Constitution Plaza wiped out familiar streets and homes with no thought to the families it displaced. Mechanic Street survived the rise of the Plaza, but it was never the same. In 1975, there were only five buildings and five residents listed including Johnnie Brown, janitor.
Two years later, all the apartments on Mechanic Street were vacant.