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

In Little Italy, a Former Bank Will Now Hold Italian Immigrants’ Memories

The New York Times
By Vincent M. Mallozzi

September 8, 2008

Joseph V. Scelsa, president of the Italian American Museum, now in the former Banca Stabile.

The echoes of Italian accents filled the old bank at 155 Mulberry Street.
Joseph V. Scelsa, standing in front of a teller's window marked "Steamship Tickets" on a recent afternoon, held a receipt in his hand dated Dec. 3, 1894, that had belonged to a man named Raffaele Alonzo, who had paid $30 for a third-class ticket that had taken him to New York from Naples, Italy.

"He probably sat in steerage," said Dr. Scelsa, a sociologist and professor emeritus at Queens College. "In those days, $30 was a lot of money."

Those days will be celebrated beginning on Tuesday at the opening of the newly relocated Italian American Museum, at the site of what was once Banca Stabile, a bank used by Italian immigrants who flocked to Lower Manhattan in search of a better life. The bank operated from 1882 to 1932, when the area that would become known as Little Italy had one of the largest populations of Italian-Americans in the United States.

The bank as it looked about a century ago.

That area today has shrunk to little more than a tourist attraction. Dr. Scelsa estimates that fewer than 1,000 Italian-Americans live in Little Italy, which is dwarfed by sprawling Chinatown.

"This location is significant because the Stabile family was the cornerstone of this community," said Dr. Scelsa, who is also the museum's president. "Their bank was the financial engine that ran everything in this area."

Dr. Scelsa found much of that evidence — and then some — in the bank's vault, which contained artifacts like bankbooks filled with handwritten transactions, Italian and American money, steamship luggage tags from a variety of passenger lines, cablegrams and a small revolver.

"I have no idea why the gun was in there," said Dr. Scelsa, as he passed other tellers' windows marked "Drafts-Money Orders," "Foreign Exchange" and "Paying-Receiving."

The vault's contents revealed that the neighborhood elite also banked with the Stabiles. A ledger card shows that Antonio Ferrara, who in 1892 founded the pastry shop that is still in business across the street, closed his account on Jan. 31, 1931, taking his $211,131 fortune with him. Before that, a telegraphic receipt from April 3, 1920, shows that Mr. Ferrara wired 75,000 lire from Banca Stabile to the Hotel Londres in Naples to reserve a vacation room there. Two years later, Mr. Ferrara bought two first-class steamship tickets from New York to Naples for a total of $110.

"It was very rare that people traveled first class in those days," said Maria T. Fosco, a member of the museum's board who has been researching the history of Little Italy. "Obviously, Mr. Ferrara was doing quite well."

Ms. Fosco said that at its peak, the neighborhood was a cluster of enclaves within an enclave, with various streets representing various regions of the old country.

"Most people who lived on Mulberry Street were from Naples," she explained. "Those who lived on Elizabeth Street were from Sicily, those from Mott Street were from Calabria, and anyone north of Broome Street was from Bari.

"So if a boy from Mulberry Street married a girl from Elizabeth Street," Ms. Fosco said with a grin, "that was considered a mixed marriage."

On Thursday, Dr. Scelsa and Ms. Fosco were still putting items in glass display cases and framing pictures of weddings, churches, parades and steamships. They had already put on display several of the early machines used by the bank in the early part of the 20th century, including a Brandt automatic cashier, a Paymaster money order writer, a Burroughs adding machine and a Royal typewriter.

On Friday, a new door was installed on the Mulberry Street side of the building, and another around the corner, on the Grand Street side.

The museum was planning to open two days before the start of the annual San Gennaro Festival on Thursday. Dr. Scelsa and Ms. Fosco said they were hoping the festival would bring droves of Italian-Americans and others eager to learn about the cultural heritage of Italy and some of its favorite sons, including those of Italian descent raised well beyond the boundaries of the old neighborhood, men like William A. Paca, a representative of Maryland who signed the Declaration of Independence; and A. P. Giannini, born in San Jose, Calif., who became the founder of Bank of America.

Dr. Scelsa said that $9.4 million had been raised for the museum from a combination of city and state grants, as well as contributions from trustees of the museum.

"It's a pretty fascinating place," said Dr. Jerome Stabile III, 76, a retired surgeon whose family owned the Banca Stabile building and two adjoining properties, at 151 and 153 Mulberry, before selling them to the museum in June for more than $9 million. After the bank closed in 1932, the Stabile family used the bank building to run its real estate business.

The three lots, at the corner of Grand Street, will eventually be used to expand the museum to a planned 10,000 square feet. The museum, which first opened in June 2001, was originally in a Midtown office building on West 44th Street, until closing in June for the relocation.

"Everything in there, from the marble floors to the tellers' cages and the gold writing on them, are original," said Dr. Stabile, a great-grandson of Francesco Rosario Stabile, the bank's founder. "I never removed anything from the bank or its vault because I had hoped all along that the space would one day be used as something more significant than just a restaurant or some other store."

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