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Articles by: Joey Skee

  • Art & Culture

    Dean Benedetti, Jazz Ethnographer


    I have turned/tuned my ears again to Phil Schaap’s “Bird Flight,” the radio program committed to the informed listening of music innovator Charlie Parker. Recently, the jazz historian dedicated his morning show on WKCR-FM to Dean Benedetti’s late 1940s field recordings of “Yard Bird.”

    Dino (Dean) Alipio Benedetti was born June 28, 1922 in Ugden, Utah, the son of Amadeo Benedetti, an immigrant from Torre del Lago (a hamlet of Viareggio, Lucca province, Tuscany) who worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad. (I was unable to find anything about his mother.) Benedetti attended the University of Nevada, where he excelled in baseball and basketball, and began playing the tenor saxophone. In 1943, he moved to Los Angeles where he formed the band “Dean Benedetti’s Baron of Rhythm.”
     
    Like many, Benedetti came under the sway of Parker’s pioneering sounds and set out first to transcribe his solos (as did Jackie McLean and Sonny Rollins) from studio recordings and then to record club performances. With Parker’s permission, Benedetti conducted recordings of three club dates in Los Angeles and New York in 1947-48, a particularly creative and productive period in Parker’s life. Benedetti used first a 78 r.p.m. disk-cutting recorder and later a tape recorder to capture Bird’s solos. 

    For decades no one knew the whereabouts of these legendary recordings, which had achieved the status of the Holy Grail among jazz aficionados.  In 1988, Dean’s brother Rigoletto (Rick) of Burbank, California, who owned the recordings, came forward and offered them to Mosaic Records, which issued a seven CD set entitled “The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker” (#129) two years later.  It was Schaap, along with engineer Jack Towers, who salvaged the highly distressed recordings. The seven hours of music Benedetti recorded, which has increased the amount of live music by Parker by a third, has been liken to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. “Imagine if someone were to find a third more Bach, a third more Shakespeare plays, a third more prime Picasso,” Schaap stated. 
     
    Stories about Benedetti himself also took on mythic qualities. Benedetti was excoriated as a sycophantic leech, the prototypical “white Negro” (a possible inspiration for Kerouac naming his protaganist Dean Moriarty in On the Road?), who was blamed for contributing to Bird’s demise, in part, as the great jazzman’s supplier of heroin. It was Ross Russell’s now infamous biography Bird Lives (1973) that crystallized this false narrative that would be recycled by subsequent jazz writers. Schaap has written that Ross’s falsehoods “destroyed his credentials as a historian.”
     
    Listen to Phil Schaap on Dean Benedetti, WKCR, April 27, 2009 broadcast:
    Part I

    Part II


     Part III

    In 1949, Benedetti began to experience the first symptoms of myasthenia gravis, a rare muscle disease, which soon affected his playing. In 1953, his parents returned with Dean to Torre del Lago in attempts at various cures. In Italy, the ailing Benedetti continued with music, writing arrangements for such artists as the great Neapolitan musician Renato Carosone, a working relationship we know very little about. On January 20, 1957, Dean Benedetti died at age 34.

    This June, Torre del Lago will sponsor the tenth annual “Dean Benedetti Jazz Festival” in honor of this Italian-American musician, musicologist, discographer, and jazz ethnographer, who the Jazz Institute of Chicago has proclaimed a “true jazz hero.”

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     
     
     

  • Art & Culture

    Routes of Return


    In preparing the recent conference “Land of Our Return: Diasporic Encounters with Italy” at the Calandra Institute, I came across a number of documents pertaining to the theme. One of the more intriguing ones was a brief scene in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 L’avventura, in which an old man suddenly enters a rustic cabin where vacationing Romans have found shelter during their search for a friend who has mysteriously disappeared from a small Sicilian island they are visiting. 

    The man is a shepherd living in the shack whose owner has emigrated to Australia. In a mix of Italian, Sicilian, and English, the old man informs the city folks that he has spent thirty years in the land down under, pointing to photographs of his family. “Bei tempi,” he proclaims. The scene ends after two minutes and the character of the returned emigrant is not seen or heard from again. 
     
    Film scholar Seymour Chatman notes that the old man is an example of Antonioni’s frequent undermining of the linear logic of his films.  This introduction of “unnecessary events” – the returned emigrant provides gratuitous information and his presence does not advance the plot – is part of a modernist agenda of “denarrativization.”  The man “is simply there, as one more of Antonioni’s stubborn

    found objects’.” 
     
