Louis Cochi sat next to his best friend, Antonio, as he enjoyed the unseasonably warm 70-degree weather on a late October afternoon.
With his thick Italian accent, the 82-year-old could go on forever about how much he loves his life and his home just off of Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.
His hair, white and uncombed, stuck straight up in the air, as if he had just rolled out of bed. He wore a gray, short-sleeved shirt complimented by nylon Adidas pants and worn-out New Balance sneakers — not exactly fashion conscious, but that doesn’t matter to Cochi. He is a simple man with simple desires and values.
As children ran around the playground, calling to one another as they played tag, Cochi quietly observed it all from his favorite bench in Vincent Ciccarone Park, between 187th and 188th streets.
“This neighborhood has changed 100 percent,” he said in broken English. “When I first came up here, it was beautiful. It was better. It was more people — more Italian people, more Jewish. Still you’ve got some, but before it was plenty.”
Arthur Avenue, though literally a road, more commonly refers to an area located in the Belmont section of the Bronx that has long been known for its predominantly Italian culture. But in the past few decades, the Italian population in Belmont has dwindled to a few blocks surrounding Arthur Avenue, while the Latino, black and Albanian populations have grown rapidly.
Cochi has lived in an apartment on Crotona Avenue, just a few blocks from Arthur Avenue, since 1956, when he came to New York from Italy to start a family with his wife who had left for America five years earlier.
“I worked in the same shop for 25 years,” he said, reminiscing about his life in America. “I was a tailor. I always used my hands, and I could do everything. I was the best in everything. And then everything changed. Everything became machines, and they said no more hands because we got to save money.”
Cochi said that at that time, everyone was like a family. But now, because the area is so ethnically diverse, he feels there is no longer that sense of community.
“Even at work … it was like a family. We were together. We were like 500 people — Italian, Jewish, Greek, everything. It was like minestrone,” he said as a smile crept onto his face. “We would eat together, get coffee together. … Everything was together and we’d enjoy life. It’s not that way anymore.”
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, people of Latino origin make up 48.4 percent of the population in the Bronx. Conversely, white people represent about 29.9 percent of the population.
Other residents and business owners have felt the change in the neighborhood as well. However, they view it as something to be accepted.
“For me to say whether I like the change of a neighborhood … who am I to say?” said Chris Borgatti, owner of Borgatti’s Ravioli and Egg Noodles. Borgatti, 53, was the third generation in his family to work at the shop, which was established in 1934 at the corner of 187th Street and Belmont Avenue. “I realize there’s been a lot of diversity in the New York area through the years. People have come here to find the same opportunities that my grandparents did. … I have no problem with that.”
Even Cochi, who never misses an opportunity to point out how much better Arthur Avenue used to be, made it clear he never judges others by their ethnicity.
“I like anyone of any nationality — even the Chinese,” he said, nodding towards a Chinese restaurant across the street. “I get along with everybody. … Everybody has a job. Everybody has children. … We are nice and peaceful.”
And despite the demographics shift, Cochi was certain in saying this will always be his home.
“Where else am I going to go?” he said with a chuckle. “I’ve got my apartment. I’ve got my wife. I shop; she cooks. I come over here with my friends. We play cards. … Better than this, it can’t come.”
As he leaned back on his bench, another man walked along the perimeter of the park and whistled to Cochi. After getting his attention, the man gestured toward Cochi to come with him.
“He wants to go to the library,” Cochi said. Grunting as he stood up, he gathered his belongings and promised to return the next day, as long as the weather remained bearable. And as he and his friend Antonio disappeared through the park gate to meet the other man, the children of a new generation continued to play tag on the playground.
“I like anyone…even the Chinese,” the Italian guy says. Uh-huh. If he likes Chinese (who must be put in a separate category of, supposedly, the worst minority ever), then he must like anybody. So much for the “I accept diversity in my neighborhood” act. Just substitute “Latino” or “black” for “Chinese” and you’ll see his real feelings.