Little Italy Association and a myriad of sponsors dedicate ‘Piazza Costanza’
By Morgan M. Hurley
Margaret “Midge” Costanza was a self-described “loud-mouthed, pushy little broad” who made a name for herself on a national scale, but her ties to San Diego – especially its Italian and LGBT communities – have now been memorialized forever.
On Tuesday, Nov. 28, which would have been Costanza’s 90th birthday, the Little Italy Association (LIA), along with various local leaders, philanthropists, friends, family, and other well wishers, gathered at the corner of West Ash and Columbia streets for the unveiling of “Piazza Costanza,” a public space that pays homage to the first woman to ever hold the title, “Assistant to the President of the United States.”
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria was on hand to “cut the ribbon,” along with District 3 Councilmember Stephen Whitburn, former state senator Dede Alpert, former congresswoman Susan Davis, among many others, with Marco LiMandri, the Little Italy Association’s chief executive administrator acting as the master of ceremonies.
This piazza was a dream come true for LiMandri, who said he first started looking into the idea back in 2015. LiMandri spoke to the developer of the condos under construction at West Ash and Columbia and asked if they could forgo the half block of parking spaces and the existing slope to expand the sidewalk and create a leveled off area. They agreed and soon the 2,000 square feet of space was like a blank canvas.
“Then it sat there for four years,” LiMandri said, referencing the delays caused by COVID-19. Soon their fundraising efforts and the project were back on track and the LIA began the formal planning and design process. LiMandri said Little Italy already had two piazzas dedicated to men and he was adamant the next one was named after a woman and he knew Costanza checked all the boxes. Besides, she is the only one of the three who spent time in San Diego’s Little Italy, often lunching with LiMandri himself.
“I used to run into her on India Street all the time,” he said.
While former San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who was a close friend of Costanza’s, was out of town and could not attend, her wife Denise Neleson spoke on their behalf at the ceremony. Dumanis and Neleson were early contributors to the piazza’s fundraising efforts.
“You always knew when Midge entered a room because of her unmistakable hearty laugh, New York style banter and quick wit,” Neleson said in her remarks. “She was soon the center of attention at any gathering. But when away from the microphone, Midge was softer, very caring, a great listener, and a tremendous friend.
“She always had the courage of her convictions and spoke truth to power,” Neleson continued. “[She] was passionate, powerful, generous, mischievous, funny, inspirational, quirky, and a wonderful human being … Midge was a character who had character and we are all better for the ways she touched our lives. She is most deserving of this tribute today.”
The daughter of Sicilian immigrants, Costanza hailed from Rochester, New York, where she was also the first woman to be elected to their city council in 1973. According to several obituaries online, she met a then-relatively unknown Jimmy Carter while she embarked on an unsuccessful bid for congress, and later joined him on the campaign trail for his own political run for the presidency. She opened doors for Carter up to women and working class voters and then he thanked her by bringing her to the White House as “Assistant to the President for Public Liaison.”
Women did not hold the same status around men in the 1970s, nor the respect or deference as they do today, so Costanza’s matter-of-fact and outgoing manner created quite a stir within the political circles she had been thrust into.
After she left the White House, she moved to Los Angeles for a time, and then landed in San Diego in 1990.
Dumanis said she first met Costanza when she was running for judge. She attended one of Costanza’s speaking engagements and “got caught up in it.”
“She talked about equity and inclusion before it was a popular theme,” Dumanis said.
They became fast friends and Costanza soon joined in to help Dumanis with her campaign for judge and later her run for district attorney. Both were successful bids, thanks in part to Costanza’s efforts.
In 2005, Costanza started working for Dumanis in the DA’s office as part of the executive team and heading up social outreach, focusing on seniors. Dumanis said Costanza soon became quite close to her parents and they all spent many meals together.
“[My parents] were old school democrats and they loved talking politics with her,” Dumanis said.
Nicole Murray Ramirez admired Costanza and has fond memories of both her and her legacy.
“Midge was one of the best political strategists both nationally and locally and it served women and the LGBT community well, especially during the 1970s,” Nicole said. “We would meet for lunch at times and dish about politics and public officials; she had a wild, cutting sense of humor so she could ‘read’ like the best of queens.
“She was very proud of her Italian heritage and would have loved this well-deserved recognition,” Nicole said.
The piazza was a labor of love for LiMandri and he’s proud to have led the first effort in honoring her.
“In bringing Midge back home – and it was like a homecoming, a truly beautiful event – this was the first tribute; she’s from Rochester and they don’t even have a tribute for her,” LiMandri said, adding that Mayor Gloria told him he is friends with the mayor of Rochester and has poked fun at him for that very reason. “It was something I’ve always wanted to do, to honor Midge, and the incredible contributions she’s made, not only locally but nationwide.
“We want people to know that when they come to San Diego, they need to come to Little Italy and come to Piazza Costanza and look at all the great things she did, all the statements that she made and then look at all the pictures of her,” he said. Part of the design includes quotes Costanza made imprinted on the side of benches.
“I encourage anybody in the community, anyone in the county, to just go and sit in Piazza Costanza and read about Midge and learn what an incredible impact she had – on the women’s community, the LGBT community and workers of all kinds,” LiMandri said. “She was a window to the world.”
To learn more about Piazza Costanza, visit bit.ly/3uCz0Ph or visit it yourself at the corner of West Ash and Columbia streets. You just might hear her laugh.
—Morgan M. Hurley is the editor-in-chief of this newspaper. You can reach her at [email protected].
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