    David Saul Rosenfeld suggests that we see the “syntagmatic connotation” of these disconnected elements that accrue meaning not only within the film in question but also in relationship to other Antonioni films. This seemingly superfluous scene is similar to others found in Italian films of the period, such as Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), in which modern Italy is populated by American actors, French intellectuals, exotic entertainers, and the like, all speaking in a “Babel of languages.”  
     
    Yet for those who have any relationship to the immigrant experience, the unexpected arrival of this pre-industrial, manual laborer (shades of a fading neo-realistic subject?) in the midst of these angst-plagued, citified visitors gives pause. As Frank Tomasulo observes, “Antonioni uses the background of his images to foreground the economic dislocations of Southern Italy and the class contradictions between his bourgeois protagonists and the poverty-ridden South.” The old man’s dramatic return/arrival – the rattling door, the pouring rain, his demanding question “Che fate?!” – forces the viewer to confront a condensed yet startling image of Italian proletarian migration that remains little understood by many in Italy and the United States.
     

     

  • Op-Eds

    Chalking Memory


    I spent a portion of today memorializing a few of the 146 victims – many of them young, Italian and Jewish immigrant women – of the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire. 

     

     

    I chalked their names and ages in front of their homes.

     

     

     

     

     

     

    - Annie Colletti, 30 years old, 410 East 13th Street

      

    - Annina (Pasqualicchio) Ardito, 25 years old, 509 East 13th Street

     

    - Annie L’Abbate, 16 years old,  509 East 13th Street

      

    - Antonietta Pasqualicchio, 16 years old, 509 East 13th Stree

     

     

     

     

     

    At one point, two fire trucks raced down Avenue A as Henryk Górecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" played on my headphones.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Art & Culture

    Thinking Neapolitan


    The canzone napoletana (Neapolitan song) has been one of the first international popular musics of the modern era, traveling beyond the city of Naples and the borders of Italy. Its success was due largely to Italian emigrants who composed, performed, recorded, sold, and consumed the music in the forms of sheet music, piano rolls, 78 rpm recordings, and performances.  In New York, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Montreal, Sydney, and other points, the Neapolitan song has come to define the cultural expression of Italian migrant life.

     
     
    The Neapolitan song was at the heart of the vibrant cultural life of New York’s Italian-American community during the first half of the twentieth century. Performers like Gennaro Amato, Eduardo “Farfariello” Migliaccio, Gilda Mignonette, and Clara Stella were renowned, international stars who lived in city neighborhoods among the fans who purchased their recordings and attended their concerts. These artists performed macchiette (songs with spoken monologue) and sceneggiate (song-driven skits) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Guild Lyric Theatre, the Thalia Theater, and at other popular venues. 
    New York-based composers Salvatore Cardillo and Giuseppe De Luca, and lyricists like Vincenzo Gallo, Salvatore Baratta, and others, produced countless songs that were performed and enjoyed all over the world. Staples of the Neapolitan canon like “Core ‘ngrato” (1911), “Senza Mamma” (1925), and “A cartulina ‘e Napule” (1927) were composed and first performed in New York City.
    Driving much of this music were the publishing houses that specialized in Neapolitan and Italian music. The Italian Book Company, Edizione E. Rossi, and Edizione Pennino published music composed in the States and entered in partnership with their Italian counterparts to distribute material copyrighted in Italy in this country. Many of these publishers introduced new songs at the annual Piedigrotta Music Festival in Naples.
    So much of the history of Neapolitan music-making in the United States has been lost. No American institution or collecting archives is dedicated to this rich cultural legacy. The neglect is a tragedy. This history will be effectively silenced without the acknowledgement of the music’s value and the professional care of the remaining artifacts. 
    On Match 20th and March 21st, the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute and the International Centre for Music Studies, Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, in collaboration with the Archivio Sonoro della Canzone Napoletana, RAI in Italy, sponsor “Neapolitan Postcards: Canzone Napoletana as Transnational Subject.” This two-day conference features fifteen scholars who will address the relatively unexplored transnational aspects of the Neapolitan song. In addition, venerable songstress of the Neapolitan song, Rita Berti, will discuss her long career and present a recital of Neapolitan music. The conference takes place at the CUNY Graduate Center, Elebash Recital Hall, 365 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan (between 34th and 35th Streets).
     
     
    In conjunction with the conference, the John D. Calandra Italian AmericanInstitute presents “Chist’è New York: The Mark Pezzano Collection of Neapolitan Sheet Music from New York” (March 19th-June 26th) in its 43rd Street gallery space. Curated by Rosangela Briscese, Mark Pezzano, and Joseph Sciorra, the exhibition is a sampling of New York City’s vibrant Neapolitan music scene during the first half of the twentieth century. It features thirty-one items— sheet music, sceneggiata scripts, and concert programs— that connoisseur Mark Pezzano has collected over the past thirty years. Farfariello, Mignonette, Pennino, and Stella are among the celebrated composers, performers, and publishers represented in the exhibit.
     

