They don’t call it Italian Williamsburg anymore, that section of Brooklyn where Italian immigrants settled in the late 19th century. Hyper-gentrification has radically altered the look and feel of the place over the last 30 years.
The proliferation of bars, tattoo parlors, and trendy eateries has transformed this part of Brooklyn into a destination for transient Airbnbers and weekend partyers. Century-old wood frame buildings are routinely gutted for luxury rental apartments or razed for multistory condos. Real estate agents and developers solicit aging homeowners to sell with enticing offers. In 2017, a neighbor sold his 1910 building for $2.3 million, proclaiming, “Now I’m a millionaire!”
He drove off to a retirement community on Long Island.
Some Italian Americans who remain in the neighborhood call themselves “The Leftovers,” after the HBO drama. They are working-class southern Italians who emigrated after World War II from towns like Sanza and Teggiano and revived local Italian culture, like the religious processions honoring St. Cono and Our Lady of the Snow. They are the retired men who socialize on weekday afternoons at Fortunato Brothers Café & Pasticceria, conversing in a mingling of Italian dialects and English. They are the older immigrant women, once garment workers, who today exercise by walking the track in nearby McCarren Park. Although many Italian Americans are gone, the literal fruits of their labor are now enjoyed by newcomers who find backyard fig trees and grape arbors that still offer a generous bounty each summer.
The Italian photographer Alessandro Cinque was curious about this small but not insignificant corner of the Italian diaspora, living there for a month to meet with the old-timers.
And as they know all too well, Italian Williamsburg is reconstituted each year for one glorious moment. In July, a coterie of able-bodied men lift and carry the ceremonial spire — the giglio — in a classic New York City Catholic street feast. The festival tower is a sort of ambulatory campanile calling the community together, those who remained and those who left, in a convivial and sacred rite of memory.
TEXT: Joseph Sciorra
The completed article is available
Joseph Sciorra is a director at Queens College’s John D. Calandra Italian American Institute. He is the author of “Built with Faith: Italian American Imagination and Catholic Material Culture in New York City.”