Joseph Rizzi (FIAO Brooklyn Director of External Affairs)

"Il Centro", la nuova casa degli Italiani a Brooklyn

Jun 04, 2018 6254 ITA ENG

Historically, Brooklyn has always been a very popular destination for the Italian emigration to the US. Many places in Brooklyn were and some of them still are populated by many Italians. Now that this borough is getting cooler and cooler, it still is fundamental for the narration of the Italians in New York.

The Federation of Italian American Organizations (FIAO) of Brooklyn is the most important organization representing this community. At the end of 2017, an incredible project came to life: after several years of fundraising and projecting, IL CENTRO, the new home of FIAO Brooklyn, has been inaugurated. It is a huge Italian cultural center. Our guest today is Joseph Rizzi, FIAO Brooklyn Director of External Affairs

Joseph, what's the story of the Italian emigration to Brooklyn?

Downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn have been the gateway to America for millions of Italian immigrants. Even before Ellis Island, Italians arrived on cargo ships searching for a better future. The mass immigration, especially from the South, started after the chaotic and desperate situation created by the unification of Italy of 1870.

Most of them settled in lower Manhattan but soon found the way across the newly constructed Brooklyn Bridge into Carroll Gardens and Red Hook. The wave of Italian immigrants ended in the mid 1980’s. Bensonhurst, Gravesend and Dyker Hights still retain a large percentage of Italian Americans even though these neighborhoods have been undergoing ethnic transformation.

Please tell us about the Federation of Italian American Organizations (FIAO) of Brooklyn

In the early 1970's 18th. Ave in Brooklyn was the heart of the largest Italian American community outside of Italy. You could sense "gli odori e i sapori" (the scent and the flavors) of Italy, especially Southern Italy. The Caffes, the restaurants, the pastry shops, the “paesani” clubs which mixed the dialects and traditional music made you feel “at home”.

At the same time, several caring and courageous individuals saw the needs that the community had and decided to act on. They petitioned local elected officials for funding to assist families with the everyday needs, youngsters with programs that would help them pursue careers and make them productive citizens of the United States. The Federation of Italian American Organizations of Brooklyn, Ltd., AKA FIAO, was created. Many of the local Clubs, about 40 of them, joined forces under the FIAO’s umbrella and opened a store front office, first on 20th Ave and 63rd Street, then on 18th Ave and 74th  Street and, as of November 1, 2017, moved to the newly constructed IL CENTRO located on 8711 18th Ave. (Cristoforo Colombo Blvd.), Brooklyn, NY. 11214.

These "heroes" gave of themselves for the wellbeing and the future of their friends and family members who, till today, use the services provided by FIAO at IL CENTRO.

Let's talk about IL CENTRO. It's a new Italian American community center, am I right?

As I mentioned, the Federation of Italian American Organizations of Brooklyn, Ltd. (FIAO) is a 501c3 not for profit organization dedicated to the service of assisting families and children in need in Brooklyn's immigrants' communities. With over 40-member Organizations throughout the borough, hundreds of dedicated volunteers, and over 400 full and part time staff, FIAO has assisted tens of thousands of Brooklyn's residents access community support services to help families become more stable. On November 1, 2017, FIAO moved to IL CENTRO.

IL CENTRO is the realization of the vision that the Board of Directors and its members had nearly a decade ago when they observed a change in the community’s mores. Brooklyn's first generation immigrant communities seemed to be losing ties to their heritage and culture; second generation families were no longer establishing themselves with ties to their culture, and years of rich history were being erased; languages lost, cultural activities fading, and families leaving what once were rich immigrant enclaves. IL CENTRO is the first Italian American Cultural and Community Center in New York City. Modeled after other successful cultural centers, IL CENTRO’s 44,000 square foot facility houses resources and programs to serve the community and preserve Italian culture and heritage for all residents and visitors of New York City. IL CENTRO serves as a community resource, a hub for recreation, arts and culture, youth and family programs, events, and other community focused activities.