  • Life & People

    Bologna 1977

    I was twenty-one when I arrived in Bologna in February 1977. I had no idea I was about to participate in a turbulent yet extraordinary moment in Italian history. Today there are books, web sites, and a feature film dedicated to what historians have simply come to call “The Movement of 1977.” For me, it was a deeply personal, life-defining experience.

    The year before, I dropped out of Brooklyn College and was scrubbing pots in a restaurant, going nowhere fast. I didn’t have much to lose when first my Italian cousin Raffaele, with whom I drove cross country that summer and who was attending the University of Bologna, and then Claudia, a woman from Milan I had met in San Francisco, invited me to come to Italy. I had made enough money cleaning greasy pots to live in Italy for a year. 

     

    I had the good fortune of quickly falling in with a great group of left-leaning students of working-class backgrounds from different parts of the country. Valentino from Puglia, Giuseppe from Sicily, Danielle from the Veneto, Gianfranco from Sardgena, Vasco from the Trentino Alto Adige were a just few of my new friends. There was also Giuseppe from Umbria who went by the nickname “Humphrey Bogart,” and who repeated the Alberto Sordi line in English, “What’s a matter American boys?” from the film Un Americano a Roma. 

    Our meeting point was Piazza Verdi – where the rusting trio of modernist “totems” by sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro’s stood somewhat incongruously – and, in particular, the Piccolo Bar.  For one year, this was the center of my universe. 

     
    I ate full-course pranzi for 500 lire in the university cafeteria with everyone else. (I still have the bottle opener I pocketed as a keepsake.) It was in a crowded bar located on the corner of Via Zamboni and Via de' Castagnoli that I first encountered playwright Dario Fo and his satirical "Mistero Buffo" as we pressed together to watch his return to prime time television after being banned from the airwaves for fifteen years.   I honed my Italian translating the songs of cantautore Francesco Guccini; “L’avvelenata” was my theme song that year. Endless political discussions, at a time when few Italians spoke English, also helped to improved my Italian. 

    By the time I arrived in the city, students had occupied parts of the university to demand school reform and to protest the lack of jobs available upon graduation. I joined my friends at political meetings held in various university buildings. I briefly broadcasted on the pirate radio station Radio Alice until a group of feminists ousted my cousin and me from the airwaves to discuss women’s issues. I marched in “autonomist” demonstrations, shouting the slogans of the day, from the puerile (“Schemi! Schemi!”) to that of the Paris student revolt of May 1968 (“Ce n’est qu’un début, continuons le combat!”/This is only the beginning, carry on the fight!). My parents were convinced they recognized me in a photograph of demonstrators published in a spring issue of Time magazine. 

    On March 11, 1977, in the city the Italian Communist Party had governed since 1945, the carabinieri shot an unarmed medical student, Francesco Lorusso, 25, during an autonomist demonstration.  Pitched battles ensued between students and the police, with barricaded streets and Molotov cocktails used on one side, and tear gas and rubber bullets on the other side. Tanks rumbled down Via Rizzoli. French intellectuals Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Felix Guattari, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others denounced the state’s repressive methods. In September, student groups forced the municipal government to sponsor a three-day, national conference against repression in the city, with free food and use of the sports stadium made available to the 100,000 people who came to Bologna. 

    I returned to the States at the end of the year having decided I wanted to study anthropology. The following summer I returned briefly to Bologna to discover the ebullient mood had evaporated. Members of the Red Brigade, a left-wing terrorist group, had kidnapped and killed former prime minister Aldo Moro. The tension was palpable. When I returned in 1982, I met with Humphrey, who worked in a bank on Via Zamboni, and Valentino, who was married, had a baby daughter, and was unemployed.  
    I also kept up with Enrico Franceschini. When we first met in 1977, Enrico was writing for a sports magazine. He was the only Italian I had come across who actually liked basketball and the way Americans spoke Italian. He moved to New York City in the 1980s and we hung out for awhile. I lent him my Italian-English dictionary, which I never saw again. We were even robbed together in Tompkins Square Park. As we lost touch, I followed his career as he became a journalist for La Repubblica, reporting from Jerusalem, Moscow, Washington, D.C., and currently London. 

