Articles by: Joey Skee

  • Art & Culture

    Operation Rescue Flowerpot

    On March 15th, I drove around southern Brooklyn with my friend and colleague Anthony Scotto photographing Italian-American yard shrines for my forthcoming book on vernacular religious spaces in New York City. 

    At the end of this grand tour, Anthony showed me a decorated flowerpot in front of an abandoned house at 1466 80th Street in Dyker Heights. You can see the flowerpot in situ in the current Google map.) Back in September, Anthony had driven me around the neighborhoods of Dyker Heights and Bensonhurst to document this little-known Italian-American folk art, which I subsequently blogged about here. 

    There was nothing to be done. The flowerpot was on private property.  But Anthony promised to keep an eye on the situation.

    On April 29th, Anthony texted me the following message:

    Flower Pot Emergency! That house on the next block with planter in the walk has been demolished! It’s surrounded by a plywood wall.

    Three hours later he wrote:

    Just walked by work site. Planter is intact but partially buried under rubble. I need to intervene, but don’t know how. The site is secured with a padlock. I don’t sense much respect for these artifacts.

    Planter is completely covered in rubble!

    I’m confident that it’s still intact, but they’re taking the whole house down.

    The workers have left for the day. I don't know if they’ll be responsive.

    On May 6th, Anthony contacted me again via text:

    Standing in front of demoed house–there are actually 2 planters!

    They’re intact (appear to be) and one we saw has been lifted.


    I’m waiting for the workers to appear. They just hauled some stuff to dumpster but now they’re in back somewhere.

    Damn! They are not coming out. The dumpster is full; maybe they’re waiting for truck. I need to leave now...

    I waited in my office. 


    And then Anthony sent me this photo:

    He told me that the workers had come out and when he asked about the decorated flowerpots, they said he could have them and offered him a wheelbarrow to transport them to his car. 

    This decorated flowerpot’s style and execution is rather simple when compared to the works we photographed last year.


    This rescue mission may seem frivolous to some. All this energy spent on two simple objects.  And now what?

    In 2002, I organized a symposium for the Calandra Institute titled “Historic Preservation and the Italian American Presence in New York City” where we examined “current thinking about and practical issues concerning the official recognition and presentation of buildings and sites particular to the Italian-American community of New York City.”  By that point, I had worked on listing two buildings to the National and New York State Registries of Historic Places: the Staten Island Grotto in Rosebank, Staten Island, and the Lisanti Family Chapel in Williamsbridge, the Bronx.  Since then people have been active in preserving other sites associated with Italian-American history and culture, like the Our Lady of Loreto Church in East New York, Brooklyn. In addition, the Italian-American community in the New York City area lacks a reputable museum that has the vision to take in such humble works of folk art.

    Anthony’s modest but heroic act has preserved a small part of Italian-American expressive culture.  What happens next is up to us all.

  • Life & People

    Williamsburg Radicale

    I walked by this sign last week in the window of a liquor store on Metropolitan Avenue in the Brooklyn area historically known as Italian Williamsburg. The sign was too easy a target for derision and dismissal: the communist hammer and sickle in a neon advertisement for Russian vodka beneath the name of the neighborhood that is ground zero for hipsterism’s ironic pastiche, commoditization of style, consumption of subcultural cool, and hypergentrification. Yet for me, the sign announced yet another example of the rewriting of social history that epitomizes gentrification practices with the established trope of bohemian colonization of the postindustrial city and the erasure of earlier histories.

    May Day rally on Fifth Avenue, New York City, ca. 1930.

    Banners include the Industrial Workers of the World,

    the Italian Antifascist Front,

    and several antifascist and anarchist newspapers.

    Fort Velona Papers, Immigration History Research Center,

    University of Minnesota.

    Caption courtesy of Jennifer Guglielmo.
    I was instantly reminded of Italian Williamsburg’s radical past, the local struggle for workers' rights and the ending of capitalist oppression that I have come to know through the work of historians. 

    In her book Militants and Migrants: Rural Sicilians Become American Workers (1988), Donna Gabaccia (University of Minnesota) notes the presence of socialist workers’ circles in the area. Founded in the early twentieth century, the Williamsburg Socialist circle (no address given) was one of them. 

