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CRAIN’S New York Business features IAM

This Week in CRAIN'S New York: June 15, 2015

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Italian American Museum featured at the 10:50 mark.

June 14, 2015

Keeping New York City's Little Italy's story alive

The Italian American Museum's struggles mirror those of the fading area.

By Judith Messina

Italian American Museum founder Joseph Scelsa with two of the institution’s works of art. Photo: Buck Ennis

First came the immigrants who gave Little Italy its name. Then came the wave of Chinese immigrants who began raising families, opening shops, restaurants and even small factories in the neighborhood in the 1980s. More recently, soaring property prices have ushered in the era of affluent urbanites and hipsters. Today, even Little Italy stalwarts concede that the name falls somewhere between “last vestige of a vanished time” and “total misnomer.”

“Saving the neighborhood as a community—it's not going to happen,” conceded Joseph Scelsa, the founder of the Italian American Museum at the crossroads of the old Little Italy—the corner of Mulberry and Grand streets. “It's really about being able to save a piece of it so that we can tell the story of this great migration from Italy to the United States and what happened to its people.”

These days, however, that takes money. Although the museum owns its three-story building, it takes in about $500,000 in revenue a year, mainly from donations and rent paid by tenants in the six apartments upstairs. That modest income leaves the operation with an annual deficit of more than $250,000.

To close the gap and ensure its future, the museum plans to sell its 130-year-old property, the former home of Banca Stabile, to a developer that would likely convert the apartments to condominiums. State agencies would have to approve a sale, which would give the museum 4,200 square feet of ground-floor space—four times its current allotment—rent-free. Mr. Scelsa said he and the museum's eight-member board are talking to several developers and expect to come to an agreement by year's end.

The move to firmer financial footing, which has been explored since 2012, has not endeared it to some of its neighbors, however. It got pushback in March when news got out that the museum wanted to raise the rent of one of its long-term tenants: an 85-year-old Italian-American woman, no less. Things only got worse when that effort fell short and the museum moved to evict her, quickly touching off demonstrations by outraged members of several community groups. In late April, the two sides cut a deal, the details of which Mr. Scelsa said he cannot disclose. In addition, another tenant, a restaurant that had occupied space in the building since 1980, closed at the end of March, unable to afford a rent hike.

Raising funds

Even getting this far has been a battle. To put together the $9.4 million to buy the building in 2008—close to the peak of the real estate market—the museum's board raised about $4 million, including $725,000 from the federal government and the New York State Dormitory Authority that went toward renovations. Mr. Scelsa scraped together $800,000 by mortgaging his home and that of his late mother—whose father had emigrated from Italy in 1895—in the Bronx. Other directors also made substantial contributions.

“It was $100 here, $100 there,” said Maria Fosco, a board member who is also director of administration and special events in the office of student affairs at Queens College. “Because of the location, it tugged at people's hearts.”

In the end, the museum took out a $6.5 million mortgage.

Although only a few hundred people currently living in the area can now claim any kinship to Italy, many people are drawn to the museum, which attracts nearly 80,000 visitors each year. They range from senior citizens to school groups, as well as tourists from around the world—including many Italians ­eager to discover where so many of their countrymen landed.

“I've seen so many things here that remind me of when I was young,” said Victor Buonocore, a neighborhood resident whose family emigrated from Naples in the 1960s and who grew up to work as a singing waiter at Puglia, on Hester Street, a neighborhood mainstay that dates back to 1919.

In recent years, he has contributed his father's trove of Frank Sinatra 78s to the museum. The institution's collection comprises more than 3,000 objects, including a century-old Madonna statue and a small mountain of documents from Banca Stabile's own vault—telegrams, steamship receipts and financial records, which offer insights into how three generations of newly minted Italian-Americans conducted their lives.

Special exhibits—one highlighting the experiences of Italian-Americans in law enforcement and during World War II, when they, like Japanese-Americans, were treated harshly as security risks—have also been popular.

Landmarks survive

For Mr. Scelsa, these are stories that need retelling, especially in a neighborhood that was once anything but small—in its heyday spanning 50 blocks and housing 10,000 Italian immigrants—but now includes merchants such as Malia Mills Swimwear, the laid-back Tartinery bar and ­McNally Jackson, purveyor of “goods for the study.”

Still, a few landmarks of the old days survive, such as Most Precious Blood Church, which has hosted the annual San Gennaro Feast since 1926; restaurants like Ferrara Bakery, which has offered cannoli since 1892; and, of course, the museum.

“It is important that people understand who they were and what contributions they made,” said Mr. Scelsa, former director of CUNY's Calandra Italian-American Institute. “This is what the museum is all about.”

A version of this article appears in the June 15, 2015 print issue of Crain's New York Business.

Italian American Museum
155 Mulberry Street
(Corner of Grand and Mulberry Streets)
New York, NY 10013

Tel. 212.965.9000


For information on the Museum's Travel Program, please call Jeannie Russo-Winner at (718) 597-1414
or email:

The IAM is chartered by the University of the State of New York and has a 501(c)(3) designation from the IRS. Update

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