    It was a pleasant surprise to come across Enrico’s book Avevo vent’anni: Storia di un collettivo studentesco, 1977-2007 (Feltrinelli, 2007) when I was in Italy two years ago. Enrico had sought out Valentino, Giuseppe, and other friends to ask what the experience of Bologna 1977 meant to them and what they have done since then. I was particularly moved by Humphrey’s description:
     
    A Bologna bastava entrare in facoltà per essere quasi preso all’amo dai compagni del collettivo, che ti pescavano alle lezioni, in biblioteca, dal bidello o in corridoio. A me vennero quasi a cercarmi al bar di piazza Verdi, il Piccolo Bar. La vita era come una giostra, dalla mattina alla sera in piazza e poi nelle osterie. Un’ esperienza del tutto nuova per uno come me, venuto da una cittadina che era poco piu’ di un paese. Un nuovo modo di pensare. Una sorta di liberazione interiore. . . . (p. 88).
     
    In Bologna, it was enough to enter in the department to be practically hooked by friends of the group, who would come get you during classes, in the library, have the porter find you, or in the hallway. They would almost know to come look for me at the Piccolo Bar in Piazza Verdi. Life was like a carousel, from morning to night in the piazza and then the tavern. It was an experience that was complexly new to me, because I had come from a small town that was little more than a village. A new way of thinking. A sort of interior liberation . . . .
     
    In July 2007, I walked the streets of Bologna and wept uncontrollably. It wasn’t out of nostalgia for “quando eravamo giovanni e belli” or for “my Bologna” that had changed so drastically from my memories. I wept instead because I was overwhelmed by the sheer power of those times, by the intensity of the camaraderie, by the fervor of the political convictions, and by the dynamism of the creativity visible everywhere. Bologna 1977 was and remains a motivating force in my life. 

     
    After reading Enrico’s book, I dug out these photographs I made of my friends and others I met, the only images of mine that remain from that glorious year in Bologna. I post them in the hope that we might meet again, if only here, on the Net.
     
    (Thank you Carmine Pizzirusso, Rodrigo Priano, and Stefano Messina.)
     
     

  • Art & Culture

    LaVeritàLaVerdadTheTruth


     The Italians have discovered us!

    Italian Americans and other members of the Italian diaspora are the subjects of increasing scrutiny in Italy. Emigration museums are opening in major cities and small towns throughout the country. Italian scholars, from historians to literary critics, are making the lives and cultures of Italians abroad an integral part of their research. The John Fante Boom (did someone say obsession?) in Italy is deserving of some timely analysis. i-Italy.org is part of and contributes to this growing Italian awareness of Italian America. This was not always the case as historian Donna Gabaccia observes in Italy’s Many Diasporas, “Italy has not developed a clear understanding of how its history of migration had defined its national identity” (2000, 173). It is immigration to Italy that is fueling, to a large degree, this long-awaited introspection.
    Italian artists and performers are also looking at us, in appreciative yet frequently ironic ways. Here are some musical examples of what George De Stefano calls “21st Century Wops”:
    • Lorenzo “Jovanotti” Cherubini’s original choice of “Joe Vanotti” as his nome d’arte.
    • Vinicio Capossela’s curiosity in things Italian American and his desire to be understood as “Vic Damone’s cousin.”
    • Raiz’s adoption of the slur “WOP” as a badge of honor in his song and 2004 album of the same name.        
    • Roy Paci & Aretuska’s Louis Prima-inspired, feverish Siculo-glocal ska.
    • Turi’s “If I had been born in America” CalabroEnglish macaronic raps.
    Italian artists’ discovery of Italian America is sometimes a playful masquerading that sets up a curious mimetic house of mirrors as we Italian Americans (Australians, Canadians, Germans, etc.) find ourselves watching them watching us seeing themselves as us. 

    Peppe Voltarelli

    Adding to this exhilarating, cultural mix is Giuseppe Gagliardi’s film La vera leggenda di Tony Vilar (2006), which I finally had the opportunity to see this past week (grazie Teresa Fiore). This self-proclaimed mockumentary follows Peppe (singer, composer, and co-screenwriter Peppe Voltarelli) in his search for Argentine teen idol Tony Vilar, an Italian emigrant who left Calabria after World War II as Antonio Ragusa. There are encounters with Vilar’s real-life relatives and friends, and Italian actors playing Italian Americans, as the film takes us on a journey from Italy to Buenos Aires to New York City, with excursions to suburban Connecticut and New Jersey, in search of the elusive singer.

     

    Along the way we are made to question the narrative’s veracity – fact or fiction? lost legend or hip, pomo screenplay? – compelling the viewer to search the Net to relieve the nagging uncertainty. This ambiguity is attributed, in part, to seeing Bronx denizens and “friends of friends” joining in the hilarity of dance routines and a musical dream sequence. In the end, we are left to heed D.H. Lawrence’s advice: “Never trust the teller; trust the tale.”

