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Littler Italy

Littler Italy

George De Stefano (March 26, 2015)
Karsten Moran, The New York Times
Adele Sarno in her Little Italy apartment

An Italian American organization moves to evict an 85-year-old woman who is one of the neighborhood's few remaining residents of Italian origins.


Talk about bad press.

Joseph Scelsa, director of the Italian American Museum in Little Italy, evidently thought he could kick out an elderly woman from the apartment she has occupied for more than fifty years without anyone noticing or objecting. But the media, traditional and digital, did notice. This week, the story of Scelsa's attempts to evict 85-year-old Adele Sarno from her apartment in a building owned by the museum has blown up on news sites like DNAinfo, Gothamist, on Facebook, on local TV news, and in the "paper of record," the New York Times. And why not? This sad and infuriating saga touches on a number of issues that are top concerns for New Yorkers: housing costs; real estate speculation and landlord greed; the vulnerability of the poor elderly in a hypercharged housing market where "affordable" is an empty buzzword; and ethnicity.

 Sarno has deep roots in Little Italy. Her father, according to the New York Times, immigrated to New York from Naples, and she grew up in the neighborhood. When she was a child, she was the princess of the San Gennaro feast; in 1945, she was its queen. She owned a candy shop and then an Italian products store below her parents' apartment in the building at Mulberry and Grand Streets. (The building that houses the Italian American Museum and six apartments, including Sarno's, actually comprises three adjoining structures that have been combined.) She has lived her entire life in Little Italy, and most of it in the apartment that the Times called "a mini-museum itself furnished with lamps, marble tables and ceramics from the old country."

As media accounts have pointed out, Sarno is one of the few residents of Italian origins remaining in what was once a thriving immigrant/ethnic neighborhood. (According to the 2010 census, there are no Italian-born residents of Little Italy.) And if Scelsa gets his way, there'll be one less Italian American living there.

Sarno pays $820 in rent for her two-bedroom apartment; her only income comes from Social Security and relatives; she also receives food stamps. The Italian American Museum sent her a letter about five years ago telling her the rent would be raised to $3,500, an impossible sum for an elderly person on a fixed income. (Some of her neighbors pay $4,500 a month to live in the kind of building that Italian Americans fled when they could afford to.) Believing that the apartment where she had lived since 1962 was rent-controlled, she, with assistance from a community organization, Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, sought a ruling from state housing officials about whether rent-regulation laws covered her apartment. The New York State Department of Housing and Community Renewal ruled that Sarno's apartment was not protected. She appealed the ruling, but last November, a New York City Civil Court judge allowed the museum to proceed with the eviction. This month she received a notice to vacate by April 6. She intends to be back in court, with new – and hopefully better – representation, on April 2.

If she is not allowed to remain in her apartment, Sarno evidently has no other option but to move to Wisconsin to live with her daughter, her only child. Imagine being 85 years old (Sarno turns 86 in August) and being forced to leave your home of fifty-plus years and the only neighborhood you've known, for an unfamiliar place far away in another part of the country. But that doesn't mean anything to Scelsa and his cronies. As one of his flacks told the Times, "So the museum should be running a charity or providing residences at discount rates? That doesn’t match the mission.” The museum, according to its website, is "dedicated to the struggles of Italian-Americans and their achievements and contributions to American culture and society." Just as long as the Italian Americans are not struggling old women living on Social Security and food stamps.

New York City on FIRE

New York City, as the late radical journalist Bob Fitch observed, is ruled by the three-headed entity he called FIRE – finance, insurance, and real estate.  No matter who is the mayor, whether an unabashed plutocrat like Mike Bloomberg or a "progressive" like Bill de Blasio, these industries really run the city and determine what sort of "development" occurs. As Fitch detailed in his 1996 book, The Assassination of New York, bankers, developers, and their hired hands in politics consciously and deliberately de-industrialized the city, transforming it into a post-industrial outpost of globalization (and magnet for global capital). As another radical social critic, Doug Henwood, observed in The Nation, FIRE's chieftains "used all the instruments of state power – subsidies, zoning laws, eminent domain – to get their way."


"The landscape of the city – the propinquity of skyscrapers and slums, of the very rich and the very poor – reflected the kind of hollowed-out society that a FIRE-dominated economy created. Neighborhoods that once housed factories and their workers were either emptied out or gentrified," Henwood noted.


