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Mayor Fiorello La Guardia reading the Daily News election results in 1941.

Museum Plans to Move to Its Symbolic Home, ‘Littler Italy’
New York Times: April 24, 2007

By James Barron
Joseph V. Scelsa has heard the talk about how Little Italy is little more than a tourist destination whose boundaries are being squeezed by NoLIta to the north, SoHo to the west and Chinatown and TriBeCa to the south.

“Little Italy has become Littler Italy,” he said the other day, standing on the corner of Grand and Mulberry Streets. “But this is the symbolic place.” That, says Dr. Scelsa, a sociologist who is the president of the Italian American Museum, is why he is leading a campaign to move the museum from its less than conspicuous quarters in an office building on West 44th Street.

The museum plans to announce today that it is buying a cluster of historic buildings in Little Italy for $9 million and will begin raising money toward $19 million worth of renovations.

The three buildings, at 189, 187 and 185 Grand Street, are at what Dr. Scelsa calls “the epicenter of the Italian-American community.” But Dr. Scelsa, who is a professor at Queens College, estimates that fewer than 1,000 Italian-Americans now live in Little Italy, which covers the area bordered by Houston, Canal and Lafayette Streets and the Bowery. So it is tourists who will make the museum’s new location viable. Even if Little Italy is a shrinking version of the teeming neighborhood the museum memorializes, it draws visitors, he said.

The Italian American Museum is buying three buildings on Grand Street. Its current home is in an office building on West 44th Street. © Librado Romero/The New York Times Page 2 “The tour bus stops right here,” said Dr. Jerome Stabile III, whose family has owned the three buildings that will house the museum since the 1880s. “More than once, someone has come up to me and said, ‘Can you tell me where Little Italy is?’ ”
But the museum is looking for more than exhibition space. Its long-term plan calls for a two-story addition above the three-story buildings it is buying.

“We wanted to demonstrate the continuance, the old and the new,” Dr. Scelsa said. “So we want something modern on top.” The three buildings date to the first half of the 19th century, Dr. Scelsa said, and in their early years were home to a bank.

“It’s the way it looked when I was a kid,” said Dr. Stabile, 76, a retired surgeon, and great-grandson of the bank’s founder, Francesco Rosario Stabile. “We’re happy Joe is taking over so this does not become another restaurant.” Dr. Stabile’s father and uncles were born in the apartment above the bank, Banca Stabile.

The bank remained independent until the Depression, when it merged with Banca Commerciale Italiana Trust Company and his grandfather added an insurance and travel agency. One of the bank’s safes remains in the building, a double-door unit that takes up about half the space behind two tellers’ windows.

“This was challenging to me as a kid,” Dr. Stabile said, pulling open one
of the safe’s heavy doors. “Even though I had the combination, I couldn’t open it.”
The museum began after a 1999 exhibition at the New-York Historical Society on Italian-Americans in New York that drew 50,000 visitors, five times the number that had been expected. “I said, if we’re ever going to be established, we need our own institution,” Dr. Scelsa said.

The museum received its charter in 2001 and became an affiliate of the City University of New York in 2003. Since then, while searching for a new home for the museum, its leaders decided that it needed to be in Little Italy, even as the neighborhood has become home to fewer and fewer Italian-Americans.

Figures from the 2000 census put the Asian population in Little Italy at more than 8,200, which was about eight times the number of residents of Italian descent.
“It has not been gentrifying the way the Police Building got gentrified, the way NoLIta got gentrified,” said Sean Sweeney, a member of Community Board 2, referring to 240 Centre Street, which was the Police Department’s headquarters until the 1970s and is now an apartment building.

“Some would argue there’s ‘squalification,’ to make up a word. Some of the storefronts that sell dried clams and sea urchins and putrescible vegetables give it a kind of squalid character.”

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