    Another was Club Avanti at 202-204 Bushwick Avenue which Gabaccia describes in this way:
    Like the Socialist circle, it supported education, sponsoring lectures on peace, religion, and sexual and family questions, on women’s emancipation, nationalism, imperialism, major immigrant strikes, the Mexican revolution, the problems of political prisoners in Italy, and more generally, current events. It gave classes in Italian, the natural sciences, and “social questions.” (p. 139)
    The club published a small newspaper La Luce, sponsored a theatrical group, and worked together with Jewish and Spanish-speaking groups in the neighborhood.
    Jennifer Guglielmo (Smith College) shared with me some of her archival research while working on her book Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945 (2010). Guglielmo uncovered two anarchist study groups active in the neighborhood during the 1910s and 1920s: Il Circolo Studi Sociale Pietro Gori at 321 North 7th  Street and Il Circolo di Studi Sociali of Greenpoint and Williamsburg at 317 and 319 North 7th  Street. Pietro Gori was an anarchist intellectual and activist, known for his creative works of plays, poetry, and song. One tune that entered the canon is “Stornelli d’esilio” (Song of Exile), whose chorus is:
    Nostra patria è il mondo intero
    e nostra legge è la libertà

    ed un pensiero
    ribelle in cor ci sta.
    Our homeland is the whole world
    and our law is freedom
    and in our heart are
    rebel thoughts.


    Not much else is known about these two groups. The buildings where they were housed were razed in the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway after World War II.  
    On this May Day, as people take to the streets in support of unions, living wages, and safe working conditions, I evoke this lost world of Italian-American radicalism from Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

  • Life & People

    Visiting Italian-American Ranchers in the West

    Two weeks after returning to Brooklyn—where my notion of Italian Americans was long ago formed—my mind returns to northern Nevada where I met Italian-American ranchers. The Western Folklife Center organized several events—a tour, an exhibit, and oral history sessions—to highlight local ranch history of Italian Americans as part of the Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

    A panel on the exhibit featured a long list of Italian surnames of families who settled in the area. Many of these families have their roots in northern Italy, from regions such as Tuscany and Piedmont. Research on the Italian-American presence in the state and the West in general were featured in two important works of folklife from the 1990s: Old Ties, New Attachments and Paradise Valley, Nevada. My visit was a much appreciated opportunity to meet members of a community I had only read about.


    Folklorists are especially attuned to oral histories and local knowledge of individuals and their communities, and in keeping with that intellectual position, special panels were organized that featured Italian-American men and women who lived and worked in northern Nevada. Gene Buzzetti, Nelo Mori, Tom Tomera, Kathi Buzzetti Wines, Susan Wines (née Tomera), and others spoke of their ancestors and of their everyday lives.

    left to righ: Gene Buzzetti, Tom Tomera, Nelo Mori.

    The real treat was taking the tour bus from downtown Elko to the Tomera family ranch, where siblings Tom and Lucy told us about their family’s origins in towns in the Lucca province. 

    Across the road, Tom’s two married daughters Sabrina Reed and Susan Wines gave us firsthand accounts of daily lives as ranchers. They enthralled us with tales of safeguarding the heard from a fast approaching fire to dealing with a cougar on their property to being first responders in a remote area. 

    left to right: Susan Wines and Sabrina Reed.
    Photographs by Luisa Del Giudice.

    The afternoon ended with barbecued sausages, potato salad, and plenty of red wine, as the visiting musicians Gianluca Zammarelli and Marco Rufo played a tarantella for all to enjoy.

  • Dining in & out: Articles & Reviews

    Cooking Tongue and Ox Tail, Maremma style.

    The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering has a whole lot more going on than recited verse. It is a week-long festival that also includes music, videos, craft workshops (rawhide braiding and cinchmaking, to name but two), lectures, and an exhibition. On January 29th, Italian chef Valerio De Donatis held a workshop entitled “Italian Cow Country Cooking” for approximately 25 participants. Accompanying De Donatis was folklorist Luisa Del Giudice who served as an interpreter for the Italian-speaking chef and about regional Italian foodways. 

    De Donatis is the chef at the resort hotel Tenuta dell’Argento in Civitavecchia (Rome province) in Lazio where local dishes are prepared with meats from the area.
    On Tuesday at the Presbyterian Church’s kitchen, De Donatis cooked two dishes from the butteri tradition: coda alla vaccinara (oxtail in a tomato sauce) and lingua salmistrata (cold beef tongue). The chef explained that these were parts of the animals that historically did not sell in the market, while Del Giudice commented now these very rustic dishes have become all the craze for foodies.

    Photograph by Luisa Del Giudice
    Audience members—some of whom were familiar with oxtail and tongue meals from their Basque-American family members and neighbors—took copious notes of the ingredients and recipes.

    On February 2nd, De Donatis will lead a second workshop, demonstrating his signature dish: acquacotta, a buttero staple made from vegetables, eggs, pork, and pecorino cheese.

    An appreciative blogger. Photograph by Luisa Del Giudice.

  • Life & People

    Postcard from Elko, NV.

    Today we visited the Northeastern Nevada Museum for an eclectic museum experience. The NVM began as a historical society and its exhibition of state history ranges from geology to local fashion during the 1950s. Its art collection includes works by illustrator and author Will James and photographer Ansel Adams. 


