Tony the Tour Guy's Blog

A not very regular series of posts on New York City history, historic preservation, genealogy and related themes.

Friday, October 26, 2012

An Italian-American Looks at the Seventies "Guido" Phenomenon

‘Ey, you! Yeah, YOU!! Were you a Guido (or Guidette) during the Seventies?

“They think they’re Italian? Look at me. I AM Italian!”
-Mario, a classmate from Italy, circa 1978

During the 1970s it seemed as if everyone was becoming interested in their ethnic backgrounds. Perhaps fueled by the success of Alex Haley’s 1976 novel ROOTS, as well as the phenomenally popular mini-series that followed, people began to celebrate their ancestry and identify themselves as ‘hyphenated-Americans.” But while some did this in a positive way, such as doing some genealogy or learning a bit of their family’s original language, others adopted some behaviors that had nothing to do with their background. For those of us of Italian ancestry this often took the form of becoming, as we said in Brooklyn, “Guidoed-Out.”

As the great-grandson of a shoemaker from Naples, I was quite taken aback when I saw people identifying themselves and others as “Guidos” or “Guidettes.” These guys seemed to have nothing in common with the people in the Italian side of my family; that was certain. But the phenomenon was very popular around New York, especially at the small college on Staten Island which I attended from 1975 until 1979.

So, what exactly was a Guido? And why did the phenomenon catch on? Being a sociology major at the time, I decided there were three basic kinds of Guidos:

First, there were the Fonzie Clones. A character on the popular TV series “Happy Days” (played by Henry Winkler, a Jewish actor), The Fonz (Alfonso Fonzerelli) was a stereotypical greaser from the 1950s – during a time when there was a lot of nostalgia for that period. The Guidos who adopted the Fonz look wore leather jackets, sported 1950s style haircuts, and often wore a horn-shaped amulet around their necks that is called a “cornu.” (Interestingly, I did some research on this, and found out that the cornu had its origins in Greece). Such young men were into conspicuous consumption and typically drove big cars. My friend JT used to joke that we could make a fortune if we could find a vintage Fifties convertible, park it by the school, and charge these guys a few bucks to have their pictures taken behind the wheel or leaning on the fender. Although typically conservative on political or social issues, some adopted superficial rebellious attitudes, would join fraternities and act up in class. A professor who taught a course in Women’s Studies often found these …errr… men passing by her classroom door and making silly gestures.

Second, there were the Rocky Clones. These were similar to the Fonzies, but more athletic. They hung out in the weight room.

Finally, we had the Travolta Clones, who dressed like the lead character in That Certain Seventies Movie, instead of like greasers. These young men were very into disco music, and would often don leisure suits when they went out dancing. A favorite tune you’d hear at school parties was Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music, White Boy.”

So, what about the women? I’ve heard the term “Guidette” used all the time, but always in reference to someone other than the speaker. The only thing that such women seemed to have in common was that they tended to date Guidos. The changes in sex roles often associated with the Sixties and Seventies were not fully grasped by these couples, who tended to act in accordance with the old stereotypes.

Like my friend Mario, I often wondered just what Guidohood had to do with being Italian-American. (Mario told me that people in Italy laughed at such behavior). Looking back on the whole phenomenon I’ve come to two conclusions. First, people were seeking a sense of identity, a way of connecting with a larger community. Being “Guidoed-out” was their way of trying to belong to a group, even though it had nothing to do with being Italian-American. Secondly, Guido culture can be seen as a reaction against the rapid changes occurring in our larger society, especially regarding gender roles and expectations. To quote those great sociologists Archie and Edith Bunker, in their world “Girls were girls and men were men.”

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Re-reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Most of us have heard of this 1943 novel by Betty Smith, which details the struggles of a young girl and her family in Williamsburg during the period surrounding World War I. If you haven't read it now is the time to do so. Not only is ATGIB a great novel (IMHO), but it provides a great deal of information as to how working class families lived during that era. Indeed, one reason why I decided to re-read the book was to learn about the world which my Italian immigrant ancestors inhabited during the same time frame.


The Williamsburg in which Francie Nolan (the central character) and her family lived and worked is not the trendy, gentrified area we know of today, but rather a collection of immigrant enclaves (some with un-PC nicknames such as "Jew Town") where Life was a daily struggle and Death a regular visitor. Anyone hoping for nostalgia would be most disappointed by Smith's work. But the Nolans, like our ancestors, managed to survive and maintain their dignity.

Some people have described ATGIB as an "Oprah" book, perhaps meaning that it was both written from a woman's perspective and is somewhat optimistic in tone. In that sense, they're right, although it most certainly is not a work full of "affirmations" or other staples of "human potential" literature. People like the Nolans were pragmatists above all else.

If you like audio books, I suggest Audible.com's edition of ATGIB, which is terrific.

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