Peter Peroni and the Chambersburg That Was

Authored by Joshua Melissari

Stapled letters between Trenton Free Public Library Director and author Peter Peroni
Correspondence between Peter Peroni and Veronica Cary, circa 1979, courtesy of the Trentoniana Collection of the Trenton Free Public Library.

Pictured above is a copy of correspondence from 1979 between the director of the Trenton Free Public Library, Ms. Veronica Cary, and local Trenton sociologist and historian, Mr. Peter Peroni II. The initial letter from Mr. Peroni urges the library to purchase his book, The Burg: An Italian-American Community at Bay in Trenton, which Ms. Cary subsequently agreed to purchase. This book was the first formal academic study on the Chambersburg neighborhood located in East Trenton. At the time of the book’s publication, Chambersburg was a working- and middle-class Italian neighborhood in a city that was shifting to an African-American and Hispanic majority. In 1980, a year after the publication of Mr. Peroni’s book, the population of  Trenton was about 46 % Non-Hispanic White, 45 % African-American, and 8 % Hispanic (Gibson and Jung 2005, 79). By contrast, the demographic makeup of Trenton in 2019 was 14 % Non-Hispanic White, 48 % African-American, and 36 % Hispanic (Data USA 2019). Like many American cities, the flight of White residents to suburbia was a major cultural and historical shift and is reflected in the materials in the collection of the Trentoniana archive in the Trenton Free Public Library.

The Burg is an excellent sociological time capsule of a neighborhood that has significantly changed in the last thirty years. The book defines Chambersburg as an area of about 100 square blocks in the East Ward of Trenton. Once an independent municipality, Chambersburg was annexed by neighboring Trenton in 1888. During the major wave of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century, large numbers of Italians immigrants settled in Chambersburg, many finding work in Trenton’s then numerous factories. Using extensive interviews with residents of Chambersburg, Mr. Peroni paints a vivid picture of the families who lived there at the time. Mr. Peroni describes a close-knit and socially conservative community sharing Italian heritage. Mr. Peroni writes extensively on the upwardly mobile aspirations of members of the community, the importance of the Catholic Church within the community, and the allegiance of the community to old style ward politics of the local Democratic Party. Long-standing issues that would lead many of the Italian residents to leave the community, such as hostility to school desegregation are discussed. In 1981, Mr. Peroni produced a documentary called The Burg – A State of Mind, where he interviewed and filmed participants during their daily routines and during a festival and wedding. The documentary has since been uploaded to Youtube for anyone to watch (Peroni 1981).

As of 2019, the Chambersburg neighborhood has become the center of the Hispanic community in Trenton (Edelstein 2019). Most of the population are first- or second-generation immigrants from Central and South America. Like the original Italian immigrants to Chambersburg, these new residents are developing a unique community and looking for a better life for their families. Peter Peroni’s work serves as a reminder that America’s cities are dynamic and can change over time.

References

Data USA. 2019. “Trenton, NJ Data.” Accessed March 17, 2019. https://datausa.io/profile/geo/trenton-nj/.

Edelstein, Jeff. 2019. “Chambersburg, 1981, right there on YouTube”. The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ) January 19, 2019. https://www.trentonian.com/news/chambersburg-right-there-on-youtube-jeff-edelstein-column/article_485c58ac-104c-11e9-ac36-bf0dd094222b.html.

Gibson, Campbell and Jung, Kay. 2005. Historical Census Statistics On Population Totals By Race, 1790 to 1990, and By Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, For Large Cities And Other Urban Places In The United States. US Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0076/twps0076.html.

Peroni, Peter. 1979. The Burg: An Italian-American Community at Bay in Trenton. (Washington, DC: University Press of America.

Peroni, Peter. 1981. The Burg -A State of Mind. Filmed 1981. YouTube Video, 35:45. Posted by “Jim DeLorenzo,” December 27, 2018. https://youtu.be/1-no8RrBu_g

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