On nice mornings they gather on the benches outside the Italian American Stars Athletic Club and talk -- about wine and food, about sports and their beloved calcio. They talk about villages and people back home, preserving pooled memories.

If you close your eyes in the sunlight and rest against the wooden slats of the bench, listening to the lively cadence of the Italian, smelling the delicious burn of roasting coffee that wafts up Franklin Avenue, you might imagine that nothing ever changed in Hartford's South End.

But open your eyes and ask the old men on those benches to speak English. Then you will hear a different story.
``I had a house and a lot. I was going to build a house for the kids. But the kids don't want to live in Hartford -- that's the problem,'' says Sal Calafiore, who moved to the South End in the 1950s. ``Our kids is American. They say, `Daddy, that club is for you guys.' I don't think it will last more than 20 years. There will be no more club.''

In many respects, Hartford's ``Little Italy'' is more robust than it's been for years. Men still fill the Italian social clubs on Franklin Avenue when soccer -- Italians call it calcio -- is on TV. Merchants are investing in their businesses. Many say sales are strong, fueled partly by suburbanites seeking a more authentic eating or shopping experience than the mall can offer.

But walk down Franklin Avenue, stand outside the Naylor School when class lets out and look at the students. Three-quarters are black or Latino. The kids walk up Franklin Avenue, past the Roman statues on the roof of Capriccio Ristorante. They turn off on side streets where you're more likely to hear salsa than Sinatra coming from an open window on a spring afternoon.

To drive or walk the residential streets of southern Hartford in 2001 is to see a multicultural postcard -- groups of white, black and Latino children playing on grassy lawns, middle-class African-American men lugging golf clubs up their front steps. Many of the newest ethnic arrivals are white Europeans -- Albanians and Bosnians fleeing racial and religious persecution.

The Naylor students are the new South End. ``The Italian South End'' as a residential community has been remade through a dramatic population shift during the 1990s, one that is changing the neighborhoods of southern Hartford into some of the most diverse places in the city.

A decade ago, the heart of the South End was about 80 percent white. Non-Hispanic whites now make up only about one-third of the neighborhood's population, according to the 2000 Census.

Latinos are now the largest ethnic group in many south Hartford neighborhoods, but even they are a diverse group. Southern Hartford now has one of the biggest concentrations of Peruvians and Colombians in Connecticut. Blacks have moved in at such a rapid clip that the South End has one of the fastest growing black populations in Hartford County.

Many of the older Italians they are replacing have died or moved to the suburbs. Little Italy has become a commuter culture, where people return faithfully to shop, to eat, to drink espresso, to talk to paesani.

Where men once spilled out of the Italian social clubs on Franklin Avenue at night and walked home a few blocks to their families, now they get into their cars. They drive to Wethersfield or Rocky Hill or Newington or Glastonbury. If their children are old enough to be on their own, chances are they live there, too.

The Groundbreaker

On Sept. 18, 1967, the so-called Summer of Love wasn't ending that way in Hartford.

Angry about discrimination that shut nonwhites out of housing in much of Hartford, about 30 demonstrators, most of them black or Puerto Rican, began a protest march from the North End toward the Italian South End. By the time they reached downtown Hartford, they were nearly 200 strong.

In the South End, a crowd of more than 300 whites milled at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Barker Street, awaiting the North End marchers. Frightened authorities summoned priests to beg the white crowd to disperse.

Police short-circuited a potential racial clash in the South End by sweeping in and arresting many of the black marchers. Racial disturbances rocked Hartford over the next few days.

More than a decade later, in 1980, there still were fewer than 200 blacks in Hartford south of Barry Square in the heart of the South End.

So, when John and Bea Wardlaw bought one of a trio of identical houses beside Goodwin Park in 1982, preparing to break the color barrier on Hubbard Road, they felt apprehensive.

``People were probably more concerned with how are we going to fit -- were we going to be comfortable? Were there going to be any issues, broken windows, you know?'' said Bea Wardlaw, who is Latina.

``I have a very strong philosophy about neighborhoods being mixed. That was one of the reasons for the decision to come here,'' said John Wardlaw, executive director of the Hartford Housing Authority, who is black. ``It turned out to be the best decision I ever made.''

The Wardlaws quickly became close friends with the neighbors in one of those identical houses -- Joe and Lucy Giuliano, immigrants from Sicily. Joe, who has a barbershop on New Britain Avenue, taught John how to swear in Italian. Asked about John, Joe throws out his arms and says, ``Like a brother!'' Lucy cooks for Bea's elderly mother when John and Bea are out of town.

The Wardlaws were the lead edge of an ethnic migration within Hartford, one that has accelerated between 1990 and 2000, and that has seen people leave the northern and western areas of the city and flow into the South End.