    Will James illustration.

    The “Wannamaker Wildlife Wing” is an extravagant display of approximately 300 stuffed animals, a sort of temple to one wealthy man’s fascination with big game hunting and the extraordinary art of taxidermy.

    Here are two items I found of particular interest.  


    Cow rustling shoes made by J. R. "Crazy Tex" Hazelwood, Elko Co., 1920s.

    Basque-American shepherds' arborglyps

  • Art & Culture

    Painting I Butteri

    (This is more a note to myself than a full-fledged blog post.)

    The poster for this year’s “Cowboy Poetry Gathering” features Giuseppe Raggio’s 1864 painting “Al Fontanile” (The Water Tank). Raggio (1823-1916), along with Giovanni Fattori, were two Italian visual artists working in the second-half of the nineteenth century who were fascinated with i butteri


    Raggio and Fattori were part of the
    Macchiaioli movement that, inspired by the Barbizon school, sought to change the direction of Italian art through its choice of en plein air painting outdoors and subject matter, which often focused on peasants and rural landscapes. 

    Cappata di cavalli nella campagna romana, Giuseppe Raggio
    In turn their canvases contributed to the mystic of the Italian cowboys, similar to the work of Federick Remingtion in the United States.

    Butteri e mandrie in Maremma (1894), Giovanni Fattori.


  • Life & People

    I Cowboys Italiani

    I’m heading out to Elko, Nevada to attend the 29th “National Cowboy Poetry Gathering” sponsored by the Western Folklife Center. This year, the Center has invited cowboys from Italy. The butteri, who hail from the Maremma area of southern Tuscany and northern Lazio, have a centuries-long history of herding the lyre-horned Maremmana cattle

    In addition, the Center will be featuring local Italian-American ranchers in an exhibition of photographs, gear, saddles, and other material from various families in the area.


    I’ll be blogging from Elko, posting brief reports from field. Stay tuned!

  • Op-Eds

    A Little Wager?

    The Metropolitan Opera in New York City is set to premier a new adaptation of Verdi’s Rigoletto set not in sixteenth-century Mantua but 1960s Las Vegas. In director Michael Mayer’s new version the Duke is a mobbed-up, show-biz celeb, his palace a neon-lit casino.

    If visual artist Tatzu Nishi's 2012 encasing of the city's Columbus statue in a mock apartment could set off a fire storm of "outrage" among our self-appointed spokespeople, how much you want to bet one of them will be "offended" and blow a gasket with this rendition of an opera warhorse?


    I remember the brouhaha in 1984 when Italian Americans picketed the Met's  performances of Jonathan Miller’s Mafia version of Rigoletto set in Manhattan’s Little Italy of the 1950s. It was my first real introduction to opera (not counting those classics I enjoyed as a kid, “What’s Opera, Doc?” and “Rabbit of Seville.”)
    Bookies, odds makers, and cognoscenti of the “Serie B” squad of Italo-American prominenti are already taking bets on the actual language of the predicted pronouncements:
    “Michael Mayer's viciously anti-Italian production of an Italian masterpiece is an unforgivable insult to every Italian ever born and everywhere and only the latest salvo in the liberal cultural elite's campaign to slander Italians, who created Western culture.”
    —Giorgio Pescespada
    “Once again, it's outrageous to see how we’re the only group that has to put up with this kind of defamation--something that would never be done to a Jewish or Mexican opera.”
    —Bobbie “Zippularu” DiSano
    Let’s raise the stakes to see who’ll be the first out the gate for the mad dash to the media finish line.
    A little side wager? Which media outlet will be the first to pick up on this breaking news item and given credence to these one-note and strident gripers?
    The Star-Ledger?
                            Don Imus?
                                        Double or nothing on The New York Times?
    The wheel is spinning. Place your bets. Mesdames et messieurs, les jeux sont faits.

  • Life & People

    A moribund italianità.

    My 2012 Christmas presepio is plagued by zombies. God’s Incarnation is vexed by the living dead. You could call this year’s theme “The Walking Pastori.”

    Some Christians might believe the co-mingling of the Nativity story and the prevalent horror narrative troublesome, perhaps even sacrilegious, but for me it is a personal engagement with a transnational Italian culture.

    For thirteen years, I have been assembling a presepio in my Brooklyn apartment kitchen. While the presepio was part of my childhood, I was inspired to create my own miniature tableaux by the Italian-American folk artists in New York City that I researched and wrote about over the course of twenty-five years. 

    Chris DeVito, John Miniero, Antonio Vigilante, and many others have taught me that the artistry of the vernacular presepio is not in the crafting of the individual figures but in the creation of a Lilliputian landscape that the individual artist designs and executes. 

