When everybody thinks about New York, the first thought goes of course to Manhattan. And when everybody thinks about the Italians in New York, one may think about Little Italy, or East Harlem, or Arthur Avenue in The Bronx. But if you look at the percentage, the New York borough with the highest percentage of inhabitants of Italian heritage is definitively Staten Island. To say more, Staten island (or, as it is also called, Richmond County) has the higher percentage of Italian Americans than any other county in the United States. Actually, about 35.7% of Staten Island's residents have Italian origin.
From 1955, as to say in the last 60 years, the Staten Island borough has had 7 Presidents, and only one of them was non-Italian American. With a premise like this, it's easy to understand why it is important for our column to meet the person who is behind the main Italian institution in the island, that in few years has already surged as a center known by every New Yorker who loves Italy: Gina Biancardi.
Gina, you are the founder and President of Casa Belvedere, the Italian Cultural Foundation in Staten Island, NY. How and when did you have the idea of founding this institution, housed in a beautiful mansion from the early years of last century?
The idea came to me when I saw this beautiful mansion, which has very similar architecture to the Italian mansions I visited when travelling through Italy. The beautiful, ornate columns, terracotta tile roof, front and back terrazza and rolling hills reminded me of an Italian villa, on the outside especially. My children go to school directly across the street at Notre Dame Academy and I kept seeing this "for sale" sign ... Since it was a transitional time in my career when I was thinking about moving on from my previous career in marketing and public relations at The CollegeBound Network, an online educational recruitment company, the timing was right.
I've always wanted to see more cultural institutions promoting Italian language, music, art, cuisine, etc in the United States: I know of a couple, but not many, and certainly not enough. This is something I dreamed about doing since I was a young girl. At 19 years old I c0-founded an association called "Fieri" (which translates to "pride", as in "our pride for our heritage"). We started the first chapter in The Bronx, NY (which is where I'm from) and then we were able to found other chapters in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Staten Island and Queens. The association grew and became a national organization, even international – we had chapters in Canada, too. But that was more about social and recreational activities and networking, plus meeting people of the same background.
I'm so proud of being Italian American, to have Italian blood: I have very strong ties to Italy. My parents immigrated to the United States in 1960, they were always with one foot in Italy and one in the US. We used to go to Italy every summer to visit with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. That's when my love affair with Italy began ...With the big Italian family and their warmth, love, hospitality. I think about them all the time!
That pride is so strong in me that I really wanted to create something to express it, an organization dedicated to promoting Italy and preserving the family values, traditions, culture, language, cuisine ... A special place to create that same warmth and hospitality you feel when you walk into an Italian home or visit the relatives in Italy. So when the opportunity came up, I purchased this building and named it "Casa Belvedere" because of its spectacular views of The Verrazano Bridge and New York Harbor. It's already 5 years since the Italian Cultural Foundation at Casa Belvedere was established. I started living my dream, without any help from New York City or State at the time, but, thankfully, I did have help from some local, private donors. Meanwhile, the mansion needed, and still needs, so much work. Transforming an old, landmark building into a public institution is so much harder than offering these activities at a university or at a specific center that was already created: a really big challenge!
When you first start you need everything, you need to make the building adaptable for public use, including handicap accessibility, fire and safety precautions and so much more, AND also with permits in place from several New York City agencies. Italians may think it's easier in the US, but it's just as bureaucratic and complicated as in Italy.
Which kind of activities do you organize at Casa Belvedere?
We have Italian language classes for children from elementary to high school level and for adults; we have "Cinema sotto le stelle", a free film festival on our very big front lawn where we show Italian films of 50 years ago, the classics, but we also show contemporary Italian films; we do art exhibits; we do lessons and lectures and presentations about the Italian culture; we have cooking classes in our beautiful renovated "Cucina Colavita", thanks to the Colavita and Profaci families. We do classes of original Italian cuisine from the north to the south. We follow and replicate some of the many Italian Feasts like Carnevale, and we have our own Festa della Repubblica: everything that has to do with Italian art and culture, we do it at Casa Belvedere. When we have the opportunity to celebrate, why not?
Staten Island is home to a very big community of Italian Americans: in percentage, it is by far the most Italian of the 5 boroughs. Please describe to our readers a little bit who these fellow Italians are, and how you all show your pride of being Italian
I was born and raised in The Bronx. I remember that I was surrounded by other Italian families, and every one of those, like mine, tried to keep alive the Italian traditions: their vegetable, fruit and herb plants in the garden, making wine, speaking Italian at home ... It was like growing up in a small town in Italy ... Then In 1993, when I came to Staten Island, newly married, I got to know the Italian community here and I noticed that there were many second, third or even fourth generation Italians, but no (or very few) first generation Italians. Many Staten Islanders, of Italian origin, have grandparents or even great-grandparents emigrating from Italy to the US, but not their parents, like me. So their relationship with Italy is not as strong and there is a dis-connect to what it really means to be "Italian". Unfortunately all they have been exposed to is the negative stereotypes against Italy and the Italians. Casa Belvedere fills that void, that need to connect to their roots and learn about the true Italian story! Ours is a very big community, something like 175,000 people!