     

    The tale, in this case, is a joyous, musical romp of popular culture tracing one route of post-World II Italian emigration – Mezzogiorno/Latin America/the States – that acquires layers of cultural resonance along the way. The truth/la verità/la verdad of the narrative is that Italians are discovering the accents, the hybridic variety, and the unique richness of Italian ethnoscapes like La Boca and Melrose Park to claim them as their own, as they redefine what it means to be “Italian.”
     

     

  • Art & Culture

    An American Folklorist in Italy


     

    Italian publisher il Saggiatore has produced an exquisite book of American folklorist Alan Lomax’s arresting photographs of the people he and musicologist Diego Carpitella recorded during their historic expedition in 1954-55 documenting Italy’s rich folk musics. L’anno più felice della mia vita (2008) is edited by ethnomusicologist Goffredo Plastino of Newcastle University and contains a personal essay by Lomax’s daughter, anthropologist Anna Lomax Wood of the Association for Cultural Equity, and a foreword by film director Martin Scorsese. 
     
     Cinquefrondi (Reggio Calabria province), Calabria, August 1, 1954.
    Since the 1930s, Lomax (1915-2002) traveled the States, first with his father John and then with others, to record fiddlers on front porches, gospel congregants in clapboard churches, and chain gangs laying railroad tracks throughout the South. Fleeing the Red Scare plaguing the States after World War II (the FBI repeatedly interviewed Lomax, ultimately developing an 800 page dossier on the folklorist), he spent most of the 1950s in London working at the BBC. It was in that position that Lomax first went to Spain, then Italy, to record folk music.  Lomax and Carpitella traveled from Sicily to the Alps recording working people – contadini, shepherds, fishermen, stevedores, and many others – performing the haunting sounds of work songs, lullabies, funeral laments, ballads, and tarantelle. Since 1999, Rounder Records, in conjunction with the Association for Cultural Equity, has been releasing this remarkable music.
     
    Nicosia (Enna province), Sicily, July 5, 1954.
    In 1960, Lomax wrote about his Italian experience in the article “Saga of a Folksong Hunter:
    That year was to be the happiest of my life. Most Italians, no matter who they are or how they live, are concerned about aesthetic matters. They may have only a rocky hillside and their bare hands to work with, but on that hillside they will build a house or a whole village whose lines superbly fit its setting. So, too, a community may have a folk tradition confined to just one or two melodies, but there is passionate concern that these be sung in exactly the right way. [. . .]
    Most Italian city musicians regard the songs of their country neighbors with an aversion every bit as strong as that which middle-class American Negroes feel for the genuine folk songs of the Deep South. These urban Italians want everything to be “bella,” - that is, pretty, or prettified.  [T]he professional purveyors of folk music in Italy leave out from their performances all that is angry, disturbing or strange. And the Radio Italiana, faithful in its obligations to Tin Pan Alley, plugs Neapolitan pop fare and American jazz day after day on its best hours. It is only natural that village folk musicians, after a certain amount of exposure to the TV screens and loudspeakers of RAI should begin to lose confidence in their own tradition.
    Rovasenda (Vercelli province), Piemonte, September 27, 1954.
    Lomax went on to publish his thoughts on musica popolare in the article “Nuova ipotesi sul canto folcloristico italiano nel quadro della musica popolare mondiale” for the journal Nuovi Argomenti (1955-56, No. 17-18), edited at the time by Alberto Moravia, who he had befriended while in Italy. (Coincidently, the issue also featured a few chapters from Moravia’s La Ciociara, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s poem “Le ceneri di Gramsci,” and Danilio Dolci’s first version of “Pagine di un’inchiesta a Palermo.”) Along the way, Lomax photographed the people who sang and played before the microphone.
    Folklorists and other scholars interested in the arts have tracked the disturbing news following the success of the Rounder reissues of the Lomax recordings.   The Accademia of Santa Cecilia in Rome, where Lomax deposited a copy of the recordings he and Carpitella made in that glorious year, contested the rights to the recordings in Italian court, despite the fact that this venerable Italian musical institution had allowed the magnetic tapes to deteriorate. The result has been that Italians are unable to purchase CDs of their rich cultural legacy in their own country. (They can purchase the recordings online.) Thankfully, Italians are now able to see the images of those who made this amazing music. Hopefully, we in the States will soon be able to have an English-version of this important and handsome collection of photographs.
     
    Montemarano (Avellino province), Campania, January 1955.

  • Life & People

    What’s his name?! What’s his name?!


