Preserving Maltese heritage in the Portola

May 16, 2017

If you walk down San Bruno Avenue in the Portola neighborhood, you’ll notice an orange building sitting in the shadow of the Avenue Theater. Right now it’s a Round Table Pizza. However, more than 60 years ago, this building was the Melita Furniture Store. 

Barbara Fenech, the daughter of one of the co-owners of the store explains, “Melita was the Phoenician name for Malta. It drew about 100 or 80 percent of the Maltese community [and] was going really well.” Barbara and her sister Margie worked at the store for more than 30 years. Their dad, a first generation Maltese, owned it along with his business partner Joseph Tonna.

 


They started small and grew the store over time. Barbara remembers that they made money by “selling radios, toaster, irons-just small appliances.” They’d make enough money selling smaller goods, and then they’d take the proceeds and buy larger items like stoves and refrigerators. “Business, I think was pretty good,” Barbara recalls, because so many people were immigrating to the area. 

The Fenech sisters’ parents immigrated to The Portola from Malta in the early 1900s with hundreds of other families who came to San Francisco around the time of World War 1. Many of them settled in the Portola and opened businesses, like Fenech’s furniture store and the Sp-Teri Ice skate boot factory. To this day the sisters maintain strong friendships with many of the people they grew up with.

Barbara and Margie Fenech and their friends like to gather to reminisce about this time - ‘the good old days’ growing up and working on San Bruno Ave, what they used to call ‘The Boulevard.’ Through most of their youth and young adulthoods, Barbara and Margie worked five days a week.

“I would answer the phone, do the billing, dust the furniture, wash the bathrooms, sweep the floors. You name it, I did it,” Margie says.

The tightknit community of Maltese immigrants built a thriving neighborhood that endured two world wars. But things weren’t always great. Like any other ethnic group migrating to America, the Maltese experienced feeling like outsiders in their new country.

“I think at the time that my parents came there wasn't this problem of immigrants coming in. But when they got here to San Francisco they were taunted to a point,” Barbara says. She recalls her dad telling her a story about how some people would mock him because he was Maltese. 

“They would pass him [on the street] and they'd go meow, meow, meow, like a Maltese Cat.”

People immigrated from Malta for many of the same reasons they’d migrate from anywhere. They were looking for opportunity, connecting with family, and wanted to share in the American dream. The transition was eased somewhat for Maltese people in the Portola community in large part because the Maltese-American Social Club was there to help. These days, president Brian Ciappara works tirelessly to support all the members of the club and new immigrants.

“Especially after the second world war, even in the early 1900s, there weren’t too many jobs in Malta, so they were migrating out of Malta. So a lot of people came to the US,” Ciappara says. “In those days coming to America wasn’t that difficult and fitting in was quite easy for the Maltese because they had a community eager to embrace them. We are a people who help each other as much as we can,” he adds.

There was, and still is support from the Maltese Honorary Consulate, one of only 15 in the country. Louis Vella, the current Maltese Consul General, describes how the consulate was established in 1967 after the Maltese Prime minister visited the Portola and met with the community. 

“The Prime Minister… he kind of noticed that there was a very nice Maltese community here. They needed a lot of help, at the time even more so than today because many of them remained Maltese citizens...They needed passports…and papers.”

When the Prime Minister went back to Malta, he suggested they form a consulate in the Portola. The consulate has been helping people find living arrangements and jobs, and helping with their passports and immigration ever since. 

A highway runs through it

In the late 1950s, the Bayshore Freeway was built linking San Francisco to Highway 101. That changed everything. It made getting to the San Francisco Airport easier and linked the city with the South Bay, but the highway cut right through the middle of the Portola.

“The freeway sort of divided San Bruno Avenue,” Barbara Fenech remembers.  It cut off business in the small town that relied on the traffic which had previously made stops in town for gas, lunch and other commercial needs. Additionally it separated San Bruno Avenue from Bayshore Avenue, creating two distinct communities. 

“People would just zoom by and forget all about San Bruno Avenue. It was kind of a trauma for us. Businesses closed. The neighborhood got boarded up,” Margie Fenech says. 

A changing community 

As a result, many of the locals from the Maltese community moved south for new opportunities.  Families like the Fenech’s stayed and reinvented themselves. Now, all these years later, Barbara Fenech continues to focus her attention on improving the neighborhood for everybody. She’s been active in the Portola Neighborhood Association for 15 years. 

“We were able to get underground lighting...we have a new public library,” Barbara says. The Association has been instrumental in a long string of improvement and beautification projects in the neighborhood. They’ve put new lights on San Bruno Avenue and are currently renovating the old Avenue Theatre. With neighborhood preservation moving forward, Barbara can now add Maltese preservation back onto her agenda.

“Little by little we are gradually getting back in,” she says. “Our consul general has started a Maltese heritage organization. Our job the last two or three years is to contact the immigrants that came to the Bay Area after the second World War and find out what village they came from? Why did they come to the Portola District? Why did they come to San Francisco?” 

The group is compiling the data into books and storing these archives of Maltese history for future generations. They’re also helping seniors in the neighborhood.

“There's a lot of older Maltese people whose husbands have passed away or they don't know how to drive, so we're forming an organization where somebody can pick them up, take them shopping, take them to the Maltese Club for whatever function we have or to church,” Barbara says. 

This is the type of support that Maltese have always been known for.  Barbara noted that there’s another imperative that drives their work: they do work to preserve the culture because they are worried it won’t be a part of the Portola for much longer. 

I ask her if she feels confident that 20 years from now the Maltese club or association will still be around.

“I don’t really think so, no,” she says. She chalks that prediction up to the lack of involvement by the youngest generation of Maltese, the children and grandchildren of Barbara and her lifelong friends. “We’re moving so fast…I just think there are so many activities and ventures that these young people can come into.” However, keeping the younger generation engaged is what drives so much of their work. They won’t give up.