The Bronx Italian Immigrant Who Helped Construct the Empire State Building

This article was originally published on May 1, 2015 and we are republishing to note that sadly, Florinda “Fiore” Conte passed away on Sunday, December 1, 2019 and is now at rest with her late husband Vincenzo Mazzella.

Aniello Conte in his younger years.

On May 1, 1931, the Empire State Building opened to the public after 2 years of construction of the landmark, Art Deco building which remained the world’s tallest structure for almost 40 years.

But this isn’t about the building but about one of the men who helped build this monument to American ingenuity—Aniello Conte, an Italian, undocumented immigrant to America.

Aniello Conte, grandfather of Melrose native Civita Mazzella who now resides in Morris Park, was born in 1883 on the Italian island of Ponza, a rustic island who’s main industries back then were farming and fishing.

Mr Conte came to the United States and settled in the Melrose neighborhood of The Bronx, an area where many Ponzese had settled in the tenements that dotted the area. He lived where Christopher Court and Maria Lopez Plaza apartments currently stand on Morris Avenue between 150th and 152nd Streets.

Morris Avenue at 149th Street looking north into Melrose. The top picture was taken circa 1903 (credit unknown) and the bottom image was taken by Welcome2TheBronx in 2015.
As you can see, all the buildings on the right-hand side still exist up until 152nd Street. Beyond that now is Alfred E. Smith HS’s athletic field, Melrose Houses and Andrew Jackson Houses of NYCHA.
On the left hand side you see the tenements where Aniello Conte once lived and below they have been replaced with Michelangelo Apartments, Christopher Court Apartments, and Maria Lopez Plaza with Concourse Plaza Apartments looming in the distance.

As a young man, recently married and with children, there was little to no opportunities in his native Ponza to make a decent living so took his chance on America to make money to send back to his family.

You have to remember, this was during the Great Depression so you did what you could to survive. He took on odd jobs, whatever he could take, including as a junkman collecting scraps and taking them to junkyards to make a penny much like you see many undocumented residents doing today.

Eventually, between his trips from The Bronx to Ponza and back, he began work as a day laborer at the Empire State Building as a bricklayer, cement worker or whatever needed to be done just to get whatever wages he could for the day.

Aniello Conte, nonno di Civita Mazzella, in età adulta

All these trips and working in constructing the Empire State Building allowed Mr Aniello Conte to build his family a home on a plot of land he owned in Ponza, Italy. Four years after the completion of the Empire State Building, Conte made his last trip to America in 1935.

Da sinistra a destra: Aniello Conte e due dei suoi figli, Lucia e Silverio.

After hearing about a pending raid at the gambling dens where he lived on Morris Avenue, Aniello, an undocumented, “illegal” Italian immigrant, decided to pack his bags and head back home to Ponza where his wife convinced him to stay and settle down now that they had built their home.

Aniello Conte lived out his life as a fisherman until his wife passed away in 1963 and he continued farming straight until his later years and passed away just shy of his 100th birthday in 1983 recalled his granddaughter Civita Mazzella.

Pictured above is Aniello Conte sitting on his porch. Below is the view from the same porch decades later.
Pictured above is Aniello Conte sitting on his porch. Below is the view from the same porch decades later.

In the 1970s, Florinda Conte, one of Aniello and Rosa’s 4 surviving children of 7, came to the United States after marrying her sweetheart, the late Vincenzo Mazzella in their hometown of Ponza and settled in Melrose, around the corner from where her father, more than 40 years earlier, had lived for a few short years to give her family a better life back home.

It was a time of turmoil and many of the Italians who lived in the neighborhood were leaving for other parts of The Bronx, like Morris Park or outside The Bronx altogether but Vincenzo, Florinda, and their daughter Civita Mazzella stayed right where they were on 149th Street between Morris and Courtlandt Avenues. They weren’t the only ones to stay but were in fact one of the last of the Italian immigrant families in the area until 1999 when they achieved the American Dream and purchased a house in Morris Park.

This is a story of Aniello Conte and all the undocumented “illegal” immigrants who shaped this country along with all the other immigrants. Immigrants, regardless of their status, made many sacrifices for their families and this country who are unappreciated in many parts of our nation and society.

Next time you encounter an immigrant to this country, say thank you and remember where we all came from. This country was built on the backs of enslaved people and immigrants and immigrants continue to do so today.

As you can see, The Bronx has always been a borough of immigrants. Let’s continue to welcome them with open arms and appreciate the hard work they do.

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Ed García Conde

Ed García Conde is a life-long Bronxite who spends his time documenting the people, places, and things that make the borough a special place in the hopes of dispelling the negative stereotypes associated with The Bronx. His writings are often cited by mainstream media and is often consulted for his expertise on the borough's rich history.