    In his recently published “Italian American memoir,” author Carl Capotorto writes, “There is a lot in a name.  A name is an inheritance.  Names are legacies.” Twisted Head, the title of his book about growing up in the Bronx in the 1960s and 1970s, is a translation of his surname which Capotorto further parses as “a twisted or demented chieftain.” The author’s rumination on Italian names serves to introduce his eloquent account of a childhood with a loving yet obsessive and controlling patriarch. 

    Names have long been a troublesome issue for Italians in the United States. Name changing is America, as immigration officers rechristened newcomers at Ellis Island and immigrants and their descendants found it advantageous to reinvent themselves in an Anglo mould. (In contemporary Italy, new immigrants are learning to similar lessons as Algerian-Italian author Amara Lakhous’s astutely illustrates in his wonderful mystery novel, Scontro di civilità per un ascensore a piazza Vittorio.) Much is lost and much is gained by such a nominative metamorphosis. It is not uncommon for third- and fourth-generation Italian Americans to reclaim lost Italian surnames and pronunciation, as well as giving their children Italian first names in an effort to perpetuate a (multi)cultural legacy.

     

    When I was a kid, my family and everyone I knew pronounced our last name Sciorra as “SKEE-or-a.” My immigrant father had resigned himself to this Americanization, even from fellow Italian Americans. It was upon returning from a year’s sojourn in Italy that I decided to pronounce my last name as “Shee-or-ra,” the best approximation I could get in the States of the Italian “Shoar-ra” with its trilled double Rs. Soon my siblings and parents adopted this reinvented Italian way of being. 

     

    When I was invited to blog on i-italy, I decided to invoke the old neighborhood nicknaming (sopranome) tradition as way of establishing my online Italian-American persona. (See my June 1988 Fra Noi article about Italian-American nicknames in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.). Joey Skee – a moniker I never had as a kid – sounded like fun for the digital era. 

     

    Another, little studied aspect of the Italian-American naming tradition is forgetting. I’m not talking cultural amnesia but short term memory loss. Italian Americans seem to be afflicted with an inability to evoke the first and last names of close friends and neighbors. This propensity for forgetfulness may be attributed to the spot-on nicknames that have all but replaced birth names in the minds of many paesani. I struggle daily to remember the names of colleagues, authors, and actors, often finding myself involved in embarrassing exchanges with those who have prodigious recall, like fellow New Yorkers and i-italy bloggers George De Stefano and Anthony Tamburri, that have resulted in such idiotic moments like this:

     

    Sciorra: You know that guy. What’s his name?

    Who?

    Sciorra: You know. That guy who’s in that film about being born an old man? You know. The one who left the actress from the TV show to marry that other one. What’s her name? You know, the actress with the tattoos and all those kids? God, what’s that guy’s name?

     

    I know my lapse of memory regarding names is neither a medical condition (I actually went for a battery of tests, all negative) nor idiosyncratic.  My relatives in Italy constantly struggle to remember people’s names (“Come si chiama quello la?”), as do countless New York Italians I’ve interviewed over two decades. Both young and old desperately search for names. Sometimes it is men who forget their next door neighbor’s name, sometimes it is women.  

     

    I started to notice this tradition of forgetting in literature and films by and about Italian Americans. Martin Scorsese’s Who’s that Knocking at My Door? (1967) and Nancy Savoca’s True Love (1989) both have scenes where characters invariably ask that most Italian of questions, “What’s his name?” I love the kitchen scene in the latter film when the daughter Donna knows exactly who her exasperated mother is talking about.

     

    And there’s that other film. You know, the one with that guy, what’s his name? You know, the one who plays a character from New York and he’s got a blog that he writes about Italian stuff. You know! What’s his name? What’s his name?!

     
    (Thank you Lucia Grillo for help on video clips!)
     

     

  • Life & People

    Sacred Space, Real Estate, and the Enacted Environment



    A recent article in The New York Times prompts me to return to a post begun in September but never completed. When journalist Peter Duffy called in November asking about presepi in New York City, I suggested a story about Brooklyn’s Our Lady of Loreto Roman Catholic Church that former Italian-American residents of East New York were trying to save from destruction by the diocese itself. 
    I had attended a special mass there on September 13th at the invitation of activist Barbara Anne Lepak. Coincidentally, David Murphy invited me to attend mass the following day at the Santa Febronia Catholic Society’s chapel in Hoboken, New Jersey that is facing its own set of challenges to survive. The consecrated buildings’ respective histories and their associated communities’ responses illustrate how place, and in particular religious space, is remembered, imagined, and reconstituted (or not) in the twentieth-first century. 