The neatly kept, modest houses in the triangle defined roughly by New Britain Avenue, Barry Square and Wethersfield Avenue are now attracting hundreds of young families. In the past 10 years, about 2,700 additional children moved to the South End, Southwest and Barry Square neighborhoods, new Census data shows.

During a decade in which Hartford was among the fastest shrinking cities in America, the population of those areas -- including the South End, and much of the Barry Square and Southwest neighborhoods -- has swelled 18 percent. The new arrivals have blurred historic lines drawn by race and ethnicity, and, many say, diffused old lines of distrust.

``African Americans -- and this is also true for Latinos -- while moving out of the city in increasing numbers, they are also spreading out in the city in increasing numbers,'' said state Sen. John Fonfara, who represents the southern half of Hartford. ``There is no longer the sense that this is the area of town that some people live in, and the other area of town that other people live in. Those sorts of unspoken rules have been, if not eliminated, diminished considerably.''

Many blacks who bought or rented homes in the South End say they moved in without experiencing overt prejudice, even if relations aren't perfect between the jumble of groups.

``They are dealing with each other. They don't all the time want to, but they are doing it,'' said Diwanda Johnson, who waited to pick up her daughter, Shakara, outside Naylor School one recent afternoon. ``They're getting along better than they did in the past.''

Yet Wardlaw is aware of the other side of integration -- if almost everyone who has moved into the neighborhood recently is either black or Hispanic, whites must no longer be buying or renting in the South End.

Wardlaw said the city must make the quality of life in the South End a special priority because the neighborhood is integrated. He believes the city should designate a special coordinator to build social connections within the neighborhood and help advocate for middle-class values.

If the South End does not safeguard its quality of life, ``then the future of the South End will be extremely bleak,'' Wardlaw said. ``But it won't be based on whites moving out, it'll be based on anyone who has a decent income, who is looking for a safe and decent place to live and bring up their children, would leave Hartford. That is the future of the South End and I can tell you right now, it is pretty much the future of Hartford.''

The Debate

At Jimmie's Package Store, owner Tom Gulino and a friend, Salvatore Marino, are debating the future of Hartford's Little Italy.

``I'm not going to move away,'' said Gulino, who lives with his wife above the package store on Franklin Avenue, operated by his family since 1936.

``But Tommy,'' answered Marino, who recently moved to Rocky Hill, ``20 years from now, you're not going to see the Italian people here.''

``I disagree. If the business was going lower, I get out of here,'' said Gulino, clapping his hands together as if to scour them of something distasteful. ``Business is good. Better and better. So I'm gonna stay.''

Like thousands of Italians in and around Hartford, Gulino's and Marino's families came from Canicattini, on the island of Sicily. Others came from Floridia, also in Sicily, and from Pratola Peligna in mountainous Abruzzi, midway up the peninsula between Rome and Pescara. They came from those towns and others across in Italy in the `30s, `40s, `50s and `60s. They pretty much owned the old East Side neighborhood between downtown and the river, until Hartford's corporate ``bishops,'' in their last spasm of power, razed the neighborhood to build Constitution Plaza.

Before the wrecking ball took Front Street and the rest of the East Side, these Italians picked up their families and their businesses and moved to Franklin Avenue and surrounding streets. Immigrants who continued to flow in from Italy made the South End more than 70 percent Italian by the mid-1960s, making the South End Hartford's ``only ethnically homogeneous community,'' a social survey of city neighborhoods said in 1964.

In addition to the Catholic Church, they created their own social institutions, such as the men's social clubs that still line Franklin Avenue. Some, like the Pratolana and Canicattinese societies, were for men from a particular town, others, like the Italian American Stars, for immigrants from all over Italy.

``A lot of people would get lost without the club; they don't know what to do with their time,'' said Sebastian Sbriglio, president of the Canicattinese Society.

But 20 years ago, most club members lived in Hartford; and today, 80 percent to 90 percent of the members live in the suburbs.

People come to the Canicattinese Society as early as 6 in the morning. Commuters from different suburbs might meet there for an espresso, before sharing a ride for the remainder of their trip. Some older men are in the club much of the day, playing cards or arguing politics or sports.

Sbriglio and other club leaders say they have few members younger than 40, but are working hard to recruit younger people.

``The new generation does not go to the clubs,'' said Gulino, also a member of the Canicattinese Society. ``Once that [older] group is out, the society is going down the drain.''

Gulino has a commanding view of Franklin Avenue from the windows of his package store. Unlike the clubs, the fate he sees for the neighborhood is bright.

The blighted building next door? It's being converted into a new fast-food restaurant.

That apartment building up the street? Some Chinese people fixed it up and filled it with people again.

Gulino's customers, once all Italian, are now mostly black or Latino. But there are a lot of them, and Gulino is not complaining.

Gulino summons a visitor outside, and gestures at the homes up a side street.

``You look up the street -- you've got black, you've got Spanish, you've got Indian. You should see the property!'' he crows. ``The grass is beautiful.''