Changing local demographics, global trends redefine Italian presence in Williamsburg.
By Alexis Buisson
The legend says that because its bells chimed louder and clearer than those of Paregine, the town of Sanza in the southern Italian province of Salerno was awarded the sacred statue of Our Lady of the Snow. The statue had been sealed in the wall of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, a church built in AD 352 on Rome’s Esquiline Hill. Each year, the victory is celebrated on August 5th by immigrants from Sanza around the world.
For over a century, this tradition has found a home at 410 Graham Ave.—also known as the “Via Vespucci.” The Saint Mary of the Snow Society was founded in 1888 by immigrants from Sanza to provide financial and psychological support to Italian immigrants in need. As the Society celebrated its 120th birthday last Aug. 4—the day before the famous Aug. 5 procession on Graham Ave.—the two-story building, adorned with both Italian and American flags, was abuzz with relatives of the first Sanza immigrants living in Williamsburg and other neighborhoods. “I think the whole town of Sanza emigrated to Williamsburg,” said Vinny Raymond, whose father became a member of the Society in the 1930s. “Everybody here is a cousin, a neighbor, a brother or a sister.”
Even if older members are gradually disappearing—the Society’s male section had 150 members in 1988, compared to 106 today—their children and grand-children are convinced that the organization will prosper for another 120 years, as Joe Sanpietro, the Society’s oldest living member said. “As long as I live, this Society will live,” claimed Anthony Guidice, another member whose father gave his name to the “Thomas Guidice Way”—also known as “Ainslie Street.”
But for the first time in its history, local Italian-Americans are faced with a disconcerting fact: mass immigration from Italy ended decades ago and, with it, the over-a-century-long Italian influence over the neighborhood.
END OF MASS IMMIGRATION
The first wave of Italian immigrants arrived to Northern Brooklyn in the second half of the 19th century to escape their poverty-stricken country. Many of them worked in the then-developing local industries, congregating for some of them in radical workers’ groups and mutual aid societies like the San Sabino Society on Withers St., the San Cono Society on Ainslie St. and the Saint Mary of the Snow Society on Graham Ave. “Our grandparents didn’t have anything and didn’t ask anything from anyone,” boasts Maria Colombo, who arrived in Williamsburg from Teggiano in 1965 and now owns the restaurant “La Locanda” on Graham Ave. “They went from working in the kitchen to owning the kitchen, from working on construction sites to owning the construction sites!”
From the end of World War II to the ’70s, a second wave of Italian immigrants settled in the neighborhood. But at the same time, the changing infrastructure in North Brooklyn, home to a growing number of docks and factories, brought in new immigrants, mainly from Latin America and Asia. Tensions between the newcomers and the well-established Italian community escalated.
“The Italians have a strong sense of ‘place,’” explains Joseph Sciorra, Associate Director for Academic and Cultural Programs at Queens College’s John D. Calandra Italian-American Institute and the author of the upcoming Built with Faith: Place Making and the Religious Imagination in Italian New York (John Hopkins University Press). “That’s why there were so many tensions with the new immigrants when they arrived.”
Over the decades, the boundaries of Italian Williamsburg have shifted. Fifty years ago, they stretched from the North Side in the north to Montrose Ave. in the south, and from Union Ave. in the west to Bushwick Ave. in the east. But in 1964, the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway through the community moved the area’s Northern border to Meeker Ave. while Hispanic immigrants settled along Broadway to the west.
“The BQE divided the community,” says Joseph Sciorra. “The North Side was a once vibrant Italian and Sicilian area and the BQE completely disrupted the neighborhood.”
As a result, Italian families started moving out. “That area was 100-percent Italian,” remembers Phil Manna, who, since 2007, has been the Gilgio’s Feast Capo Peranza—the person in charge of coordinating the lifting by 350 Italian-American men of the massive statue of San Paolino, the Bishop of the city of Nola. “A lot of my Italian friends moved out because they couldn’t find an apartment within those boundaries.”
PRICES UP, ITALIANS OUT
Two decades ago, as artists and “hipsters” flocked to Williamsburg, the Italian community faced an additional challenge.
Like a lot of Italian-Americans in the neighborhood, Manna, a local real estate agent, believes that developers in Williamsburg have driven housing prices up and low-income Italian families out of the neighborhood. “The housing has become too expensive for the Italians who live here,” he says. “The developers don’t live in the neighborhood, they just care about their money and they don’t give the Italians the opportunity to stay here,” according to Manna. “It had always been a two- or three-family-building neighborhood. Now you have high-rises and condos that are really expensive.”
With property value increasing, many Italians are selling their houses too, he says. A lot of them have moved to Queens, Harlem, New Jersey, Staten Island and Long Island as high-income families flowed into Williamsburg. “The big difference between now and the post-World War II era is that, this time, there is no renewal,” analyzes Joseph Sciorra. “The ones arriving are the hipsters and the artists, but they don’t identify with the Italian working class of the past.”