It is useful to remember that Staten Island is also where Antonio Meucci lived, the Italian who came to New York and invented the first telephone; and that in his house he also hosted Giuseppe Garibaldi from 1851 to 1853
Right. I am interested in working more closely with the museum. Casa Belvedere and the Garibaldi Meucci Museum have to work together, and not separately, for our common desire to spread Italian culture and history. I don't think the museum is as visible, and visited, as it needs to be, simply because of its location on Staten Island. If the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum were next door to Casa Belvedere, which is located on a very academic road with St. John's University, Wagner College and Notre Dame Academy on the same road, the museum could really take advantage of a high traffic neighborhood.
So are you suggesting the Garibaldi-Meucci move to where Casa Belvedere is located?
Yes, of course! It's not that complicated, they already picked up and moved the house once from its' original location to where they are now once before, why not do it again for the sake of keeping the museum alive? It's a very small, but very historically significant house, with artifacts from Garibaldi and from Meucci, well describing the history behind both these powerful figures in Italian history. I'm sure the house can be moved again. Of course it would take some funding to do so, but that funding can be found if the right people get involved.
For me Casa Belvedere is a dream, and when you find other people with the same dream as yours, why deny the possibility to collaborate? Again, there's no reason why the Meucci Garibaldi Museum and Casa Belvedere should not embrace each other and work together, figuratively and logistically "side by side", we have such a strong synergy.
The Italian Community in Staten Island has planned big changes for this year's celebration of Columbus Day. Can you tell us something more about it?
Yes, we were instrumental in introducing a new way to celebrate Columbus Day in Staten Island. In the past we used to do this in the traditional way with a parade, and marching bands, going up and down this very popular Staten Island lane. Music, banners, Italian flags. But People would watch the parade and then leave. What were they really learning about the Italian Culture? We felt that the celebration needed to be more educational. So the new President of the Staten Island borough, James Oddo, decided that it was time to make a change, to help Italians of second and third generation in Staten Island connect with their Italian origins: to bring them back, to teach them what it really means to be Italian, to understand their roots. The new celebration will follow much of the same mission and goals of The Italian Cultural Foundation at Casa Belvedere.
Borough President Oddo proposed doing it in a popular and historic area of Staten Island called Richmond Town. The event is called "Rome through Richmond Town: A Celebration of Italian Culture" on October 11th from noon to 6pm and free to the public. And although there won't be a parade, Rome Through Richmond Town will feature musical performances, art exhibits, and other educational and fun activities. The Garibaldi Meucci Museum will be represented as well. It's not only about food and wine, even though that will be part of it too, but we want to show all the different aspects of being Italian.
Let's talk about your upcoming plans at Casa Belvedere ...
Well, now we are working on our annual, and biggest, fundraising event for the year being held on September 27th and 28th at Casa Belvedere: "Motori d'Italia/Festa d'Italia" . We will have many luxury and performance Italian vehicles on display, new and classic: Lamborghini, Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo and even Fiat- but also Ducati and Piaggio, the motorbike companies. People travel from all over the tri-state area to see the beautiful Italian cars and motorbikes on display on the sprawling front lawn of Casa Belvedere. We will also feature live musical performances from "old time" Sinatra classics to contemporary pop artists, and of course educational programs, from "How to make wine" to cooking demos on Italian Regional Cuisine. Also, this year we will debut a very special exhibit called "The Greats", a photo exhibit of at least 100 autographed images, capturing moments in time of legendary Italian American Sports heroes such as Joe di Maggio, Yogi Berra, Rocky Marciano, Mario Andretti and so many more. We have a great collection of autographed photos and the storylines behind these photos. This exhibit is also very significant to Casa Belvedere's future as it's going to part of the "Italy-America Hall of Fame Museum" at Casa Belvedere. That is, eventually when we raise the funds to build out the rest of the 14,000 square feet of the Casa Belvedere mansion, we plan on opening the "Italy America Hall of Fame Museum" and the Sports Memorabilia Photos on display during the "Motori" weekend will be part of the Museum's permanent collection.
But ours will be unlike other typical museums: We would like to keep the public engaged via rotating exhibits, each up for a few months at a time. There is an abundance of material to showcase about Italians and Italian Americans, and there significant contributions in many industries: Film, Art, Music, Fashion, Culinary Arts, Public Service, Sports and so much more. We hope to engage many other major benefactors to make this entire vision, including moving the Garibaldi- Meucci Museum to the Belvedere Campus and opening the Italy America Hall of Fame Museum happen. At Casa Belvedere we are telling a story, and it's a beautiful one!
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