A Prayer for Bensonhurst: Pictures of an Italian Neighborhood on the Wane

Eleonora Mazzucchi (March 31, 2008)
A Sicilian woman intrigued by the Italian American community's struggle for identity, explores the role of a church in Brooklyn's Bensonhurst. Her show of photographs, "Faith and Identity", can be seen at the Italian American Museum through May 28th.

Sicilian-born Delizia Flaccavento, a woman with brown hair cropped close to her head, wearing glasses and a button-up shirt, is speaking with an energy she can barely contain. A gaggle of women have huddled around her and they listen, glasses of wine in hand, as she talks about her project. Flaccavento’s exhibit, on view now at the Italian American Museum (temporarily housed at the John D. Calandra Institute), consists in a series of photographs she took of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and specifically its church, St. Dominic’s. The church is a pillar of traditionally Italian Bensonhurst, a community lynchpin, a repository for the Italian customs of yore, and—Flaccavento will be quick to inform—the only church in New York to still perform daily mass in Italian. Within the circle of middle-aged women that has formed around her, nostalgic voices ring “When I was a kid they used to take us to St. Lucy’s to hear Italian mass!”, “St. Barnabus in the Bronx still has one of those masses every Sunday...”


And this was the photographer’s premise: she wanted to capture St.Dominic’s, its parishoners, its significance to Benshonhurst, just as the neighborhood is losing its Italian identity and becoming increasingly Latino. Remarking that Bensonhurst is going the way of Manhattan’s Little Italy, St.Dominic’s priest says he’s sure that in 10 or 15 years there will no longer be a need for daily services in Italian. Flaccavento’s subjects, the neighborhood residents photographed inside the church and out, are in truth, more recently immigranted than one might think. They constitute what she calls the “last wave” of immigrants from Italy, distinct from the Ellis Island masses at the turn of the century, and never really recognized by scholars. She studied the “last wave” and its descendants as part of her dissertation and found it was a group characterized by disillusionment with post-WW II southern Italy, where the pace of reconstruction was slow, economic conditions tough and jobs scarce. Through the documentarian’s lens we get a glimpse at these last authentic Italian Americans of our time, unwitting participants in the rites of a community that is slipping away, perhaps even at risk of extinction—bridesmaids in lavender dresses, boys twirling flags for the Carinesi d’America Association, elders wringing their hands in prayer.

 Viewers linger at the vivid pictures, commenting on bright colors and movement, but more to the point, see themselves reflected in those scenes of neighborhood life. Bob Ciofalo, one of the founders of the museum, points to the portrait of an altar boy and exclaims “that was me!”. A forty-year-old woman, visibly moved, smiles to herself when she sees the picture of an anxious bride before her wedding, immersed in a voluminous ivory taffeta: “I made my husband wait just like that.” Professor of Italian Ed Jackson, an African-American born in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx and reared on its food and dialects, recognizes the streets where he now goes to get a genuine cup of cappuccino or dance to traditional Italian music. He and Bob are good friends and they playfully jostle each other as they insist that “it was the Irish and the blacks that didn’t get along! We swear!”. Just like St. Dominic’s, that evening’s exhibit succeeded in uniting the faithful.
Conversations lasted well into the hours and curious anecdotes rose to the surface with the tides of memory the photos inspired. “In the seventies I was a photographer at events—weddings, bar mitzvahs, that sorta thing”, Bob explains. “And at this one really posh wedding, with 11 violins in the orchestra and everything, the father of the bride just refused to be photographed. So I went up to him and you know what I said? I whispered into his ear ‘Hey schmuck, in 20 years you’ll be dead. Don’t you want your grandkids to know what you looked like?’” 
And so it is with Ms.Flaccevento’s photographs. In 20 years, won’t a new generation want to know what the old neighborhood was like?
Images: Delzia Flaccavento,  Ed Jackson, Bob Ciofalo, a guest, at the Italian American Museum  exibition