More specifically, IL CENTRO houses several activities. We have membership-based recreation including a full gym, aquatics center, dance and recreation classes, soccer and basketball courts and space for tournaments. We have arts and cultural events including writers’ workshops, book readings, art classes, and meet ups for creative citizens. There's a library collection of Italian authors and Italian literature. We also provide Italian language and immersion classes, and a youth programs including recreation programs, summer camp, swimming, education and literacy, GED, HS and college prep. There are business resources, including the facilitation of partnerships to provide local outreach and technical assistance for small business. We have recreation and cultural programs for seniors, and programs and services to support veterans including arts, writing and wellness. We host broad based community partnership programs that will bring, on rotation, outside programs and services for the community on-site and locally based to assist in a wide range of locally based access to service for community members. We provide immigration, citizenship, food stamps, and other benefits assistance services. Finally yet importantly, we organize culinary arts programs and training for the culinary trade.

Unfortunately, last October the "Our Lady of Loreto" church in Brownswille has been demolished. The Italian community tried to save it but ultimately there was nothing they could do. What happened?

Southern Brooklyn also suffered a similar loss: St. Rosalia Church, located on 14th Ave and 63rd Street. Despite all the efforts from the Italian American community and the elected officials, this iconic Church went through a deconsecrating and is slated to be demolished and the lot sold to developers.

Letters were sent to the Bishop and the Vatican, but they fell on deaf hears. This is a great loss for the Italian American community, because it had been a focal point for generations of immigrants. At a time when faith and culture are under ferocious attacks, even the religious leaders opted for the monetary interest. Most of the old ”Società” (Clubs) still provide a meeting point for the older generation of Italians who migrated from countless towns in Italy, but they are experiencing a decline in membership and some are closing.

lL CENTRO, in my opinion, represents the future of the Italian American community not only in Southern Brooklyn but from the entire metropolitan area. We are confident that, with the support and the participation of all the Italian Americans, young and old, the elected officials, the Italian Authorities, IL CENTRO will be the hub that will unite us all.

What if I ask you a name representing the Italians who marked a spot in the history of the Italian presence in Brooklyn?

The person that comes to mind is Mary Sansone. A 4 foot 11 ”giant” among political, social and labor titans who recently passed away just one month shy of her 102nd birthday. Mary Sansone was a caring social worker, a dedicated community activist, a champion of human rights and social justice and the founder of CIAO (Congress of Italian American Organizations).

Mary Sansone has been the typical Italian American immigration product who fought her entire life for the betterment of not only Italian Americans, but of all immigrants. Examples of such pillars of our proud Italian American Community can be found in FIAO also. They gave of themselves disinterestedly to keep "l'Italianità" shining as a beacon of pride and culture.

Italian Americans have been major contributors in the development and growth of New York City and the United States and I am proud to be one of them.

What's the most important Italian Festival in Brooklyn?

Without a doubt I have to say it’s the Brooklyn Columbus Day Parade. It is the second largest after the Manhattan Parade. After 36 years, it has become a tradition along the 18th Ave (Cristoforo Colombo Blvd), from 60th Street to the new IL CENTRO. Tens of thousands of participants and spectators, predominantly Italian Americans, but also representing other cultures who now populate the area, enjoy this yearly event. We have seen this event grow year after year despite the ethnic changes. Marching bands (local and from Italy), floats, schools, associations, City, State and Federal elected officials, march along prominent Grand Marshals in honor of Christopher Columbus celebrating Italian culture and pride.

Il Centro is on Cristoforo Colombo boulevard. And Brooklyn has a monument of Columbus outside of Brooklyn Borough Hall and Brooklyn Supreme Court. What's your idea about the attacks against Columbus? Is this statue in danger?

In spite of all that has been said in the past years, Cristoforo Colombo will remain what it has always been, a proud representation of the Italian contribution to the world. It’s up to all of us now to stand together and convince those who periodically raise doubts, that history cannot and will not change.

How is Made in Italy in Brooklyn, and how can Italy improve the presence of its products there?

Made in Italy in Brooklyn is alive and well. IL CENTRO is another venue Italian products can be introduced. With the 44,000 square foot of space, this magnificent structure can be "l'ombelico"(the center) of anything labeled ”Made in Italy”: from fashion to food and from art to history and culture. Therefore, "Benvenuti a Brooklyn" and "Benvenuti a IL CENTRO".

Today Brooklyn is one of the coolest places in NYC. Are there many new Italians who recently moved there from Italy?

Brooklyn has been labeled the "New Manhattan". Real estate has spiked, business has boomed and new "0ld" neighborhoods have seen a renascence. Just look at Red Hook and Williamsburg to mention few. Thousands of young Italian professionals make New York City, especially Brooklyn, a place to live, work and dream of productive future.

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