The story of Adele Sarno is just one example of the human consequences of the decisions that New York's power elites have made and that elected officials, Republican and Democrat alike, have enabled and supported.


Joseph Scelsa, an academic of no particular distinction who also is the disgraced former director of the Calandra Italian American Institute (more on that later), is a very small fish in New York's shark-infested real estate market. But he would like to be un pesce più grande, and his museum is part of his plan. As he told the New York Times in 2013, he intends to sell the buildings that house the museum and the apartments to a developer, for $12 million, as long as the developer allows the museum to remain in any new mixed-use building, rent-free. That's right. The same guy who won't budge an inch regarding Adele Sarno wants to pay no rent for his museum.


But alas, no buyer has come forward to make Scelsa's dream come true. So he's stuck with his little vanity project of a museum – a barely curated collection squeezed into a cramped space – and the six apartments above it, including Adele Sarno's. 


And it turns out that Adele Sarno isn't the only tenant whom this self-proclaimed Italian American spokesman and community leader has moved to evict. This month the museum kicked out Il Palazzo, a restaurant that had been located at 151 Mulberry Street for thirty years. The eviction notice came when the restaurant's owners, Annette Sabatino and her husband Perry Chrisciatelli, fell behind on one month's rent because of what they said was a difficult winter season, with few customers. When they tried to pay their rent, the museum refused it, serving the couple an eviction notice that required them to vacate the space in five days.

Some no doubt will say, well, restaurant owners are in a for-profit business, and if they can't pay the rent to stay in business, too bad. But commercial rents are becoming so exorbitant in New York that restaurants and other businesses that don't have the deep pockets of a major corporate chain, like Starbucks or Chipotle, keep going out of business. It's not only the residential character of the city that's changing, with a glut of "luxury" housing; it's also New York's commerce, as small, independently-owned and often lower-priced businesses keep closing, as the invaluable blog Jeremiah's Vanishing New York regularly, if depressingly, reports.


But it's the cruel irony of an Italian American institution making homeless a poor, elderly Italian American woman that has galvanized outrage. As Victor J. Papa, director of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, remarked to a Times reporter, his organization is "fighting a museum that purports to exhibit Italian-American culture and then proceeds to evict a living artifact. That’s absolute hypocrisy.”


Social media commentators were quick to agree with Papa. On Facebook, one directed her outrage to Scelsa and his board of directors: "You're a bunch of heartless, money grubbing, gluttons who are more concerned with your two-bit vanity project than the lives of the people you claim to honor. Shame on you!" Another remarked, "The museum wants to find a developer to buy the buildings and hopes to stay rent free but they don't want to let an elderly woman stay in her apartment of over 50 years because her rent is low. At least she pays rent!"


Yet another wrote, "The Italian American Museum, under the direction of Joe Scelsa, needed money, because attendance being what it was, was not paying the bills. Ms. Sarno was little more than an inconvenience, and Good Ol' Joe needed to get a buyer for the prime real estate that housed the museum so he could ensure that museum could have a permanent home, rent free."

I earlier noted that Joseph Scelsa is the "disgraced" former director of the Calandra Italian American Institute, Queens College, City University of New York. I do not use that term lightly. In 2006, two former Calandra staff members, Emelise Aleandri and Gloria Salerno, settled a discrimination lawsuit against CUNY for more than $1 million. They sued because Scelsa had made their work lives miserable after they tried to form a women's support group at Calandra. They decided to form the group to deal with the problems they had already experienced under Scelsa's autocratic administration. An article in a CUNY faculty newspaper reported the settlement and the events that led to it. It is a chronicle of Scelsa's petty, vindictive, and even illegal behavior, as a judge concluded there was significant evidence that he retaliated against the two women for filing a discrimination complaint, which is a violation of federal law.  

I bring up this episode for two reasons: media covering the Adele Sarno story have failed to mention it, and because it tells you a lot about the character of the man trying to evict her.

But I'd like to propose a solution to the impasse between Scelsa and Adele Sarno. In exchange for letting her stay in his building, why not make her and her apartment an exhibit in the Italian American Museum? A living museum, one of those places that, as Wikipedia defines, "recreates historical settings to simulate past time periods, providing visitors with an experiential interpretation of history." Scelsa could hire a real curator to create helpful plaques and labels for the Italian American "artifacts" in Sarno's home and charge admission (whatever he wants!) to tourists to visit and watch her make tomato sauce.