    Barbara emailed me in the summer asking “How do we go about making a Catholic church in Brooklyn a landmark?” Her email continued:

    "There is a Catholic church in East New York, Brooklyn, named Our Lady of Loreto. The diocese of Brooklyn has decided to demolish it. This is heartbreaking to all of us who attended this church every Sunday and went to school there. The school building is all ready gone but the church building is so beautiful. It would be a pity to see it taken down." 
      
     
      
    A (online) Catholic directory of churches published in 1914 states the church was established in 1896 as the diocese’s fourth Italian “national” parish and the structure was completed in 1908 by the architectural firm of Armezzani, Federici (could this be sculptor Gaetano Federici?) and Sons of Paterson, New Jersey. In 1914, there were 8,000 parishioners. The church is not listed in the current AIA Guide to New York City (2000).

     

    I wasn’t able to find more than passing mention of the Italians of East New York in the standard reference literature. (The Times did have a moving article on the subject in December 2004.) Urban planner Walter Thabit documents How East New York Became a Ghetto, noting that two riots in 1966 involving Italian-American, Puerto Rican, and African-American youth drove the remaining white families from the area. The web sites created to save the church contains photographs and personal accounts of the church and the lost community of Italian East New York, constituting a haunting topography of displacement. Approximately thirty people drove from beyond the old neighborhood to attend September mass in honor of Barbara’s late father.

     

    The Times article revealed what the Brooklyn diocese had been denying to former parishioners/activists, that the church is to be demolished to build eighty-eight units of low income housing in eleven four-story buildings. 
     
     

    In Hoboken, I encountered a somewhat different situation. Sicilian immigrants incorporated a lay volunteer association, the Societá di Mutuo Soccorso Santa Febronia Patti e Circondario, in 1922 to honor the third century martyr St. Febronia and the Madonna of Tindari, constructing a freestanding chapel at 557 Fifth Street. The society sponsored processions for the two scared patronesses but the aging and dwindling membership find the task beyond its means.

    While poor black and Puerto Rican families moved into East New York after World War II, it was white, middle-class young people, i.e., “yuppies,” who changed the demographics of Hoboken beginning in the 1970s in a casebook study of gentrification. The rush for real estate and profits in the “Mile Square City” on the Hudson River was not without its own displacement and destruction (see Nora Jacobson’s 1993 documentary Delivered Vacant). The “housing wars” also impacted local expressions of public piety as newcomers faced off with Italian-American residents about what the former considered the nuisance of noisy, smelly feste like that for the Madonna Dei Martiri. 
     
    The chapel had clearly seen better days when I first visited in 2001 to speak on the Black Madonna. The September 2008 mass revealed that the chapel had been spruced up and repaired. Michael Murphy – who’s Sicilian is impeccable – informed me that new, younger people are joining as active members.  People are meeting weekly for rosary prayers.
     
    It doesn’t take two days of hallowed reflection to understand the obvious distinctions between these two religious spaces in East New York a poor, neglected neighborhood of color far from Manhattan skyscrapers and Hoboken, a predominately white, well-to-do small city. 
     
    The most glaring difference is that Our Lady of Loreto is private property, owned by one of the largest and richest corporate entities in the world (and across time). The building is real estate controlled by the Roman Catholic Church, despite the decades of parishioner volunteer labor and monetary donations that sustained the building and the parish. 
     
     
    Catholics are abandoning their parents’ religion and young men are not feeling the clerical calling in sufficient numbers. The land and its assets can be sold for low income housing, for condominiums, or to pay legal fees and settlements claims of sexual abuse cases. Catholic parishioners are occupying churches across the country in the belief that the buildings are theirs, that they are the church. In extremely rare cases they are able to changes when enough money is raided or political pressure is exerted, as with St. Brigid’s Church and St. Aloysius Church in Manhattan.

    The Catholic chapel in Hoboken, on the other hand, is owned by a lay organization not the diocese of Newark. During the great wave of Italian immigration, similar chapels caused great consternation for Father Dominic Marzetti, pastor of Hoboken’s St. Francis Church, who wrote Bishop Winand Michael Wigger on August 9, 1898 expressing his concern about the “contagious fever of building private chapels” among the city’s Italian immigrants (Silvano Tomasi, Piety and Power: The Role of Italian Parishes in the New York Metropolitan Area. 1975). These alternative places of worship were beyond clerical oversight. 

    It can be urgued that the Brooklyn church is aesthetically more significant that the modest Jersey chapel, a criteria landmark commissions have traditionally depended on.  But our understanding of architecture and landscape is not predicated solely on physical structures but how we use and interact with them.  Writing about our sense of place, scholar Edward S. Casey noted, "places not only are, they happen."  We enact our enviroment. According to Duffy’s article, fewer than twenty people attend weekly mass at Our Lady of Loreto. I will leave it to others to explain why local Catholics – Latinos, Haitian Americans, and others – are not compelled to frequent the church. Whatever the reason, the site’s increasing disuse has transformed it into a dead place, a spent memorial to an Italian-American past. In Hoboken, the private chapel is both sacred space and social club, a place where people gather to pray and socialize in communion on their own terms. 
     