    (Some Italian Americans would rather celebrate the “handcrafted work of art . . . created by master artisans of the Campania Region” than recognize homegrown Italian-American presepi with their chipped, out of scale, and anachronistic statuettes.) The figurines can be made of fired ceramic or molded resin, they can depict shepherds or Disney characters, or they can be newly minted or chipped heirlooms. Ultimately, it is the topography that counts.


    I have also been motivated by the Neapolitan artisans who make politically-themed figurines in keeping with current affairs, be it Obama’s 2012 re-election or Berlusconi’s sex scandals. I have been also mindful of Italian presepi that address social issues such as marriage equality or immigration reform. Building on this rich, diasporic tradition, I have created presepi with ever-changing themes from "Baghdad" (2007) to "The South Bronx, circa 1975" (2008).

    Camping (2010)


    Roman Ruins (2005)

    Surrealism (2004)
    I thought of the zombie-themed presepio after a lively conversation between my son Lucca and Paolo Martinelli, a friend visiting from Rome. 

    Paolo Martinelli’s “Natale in casa Freud” presepio, 2009.
    Perhaps I had run out of ideas and had finally jumped the shark with this annual enterprise but I needed something simple to make. Last year, I worked until December 24th to complete three “Watts Towers” for my table-top tableau. 

    Now that it is finished, I find myself late at night staring at the miniature scene, mesmerized not by my handiwork but by the connected narrative I attempted to stage. It is at these moments that the intertextual aspect of the presepio reveals itself, as my mind makes connections not originally planned or even obvious at first blush.
    The cemetery—its tombstones inscribed with names like Margaret Fuller Slack and Frank Drummer from Spoon River Anthology—prompts me to focus on death’s reaching grip and those who have passed due to illness, natural disaster, and war, as well as those who escaped, this time, the final grasp.

    I also find myself thinking of those Italian-American zombies, who enact their own “twilight of ethnicity” through their moribund italianità. The waxing nostalgically about the “old neighborhood” and nonna slaving over Christmas Eve dinner takes a particularly macabre turn when "professional ethnics" who, speaking on our behalf with a seeming lack of reflectivity, keen incessantly about what they lost. They are the walking dead who clutch at their own fading sense of Italianness.

    Remembering the past and honoring the dead should not be saturnine and useless acts, but instead a creative refashioning of self and community. Recent works by Italian Americans—memoirs like Joanna Clapps Herman’s The Anarchist Bastard and Annie Lanzillotto’s L is for Lion, revisionist histories like Jennifer Guglielmo’s Living the Revolution and Marcella Bencivenni’s Italian Immigrant Radical Culture, and art installations like B. Amore’s “Lifeline—filo della vita”—allow us to rediscover and reclaim the past as creative projects. I see myself and my humble presepio as being actively involved in this ongoing creation of Italian-American culture.

    St. Joseph and Mary fend off approaching zombies.

  • Events: Reports

    Peppe Voltarelli, an Artist-in-Residence in New York City.

    As a New Yorker, I count myself fortunate to be able to enjoy the city’s embarrassment of cultural riches. And as someone appreciative of contemporary Italian culture, I am thrilled that Italian singer-songwriter Peppe Voltarelli is here in the city as artist-in-residence for four Saturdays at Barbès in

    Park Slope, Brooklyn. Voltarelli has dubbed this residency “Il viaggio, I padri, L’appartenenza”—The Voyage, the Forefathers, Belonging.  He will conclude his stay with a  December 8th performance at Drom in Manhattan.

    (This residency was organized by Mark Gartenberg of MG Limited, who has brought such acts as Vinicio Capossela, Carmen Consoli, Jovanotti, and Piccola Orchestra Avion Travel to the United States.)

    Voltarelli began last night’s performance from the back of the small performance space with an a capella chant of Otello Profazio’s  “Lu me paise” (My town), in which he dramatically captured the audience’s attention and undercut the adjoining bar’s distracting cacophony. He recounted in a macaronic patter of Italian, Calabrian, Spanish (he had arrived that day from a two-week stay in Buenos Aires), and English about growing up in the Calabrian town of Crosia (Cosenza province), in which the sounds of the weekly open-aired market grounded him aurally to place. 

    In addition to his own compositions sung with acoustic guitar, “Lu marinaru” and “U paisi di ciucci,” Voltarelli also performed songs that shaped his artistic persona and sense of self, like Domenico Modugno’s “Lu Tambureddu,”
    Luciano Rossi’s “Se mi lasci non vale,” and Léo Ferré’s “Les Anarchistes.”

    The hour–long set was too short but for those of us in New York City, we are fortunate to have another three weeks to enjoy Peppe Voltarelli's unique artistic presence.

    Barbès: November 17th and 24, December 1, 7pm
    Drom, 85 Avenue A, Manhattan: December 8, 9pm

    Photograph by John Napoli.