At least until that longed-for developer arrives with his $12 million.

There will be a demonstration to protest the eviction of Adele Sarno (and Il Palazzo restaurant) Saturday, March 28, 1:00 pm, at the Italian American Museum, 155 Mulberry Street, Manhattan.

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In a nutshell: "Joseph

In a nutshell: "Joseph Scelsa, a man of no distinction whatsoever, has opened a museum. Given the fact that he has no business experience to speak of and a profound inability to work with anyone, he is ill- equipped to not only create a real museum, but also to manage his properties."

A look at the museum's 2013 tax returns, which are public record as a nonprofit, shows they are $1.3 million in the red. It also shows that only a minuscule portion of its budget is for actual operations. In essence, the organization places virtually all of its energy into managing the properties and paying its mortgage. It has a board of only four people and no paid staff (or none that are paid much). Seriously, if Scelsa or anyone associated with this venture had business training and nonprofit experience, then they would've set the whole thing up differently. It's so amateur: a zeppole stand at San Gennaro no doubt has a better business model than the museum.

Given this reality, it's clear that Scelsa, regardless of his dubious moral character, is in survival mode. As a landlord myself, I understand his dilemma, and while the old lady certainly tugs at the heart strings, the reality is her dwelling is not regulated (already decided by the courts, which generally favor tenants as it is), and if the landlord's ends are not meeting, then something needs to be done. It's unfortunate in this case, however, given the woman's age and the museum's charitable mission, that they could not come to some compromise (though not the moronic one suggested by De Stefano here, which is ridiculously patronizing to Ms. Sarno). Given that a nonprofit is governed by a board, then the other directors (as anemic as they appear) are just as culpable as Scelsa. In addition to having no business skills, they also lack basic PR sensibilities.

To the comments by Mr. Ingravallo, I see no reason to chastise Mr. Petracca. Really, seriously, you want to talk about lying down with the devil? How much real estate have NYU, Columbia, and any number of "venerable" institutions in this city taken from the affordable rental market? Thousands of units have been eaten up by these places! No institution in this city has clean hands, so don't even go there. This is a tenant-landlord dispute, nothing unusual for NYC, and despite its impact on Ms. Sarno's life and the sort of ironic nature of it all (which is why it's gotten publicity, whereas scores of similar cases happening every day do not), I don't believe any burden should be placed on Mr. Petracca to not display there. Frankly, if he had to vet every institution in the city as you seem to suggest, then he wouldn't be displaying anywhere.

Lastly, one thing I will say in favor of Mr. Scelsa is whatever his failings and shortcomings, at least the guy managed to get it together to start an IA museum. If it's a vanity project, then so be it, but with all the academics of distinction in our community, with all the deep pocketed IA, and with all the less difficult than Scelsa personalities out there, how is it that no group of people have come together to create a museum? How come no one else has taken this chance, this risk? After all this blows over, that question will remain. The long term losers here are IA across the city and nation.


For shame, Petracca. Te lo dico in inglese! Ma non ti vergogni di associarti con tali persone che, se ci fosse ancora oggi Dante, le metterebbe nel punto più basso dell'Inferno. E tu invece credi di essere in Paradiso. Ma dove cavolo siamo andati a finire, che la tua povera mostra d'arte, se così si può dire, in quel deposito di oggetti vecchi che cerca di spacciarsi per un museo, risulta più importante della casa di quell'ottantenne?


For shame, Petracca. Te lo dico in inglese! Ma non ti vergogni di associarti con tali persone che, se ci fosse ancora oggi Dante, le metterebbe nel punto più basso dell'Inferno. E tu invece credi di essere in Paradiso. Ma dove cavolo siamo andati a finire, che la tua povera mostra d'arte, se così si può dire, in quel deposito di oggetti vecchi che cerca di spacciarsi per un museo, risulta più importante della casa di quell'ottantenne?

All over the place...

