Claudio's Barber Shop

Longtime owner holds out as Italian Harlem fades


By Ben Piven

MANHATTAN — Claudio Caponigro is one of the last relics of a bygone era. Yet, almost 60 years of snipping the locks of East Harlem residents might come to an end. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, maybe next year.

But, the mercurial steward of erstwhile Italian Harlem’s East 116th Street hub is still anchored firmly at Claudio’s Barber Shop.

In contrast, the old Delightful coffee shop on First Avenue, where Caponigro used to get coffee every morning at 7, is now a “classy Dunkin Donuts,” said 77-year-old Caponigro, who added, “Colonial Tavern is now a gay and lesbian bar.” Community fixture Morrone Bakery closed one year ago, after 50 years in business.

Despite some signs of resurgence, Italian Harlem’s Old World charm continues to fade. As the last bastions of this immigrant culture disappear from the cityscape, the virtues of certainty, simplicity, and loyalty lose some of their most faithful beholders.

Still, Caponigro’s favorite Italian wall-hanging adage resonates from his stalwart barbershop throughout the lost blocks of El Barrio: “My grandpa lived so long because he minded his own f---in business.”

The tightlipped barber recently finished a yearlong probation term for refusing to reveal the names of his Genovese crime family customers to police. In the case, Caponigro’s alias was given simply as “Claudio the Barber.”

Joey, an Italian Harlem resident who did not give his last name, said that Claudio’s Barber Shop was the place where wiseguys always got their haircuts. Notable customers have included comedian Jimmy Durante and the last Tammany Hall bosses, Carmine DeSapio and Frank Rossetti, who ruled in the 1950’s and 1960’s, respectively.

“Almost a dozen films, including Carlito’s Way: the Beginning, been shot here, and also Law and Order and Third Watch,” Caponigro said. Jennifer Lopez also used Claudio’s Shop as a backdrop for a music video.

Most of Caponigro’s customers are much younger than the kitschy tchotchkes that line the peppermint-green walls of his one-room shop - a fin-de-siècle cash register, hunting paraphernalia, Sept. 11 tributes, and a 2002 Sports Illustrated magazine photo of a supermodel clad in a rose-red bikini while sprawled on Claudio’s barber chair. Figurines adorned with Puerto Rican colors complement dusty red, white, and green flags.

While the Puerto Rican community has dominated the area since the 1950’s, Mexican immigrants have recently changed the fabric of the neighborhood. Also, white New Yorkers in search of lower rents have begun to flock to the parts of East Harlem not covered with public housing.

Caponigro jokes that he speaks enough Spanish to know what haircut his Mexican clients want. He also says that his favorite lunch is rice and beans with pork at Sandy’s, a Dominican restaurant on Second Avenue.

Caponigro said that he is busiest just after the first day of every month, when public assistance checks are mailed. Indeed, his professional gusto has not waned since he cut the locks of wealthy Doctor’s Row residents, who resided on the stretch of 116th Street that is now Little Mexico.

The neighborhood was formerly host to the largest concentration of Italian-Americans in the five boroughs. The nearly extinct Italian community’s largest annual celebration is the July 16 Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Caponigro is the pivotal figure in Chapter 3 of New York Times writer Joseph Berger’s multi-cultural odyssey through New York, “The World in a City,” which states that there were 80,000 Italians in East Harlem through the 1930’s.

Residents estimate that there are now only 1,000 Italian-Americans left in East Harlem, less than 1% of the area’s current population. Yet, between Pleasant and 2nd Avenues are vestiges of the amiable past.

Although the early immigrants from South Italy and Sicily crammed into the basements of Irish Catholic churches upon their arrival, they created a thriving hub of New York Italian culture. Al Pacino was born in East Harlem; Fiorello LaGuardia lived there until 1943, when the area began its precipitous decline. Born into a family of barbers in Campania, Italy, Caponigro immigrated to Italian Harlem in the early 1950’s.

Urban renewal brought down many of the community’s main establishments, including coffee shops, bakeries, and delis on First Avenue. Claudio’s Barber Shop, Patsy’s, and uber-exclusive Rao’s are among the last to remain.

“Rao’s used to be my hangout 50 years ago, but now Rao’s high class. I remember Frankie Pellegrino was a little boy,” said Caponigro, whose crisp, silvery hair is impeccably slicked back.

Patsy’s Pizzeria is one of the few Italian Harlem restaurants still afloat. Caponigro giddily recalls Patsy’s 75th Anniversary celebration on Aug. 19, when prices reverted to the 1933 level. Customers both old and new enjoyed 90-cent steak and 35-cent tiramisu.

Brother William Sherlog, a teacher and athletic director at nearby Rice High school, has been Claudio's customer for 13 years. “I don’t know how Claudio puts the hours in, seven days a week,” said Sherlog.

Another customer, Vinny, is a 49-year-old Upper East Side doorman and lifetime resident of Italian Harlem.

“I didn’t know you were a brother. I wouldn’t have used foul language,” said Vinny, to Brother Sherlog, as they exchanged thoughts about the latter’s contention that global warming allows street crime to last even longer into the winter. Vinny declared, “It used to be that the neighborhood protected itself, but now there is no more neighborhood.”

Vinny can no longer speak Italian but remembers purposefully infrequent conversations as an adolescent - for fear of being mocked. Yet, he extols his barber’s mantra, in Neapolitan dialect, which hangs next to the door: “O barbiere, te fa bello / O vino, te fa guappo / A femmena, te fa fesso.” (“Barber, you make me pretty / Wine, you make me drunk / Woman, you make me lovey-dovey”).

“Sometimes I don’t even bother to clean anymore,” said Caponigro, who gruffly laments the decline in steady, loyal clientele in colorful Neapolitan-accented phrases. His pastel green tiled floor is covered with many more shades of hair than were sheared from the heads of that day’s customers.

The same three barber chairs remain in his shop, yet his three co-workers – all his senior – died over 30 years ago. And, Caponigro still has no telephone in his barbershop.

“All my friends around here dead. I buried ‘em all,” said Caponigro, shuffling through a stack of mass cards for his deceased customers, which are neatly stowed away in a narrow drawer of a rickety chest otherwise reserved for haircutting equipment.

Having moved from the neighborhood in 1969, Caponigro lives with his wife in the Pelham Gardens area of the Bronx, and their three daughters and two grandchildren live in Scarsdale.

Caponigro’s business is day-by-day. “If I had a son who wanted to become a barber, I’d choke him,” said a jocular Caponigro, showing off a photo of his oldest daughter with Rudy Giuliani, taken during a fundraiser for the ex-mayor’s 2008 presidential bid.

Another customer is 28-year-old Brent Lamberti, a bartender at Corner Bistro in the West Village. He is one of a growing number of third generation Italian-Americans who have returned to live in Italian Harlem.

Lamberti points out a bullet hole in the storefront’s side window, which also shattered part of an inside mirror.

“I’ve never had a problem with anyone around here. My main window is the original and the only one in all of East Harlem without a gate or bars on it,” Caponigro said.

“Claudio is the best barber in El Barrio,” said customer Jimmy Horacio, a 70-year-old retired reporter for El Diario.

Horacio and his neighbors at El Boricua apartments on 117th Street, Jimmy Diaz, 66, and Jimmy Rodriguez Negron, 75, recall how Claudio’s haircuts – now $10 - were only 50 cents when the shop opened in the 1950’s – and that included a shave.

 


© Copyright 2008 Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism