As a young boy growing up in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, during the 1950s and ‘60s, first generation Italian-American photographer Larry Racioppo remembers summers so hot that TV reporters would regularly fry an egg on the sidewalk during local weather segments.
But just north of the Bronx, escape could be found amid the olden-style bungalow colonies dotting the verdant suburbs of Rockland County, New York. “The week after grammar school ended, we left for ‘the country:’ four boys, four parents and my grandmother who only spoke Italian,” Racioppo remembers.
The Racioppos were just one of three Italian-American families amid the predominantly Jewish enclave – a connection that came about as a result of uncle Chuck Ardito’s connections as a jeweller working in Manhattan’s fabled Diamond Center.
From the first week of July until Labor Day, the Racioppos enjoyed the quiet pleasures of bungalow living. “My parents and their neighbours socialised, played cards and mahjongg, swam and sunbathed by the pool,” says Racioppo, who joined the kids his age in day camp.
Looking back, Racioppo remembers strong divisions between gender lines, with boys focused on sports and competitions with a rival hotel locate just down the road. “There were similar divisions among the adults. Men played gin rummy and poker while the women played mahjongg,” he says.
“A typical gin rummy game would consist of two two-man teams at a card table, often under a shade tree. The card players were generally amused by our interest and ignored us. There was one exception – an extremely serious older man nicknamed The Chief. If we stood near him, he pulled his cards close to his chest, accused us of tipping his hand and shooed us away.”
After completing college, Racioppo resumed his summer sojourns upstate, this time working as a camp counsellor and honing his skills as a photographer. “In the 1970s, I was just learning how to photograph, and realise now that my subjects waited patiently as I focused and refocused, while finding the proper exposure setting,” he says.
Those moments of shared collaboration resulted in an extraordinary cache of images from the 1970s an early ‘80s that Racioppo recently rediscovered. Taken together they capture a timeless slice of American life frozen in the golden glow of mid-century ideals.
“Despite all the ongoing turmoil and change in the U.S., things were basically unchanged in Rockland County’s bungalow colonies. There were pinball machines and Friday night movies at the casino, and an annual talent show or play. The day camp still had ‘colour wars’ and ended every day with the Pledge of Allegiance,” Racioppo says.
“I was glad that the sense of safety and well-being that I took for granted as boy was still present at the 1970s bungalow colonies. Children and teens had the run of a 30-acre estate where you knew everyone and everyone knew you.”