Mr. Petracca, you seem to be all over the place. You defend Ms. Sarno, yet you defend at all costs the IAM. You simply cannot have it both ways. If you support Ms. Sarno, then your principled position, if that is what it truly is, should have moved you to leave the IAM. You cannot parse this in any other way. Further still, your incoherent ranks, riddled with spelling and mistaken grammatical structures, make the situation that you bemoan even more damaging to Italian Americans. In the end, Mr. Petracca, you made a deal with the devil—the vanity of it all—to have your work exhibited in a questionable establishment.

I see no reason to chastise

I see no reason to chastise Mr. Petracca. Really, seriously, you want to talk about lying down with the devil? How much real estate have NYU, Columbia, and any number of "venerable" institutions in this city taken from the affordable rental market? Thousands of units have been eaten up by these places! No institution in this city has clean hands, so don't even go there. This is a tenant-landlord dispute, nothing unusual for NYC, and despite its impact on Ms. Sarno's life and the sort of ironic nature of it all (which is why it's gotten publicity, whereas scores of similar cases happening every day do not), I don't believe any burden should be placed on Mr. Petracca to not display there. Frankly, if he had to vet every institution in the city as you seem to suggest, then he wouldn't be displaying anywhere.


Mr/Ms. Giuliano I can have it both ways. Because the IAM is a 501c3 Registared non-profit organization Recognized by the state of NY. It's name is not Joseph Scelsa museum. Furthermore I have showed my work at The Calandra Institute. If my work is shown by them by extension their selection choices are no better than the IAM.

I am an artist, not a writer or a linguist and I've apologized for my spelling mistakes.

But the real issue is: The IAM is a contesting The tenant., IAM presents artists, poets, writers, historians, performers, educators, etc. As well as artifacts that mostly relate to the Bank, which is history in itself.

And who are you? I've identified myself. Go on the web. You'll find my address, phone, email, where I show...... I'm not hiding , you are.,Who are you? If you are accusing me of "making a pact with the devil", you are slandering me. You are directly attacking me, no the issue. I should be aloud to know the identity of my accuser.

What I can't abide by is hypocrisy. Mr. DeStefano's statements are mostly inaccurate and personal. Not much in his "article about Ms Sarno plenty about his sustain and hatred for the person of Dr. Scelsa. I'm taking issue with your slanderous comments to me not about your feelings about the issue. If you want to accuse me of devil dealing, have the decency to identify yourself.

Littler Italy

I apologize for the many misspellings and structural mistakes. I wrote my reply late Saturday night on an iPhone. Not the big one. I also hope that my show and other worthwhile events will be listed in I-Italy. It is a tremendous resource for our city and the International community. My only reason for responding is out of a sense of fairness and concern for the very nice mostly volunteer staff. And I admit, also out of fear that my art will be damaged, a third of it was graciously loaned by collectors. I have also been attacked by people on my art and social sites. In two weeks I will turn seventy and don't take kindly to threats.

Liittler Italy full of mistakes and personal vendetta like attac

Mr De Stefano I feel I must respond to your Blog "Liitler Italy" because it is filled with inaccuracies and your Personal attacks on the a persons integrity rather than the issue. The issue is a legal confrontation between a renter and an owner. The courts have favored the owners in this matter. Let me state that I support Ms. Sarno's quest to remain in her apartment and pay a fair rent, not "market rate". The vitriol of your and other groups attacks have had harmful repercussions on innocent, who primarily voluntarily staff the Museum. I have personally witnessed several angry men harass a senior citizen, a young adult and the manager, a woman who has grew up and lives in Little Italy. She is terrified. The younger volunteer who is at the welcome desk is thoroughly confused on a knifes edge. Let me introduce myself. I'm the artist who is currently showing my art at the IAM. They have expanded into an adjoining room. And I'm a wreck because of the crazies coming in to the facility. My gallery, Kim Foster had to take out a special rider against damages to the art. I am actually a professional, collectable artist who has spend half my career fighting and drawing attention to the bias that IAs have endured here in the US. But some facts. I am not an amateur. I have my career to protect. Allesandra Belloni just did a wonderful workshop and performance there. Many of the lectures I've gone to were very professional. Some of them have lectured at Calandra. Demeaning the quality of the museum does nothing to help Ms Sarno. It does however contribute to the dangerous conditions these volunteers have to work through. About the restaurant, Il Palazzo. The owners also own DaNico's and owned SPQR which was evicted from 133 Mulberry and a tacky Christmas shop that also sells, "I'm Lucky to be Irish" memorabilia. Nothing to do with Christmas or Little Italy. Novella, across from the IAM was recently shut. This family at one time owned five restaurants within two block of each other. So, your argument has no standing concerning ill treatment. I hope that Ms Sarno will be able to stay in her apartment. But I don't think she'd want the riff-raff that has been harassing IAM volunteers come up to look at her and her historical apartment. If you and others at Calandra would report and comment on the issue, fine by me. But arranging and leading pockets. And using personal animosity to force IAM, which DOES serve a purpose including inviting local artisan to sell and give thier stories and be there, because it's there! Finally, Two Bridges has some high powered lawyer and developer types on thier board. I doubt that they are without sin and acting without other motives. If you going to write about something this important, than maybe it would be appropriate to do a little more research. Lastly, because Calandra has this animosity, none of IAM events are listed, which deprives their Constituants of information that they might find useful. Antonio F Petracca