Enzo Iannozzi, a public accountant who spent his childhood in Williamsburg, has witnessed the change as medium- and high-income households bourgeoned in the neighborhood. He remembers the time when Italian stores were blossoming between Graham and Union Ave. and when Italian could be heard at the corner of each street. That time is gone, he says: “When the first generation of immigrants came here, they did manual labor. They worked in bakeries. Their children got an education. Today they don’t want to work in the bakeries anymore. So they leave the neighborhood.”
He says that the digital era has created a new mobility within the community: “With the internet and cell phones, members of the community can easily stay connected to their neighborhood while being somewhere else, in another country even,” he says. “That wasn’t the case 50 years ago.”
Few blocks west of Iannozzi’s Metropolitan Ave. office, Anthony Gurcio, who works at the 15-year-old “Anthony and Son” deli at the corner of Graham Ave. and Frost St., is also feeling the effects of changing demographics. He recalls that about 10 years ago, he used to sell over 500 hundred panettones—traditional Milanese bread—at Christmas time. Now, he says he’s happy when he can sell 20. He remembers a time when his store did not sell any organic food. Now, he has entire shelves of it. “When we opened 15 years ago, we were doing home-made pasta. Now, they [the customers] all want nutritional facts,” he smiles. “The neighborhood changed and we changed with the neighborhood—and we’re still here.”
Many Italian businesses and individuals deplore a lack of communication with the newcomers: “A lot of the new people don’t shop in the neighborhood,” says Manna. “They go to Manhattan. I would say that 10-15 percent shop in the neighborhood.”
“A lot of the new newspapers in Williamsburg or Greenpoint refer to the Hispanic, Hasidic, Polish or even Irish communities when they speak about the neighborhood,” Sciorra noticed. “But never to the Italian community.” According to Sciorra, the history of the Italian community is badly documented, church records and archives barely making up for the lack of memoirs and other non-fictional accounts by the first Italian settlers. The fact that the Italian-Americans are now absent from the community press amounts to “erasing the memory of the community” from the local public realm.
He cites other examples. As he was attending the Aug. 5 parade in the streets one year, he noticed that instead of making a donation to support the Society, people were taking pictures with their cell phones: “Italians fear that they are viewed by the newcomers as primitive natives of Williamsburg and that they are demeaning them and their holistic enterprise.”
REDEFINING “ITALIAN WILLIAMSBURG”
Very few local Italian-American residents dare to imagine what the Italian presence in Williamsburg will be like in 50 years. Many think that, as long as they have a friend or a relative in Williamsburg, Italians from surrounding neighborhoods and states will come back on weekends or for special events like the July 16 Giglio Feast at Our Lady of Mount Carmen or Saint Mary of the Snow’s Aug. 5 procession.
This is the case of Michael Addeo, Jr. who lives in Whitestone, Queens, but comes back to Williamsburg every weekend. This year, Addeo was Lieutenant during the 2008 Giglio Feast. “This neighborhood is unique,” he says, sitting at Fortunato bakery one weekend. “Everybody here knows each other. The sense of community is stronger here than in any other Italian community in the city. That’s why people come back and will come back.”
But as the neighborhood’s gentrification continues, some believe that Italians and “hipsters” will engage in original forms of collaboration, thus preserving the neighborhood’s Italian heritage. Last month, a local newspaper reported that the Open Space Alliance for North wished to revive the game of Bocce, which was brought to Williamsburg and Greenpoint by Italian immigrants in the 19th century.
Joseph Sciorra also mentions the role of new artists settling in Williamsburg and using their art to document the life of their community.
Anabella Lenzu, 33, is one of them. A native of Argentina of Italian descent, she arrived in Williamsburg in 2005. As a dancer, choreographer and a strong defender of Italian heritage, she felt “in the middle” of both cultures. “I feel at home in Williamsburg,” she says. “I feel like I am a bridge between the artist community and the Italian community.”
Last year, she founded Williamsburg’s Ciao Italy Festival, a Performing Arts series aimed at building a link between the two communities. Although last year’s edition did not draw large crowds, additional grants will supposedly increase the festival’s visibility in Williamsburg when it returns this fall. “I feel there is not a lot of contact between the Italians and the artists,” she noticed. “But the Italians love art and this year’s festival should be strong.”
Others think that the growing “hipster” community will eventually adapt to the Italian way of life: “The new people are not ignorant people. They have good jobs. They are educated,” says Addeo. “When we had the Questa [a symbolic distribution of bread in the streets of Brooklyn on the first Saturday of the Feast], a new boutique had opened on Skillman Ave. The owner was not a neighborhood person but she was selling old-style lemonade,” he recalls. “There is hope that the new people will conform. If you educate them, they will be supportive of the Italian customs and help preserve them.”