  • Op-Eds

    The Vergognosi of Staten Island


     It's happened again. 

    A morning news report on the radio announces a racist attack against blacks, this time on election night, on Staten Island. 

     
    Once again, I think, “Italians.”
     
    For in my city, all too many murders of people of color have been at the hands of young Italian-American men. 
     
    Willie Turk, 34 (1982) in Gravesend, Brooklyn. 
    Michael Griffith, 23, (1986) in Howard Beach, Queens.
    Yusuf Hawkins, 16 (1989) in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
    Manuel Mayi, 18 (1991) in Corona,Queens.
     
    According to the New York Police Department’s Hate Crimes Task Force and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, four men  – Brian Carranza, 21, Michael Contreras, 18, Bryan Garaventa, 18, and Ralph Nicoletti, 18 – were involved in what The New York Times described as “one of the city’s worst series of hate crimes in years.” The fact that a Latino (nicknamed “Dominican Mike”) has also been implicated in these attacks doesn’t lessen the shame and outrage I feel as an Italian American.
     
    The suspects were charged in federal court of interfering with voting rights during their election night spree. Garaventa pleaded guilty, while the other three pleaded non-guilty. Carranza is out on bail after his mother posted a $200,000 bond by putting up her house as security. 
     
    According to the federal indictment, the accused men were so incensed by Barack Obama’s presidential victory that they went on a racist rampage across the borough. In the city’s past, Italian-American youth waged pitched battles with their African-American and Puerto Rican counterparts as part of “turf battles” to defend neighborhood streets. This past November, these men allegedly drove out of their neighborhood in search of people of color to hurt. They are accused of:
     
    • beating Alie Kamara, a seventeen-year-old Muslim immigrant from Liberia, across the head and legs with a metal pipe and a stolen police baton, while shouting “Obama” in Park Hill;
    • pushing a black man to the ground in Port Richmond;
    • accosting a Latino man, demanding to know who he voted for;
    • driving past a hair salon and threatening to kill those inside, using a racial epithet, and cursing Obama; and,
    • driving their car into another man dressed in a hooded sweatshirt who they believed was black. Ronald Forte, 38, father of five, was thrown against the window shield, shattering it. The white man was in a coma for forty-five days and now needs extensive physically therapy.
    In recent days, Jewish individuals and groups have been discussing theshanda(Yiddish for shame, disgrace) engendered by Bernard Madoff’s $50 billion Ponzi scheme and organizing public forumsWe Italian Americans share the vergogna (shame) and disgrazie (disgrace) of this heinous racist crime on Staten Island.
     
    I’m fully aware that racism is not the purview of any one group; it is the tragic American legacy. But the fact that three of the accused are Italian Americans demands that we speak up. This is not the time for political distancing with flaccid assertions that these accused men are “aberrations that don’t represent the community,” blah, blah. Larry Ambrosino, head of a Staten Island booster group, spoke plainly, “Unfortunately, knuckleheads come in all sizes, shapes and colors. As a Staten Islander, as an American, as an Italian-American, it disgusts me.” But we Italian Americans need to be more proactive and better organized in condemning such criminal acts. Where are the self-proclaimed leaders and spurious scholars who decry ad nauseam the likes of “The Sopranos?”
     
    Jerry Krase has written thoughtfully about this subject on his i-italy blog:
     
    "I believe that a major reason for the focus upon Italian Americans as epitomizing racial bigotry among white Americans is the reluctance of most Italian-American organizations and their leaders to honestly address the problem of racial and ethnic bias. In most cases Italian-American spokespersons have tended to deny the extent or degree of the problem or to make defensive statements when bias incidents in the community occur. This has resulted in an even greater focus on the community because it projects an appearance of lack of remorse or sympathy for victims of bias-related violence."
     
    In 2005, after an Italian American was arrested in Howard Beach for a hate crime, filmmaker/writer Kym Ragusa, historian Jennifer Guglielmo, and I organized an event entitled “Creative Responses to Race, Violence and Community: A Call for Peace” at New York University’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò. The evening of readings and performances by scholars and artists musicians, and the subsequent audience dialogue, sought to find creative and collaborative ways to combat racism.
     
    Yes, Italian Americans can be the new anti-racist front, on this day we honor Martin Luther King, Jr.'s vision and courage, and as we ride the sweeping tide of history that is the Obama presidency. 
     

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