Unwarranted warring factions

I believe the real issue at hand is our American government. If FDR's Second Bill of Rights had been passed, American senior citizens would be protected from eviction.

In the realm of NYC real estate, we must remember that we are living in the aftermath of the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations which fueled real estate developers, nourishing a culture which disregarded basic necessities for a decent quality of life such as housing, for all human beings.

The above-mentioned warring factions are unwarranted; federal, state, and/or city government needs to require legislation to pass laws which protect our seniors.

If you want to defend the

If you want to defend the museum because you exhibit there, fine. That's your prerogative. However, neither I nor I-Italy is affiliated with the Calandra Institute. Check your facts before you post.

DeStefano's writing style

Why was such a highly opinionated piece of writing published as a reportage? It is an "Opinion" and henceforth affiliation with the warring factions is irrelevant.

It greatly saddens me to read such unprofessionalism in the Italian American community, in particular those who claim to be highly educated. We should be uniting, not fighting.

Littler Italy Article

Sir, You might be technically right about written legally binding relationship between I-Italy/IADP but you have a working relationship. Same floor, Same Space, Many of the writers are employees of Calandra, many of the Interviewers on the I-TV channel are Employees at Calandra.... I could go on for another paragraph. But you, yourself used defametory words to describe the director of the IAM, and the IAM as "a vanity project"-It's director as "a scholar of no distinction" His "cronies" Etc. You buttress your "reasons" describing his person, his cronies, the IAM vitriolic language is your concept of illegal, inexcusable behavior while he was the DIRECTOR of the CAlandra Institute. My interpretation is that there is a connection to Calandra and you proved it by your own words. You never responded to untruths about the Il Pallazzo which is not a poor little restaurant but a part of a mini-chain of five, maybe more establishments several of which were evicted for "unknown" reasons. I Have stated that I am in support of Ms. Sarno and have made this point clear. But your blog verges on slander of not just the director but by extension me, the voluntary staff and other prominent artists, performers, educators, historians who have been presented at the IAM. Your personal attack, is no better and raises you no higher than the person who is antagonist in your article. You never addressed my fear that the volunteers may be harm by knee jerk crazies, or that they should not be subject to this kind of behavior, or my fear that my art will get damaged. You attached the IAM as a joke, a vanity project. And people coming in there repeating the same language and scaring the people who work there. Can't you at at least write something that says you don't condone this kind of threatening behavior? That your are supporting Ms. Sarno as I am also supporting her but threats of violence is not the answer? The manager had to call the cops last Saturday because she feared violent altercations might occur? If your are a better person than your antagonist then show it by clarifying your article. And support Ms. Sarno in a manner that supports HER, not personal possibly dangerous rhetoric. Depending how you respond to what I feel are legitimate criticisms of your article published in Very important resource for the Italo-American community, I will have file a complaint with the I-taly. I am not concerned about my art that I own. I am concerned for the art that is on loan. You and others in the Italian- American elite have convinced me that my art is irrelevant. And I no longer can fight against injustice against IAs when in truth, so many act in a manner that supports these stereotypes. I know why this dispute has gained national and international attention. It is because the "other" loves to see Italian against Italian. The are fascinated and enthralled. Just like in the movies. Time and time again we give them reason to believe that we IAs behave just like they knew we would.