New York is no doubt the State with the highest number of Italian Americans in the country. Nevertheless, even if almost everybody seems to be interested just in New York City, in Upstate New York there is a huge Italian American population.
In Albany, the Capital city of the Empire State, about 150 miles north to Manhattan there is plenty of them; and there is also a museum and cultural center that celebrates our heritage and culture. As often, this museum exists thanks to a visionary pioneer who founded it and still volunteer there: Professor Philip DiNovo.
Philip, you are the founder and President of the American Italian Heritage Association and Museum in Albany, NY. Can you tell us something about the history of this institution?
Well, back in 1979 I called together other college professors and we discussed that at that time we heard people starting to realize we had a wonderful cultural heritage. These professors agreed with me that we should start an organization to record and preserve our Italian heritage. I met them in the Syracuse University Law School and then, from there, we continued to meet, and build and grow, and then we founded the American Italian Museum. This museum is different from the museums in Italy, because its purpose is to honor the Italian immigrants and made possible for other Italians to have the kind of life that we have in America thanks to their sacrifice. This sacrifice sometimes was huge: I have a plaque here that shows all the Italian Americans that were lynched here in the US.
Another mission of the Museum is to inform people of the contribution that the Italian Americans gave to the US, so we have exhibits about our history and a gift shop. On the second floor, there is the Italian Cultural Center where we have a small art gallery, a classroom, a chapel. The building was completed in 1922: it is a very unique architectural, it resembles a mission that you would find in the south west of the US, it is very unique. Before it was a church, we made it a 5,800 square feet museum and it took us five years to restore it, and nine years to get to the second floor, so we have really achieved something outstanding: and we all volunteer, no one gets paid.
Unfortunately, we Italian Americans are not united, we do not work together. The other Italian American museums existing in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans, Philadelphia ... we all would be much stronger working together, because the question is "How is our culture going to survive in the US?" I am concerned because I have a treasure here it took 35 years to collect, and we do not have an endowment. You've got to have an endowment like colleges or university so that you're sure that the artifacts and the memory will be preserved in the years coming, so the future generations can learn about the immigrants experience, what took place. This is a great concern now because I am not getting any younger and I want to make sure that this museum survives.
There is an Irish Museum in Albany, it is called the Irish Heritage Museum, and they get support from the Irish government. I wish the Italian government would do the same: the Italian government spends a lot more time and money in New York City, and it is understandable, because it is the city with the highest number of Italian Americans in the country. However, they seem to have forgot the Italian American population beyond New York City.
Which activities do the association and the museum organize during the year?
We are more than a museum. We do a special exhibit every two months. We have cultural, language and cooking classes, we have the book club, we have an Italian card group, we have book or documentary presentations, we play bocce, we have many different events across the year: we do many things to keep the cultural heritage alive. We have a big Italian Christmas market every year. There is people here who used to go to Italy, who want to stay in touch with their roots and with Italy, and they come to us.
I am third generation, my grandparents were born in Italy, my parents were born here and I was born here. There are 155,000 Italian Americans only in the five counties in the metropolitan area of Albany, which is just a portion of Upstate New York, where many other Italian Americans live. This museum is great, considering what we are up against, but it is not at his full potential, because we have to raise 145,000 $ a year, just to survive.
I think most of Italian Americans have lost their heritage. They are only Italian in their name, but they know very little about it. Our food survives, yes, but our culture is much more than our food. Sometimes a few third generation Italians find their roots and they are very interested in their heritage. Those from the first generation, of course they were very Italian, they had big adjustment. Their children wanted to become American, so they often tried to adjust their culture. Now, we have Italians who say they are Italian but they do not really know much about it. And you can't keep a cultural heritage alive by just words. What we have to do is to transform words in action, but that is the big problem: how do you do that with young people?
The web is one way, that is what We the Italians is trying to do
We too, we are using the web, but I am concerned about how do we transfer that into action? Is it going to be just entertainment with no education, nothing learnt? How do we get them to want to go to Italy, to learn Italian?
What's the story of the Italian emigration to Upstate New York?
Well, a small curiosity is that the first Italian who came to New York State did not come to New York City in 1635 as they claim: the first ones came ten years before to Albany, they came with the Dutch.
Many of the Italians who came to Upstate New York, first lived in New York City and then they heard about opportunities Upstate NY. We have a library and we have some books that tells a few of these stories. Some of them were farmers, and they grew different products, like onions for example. There were many different factories up here, and the railroads and the canals drew Italian workers: so many cities Upstate New York had a large Italian population. For example, in Utica, where my first museum was from 1995 to 1998, the majority of the people at that time were Italian Americans, and they came because of the mills. So, different opportunities brought Italians in different cities Upstate New York. And then what happened is that those Italians would call other ones from their village or small town and tell them that there were opportunities Upstate.
Which are the most important "Italian" places in Upstate New York?
We do have Little Italies in a few cities up here, included Albany. They are not what they used to be because many of those Italians moved to better areas when they had financial success. Talking about Albany, there is a new documentary called "The Neighborhood That Disappeared" about our Little Italy, which was destroyed taking away 9,000 people from their home and 333 businesses, the very heart of Little Italy. Schenectady and Troy also still have Little Italies, but very small ones.
We do still have some Italian parishes, fewer than we used to have. We also still have some places that are named after Italians, like parks and streets.
Are there many Italians born in Italy and recently emigrated to Albany and its environs?
We have a few because we have high tech here, we have a big new complex in Albany. Our organization has quite a few members who were born in Italy and came here after the war, and they speak Italian. They go back to Italy very often because, you know, having born makes the difference.
Is Made in Italy successful in Upstate New York?
Stores have many Italian products. Made in Italy has a very positive image. Unfortunately, some people do not know the difference between fake Made in Italy and real Made in Italy. For instance, when I look for olive oil, I have to keep attention because sometimes I find a bottle with an Italian name, but made somewhere else. Unless you do your homework, you could be misled.
Is there any big important Italian Festival in Albany?
No, because we lost many of our Italian parishes. There is a quite populated Saint Anthony Italian feast in Schenectady, there is something in Troy in August and in Albany in September, we also do Saint Joseph's table on Saint Joseph Day and we celebrate Saint Lucy here, and then we do something for Columbus as well. In Utica they do something big for Saint Cosma and Damiano. However, there is not a huge Italian festival.
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