For Italians in Brooklyn, Voices on Streets Have Changed

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Jan 7 14:07:27 UTC 2009

January 7, 2009
For Italians in Brooklyn, Voices on Streets Have Changed

Like many of the Italians who frequently visit the Amico senior center
in Borough Park, Brooklyn, Salvatore Amato, 78, who arrived here from
Sicily in 1958, speaks little English. Some, like Luigi Buonincondro,
91, a former Italian soldier who came to New York from Naples in 1961,
understand English, but have a hard time reading or writing it. "I got
here, I was 44," Mr. Buonincondro, a retired carpenter who lives three
blocks from the center, said in heavily accented English as he savored
some manicotti in the center's cafeteria. "I had to work. Too old for

Although the last big wave of Italian immigration ended in the 1960s,
Italian remains one of the six most common foreign languages in New
York, according to a 2007 census estimate. But those who speak it
exclusively are increasingly elderly and isolated, with the small,
tight-knit enclaves they built around the city slowly disappearing as
they give way to demographic changes."I've seen the number of social
clubs diminish in my district, and these are the same social clubs
that used to be populated by older Italians, who are now elderly or
have died," said Councilman Vincent J. Gentile, whose district
includes Bath Beach and parts of Bensonhurst, which together are home
to the city's largest Italian community. "They're all being replaced
by Asian restaurants," he said.

There were about 62,000 Italian-born residents in New York City last
year, or about a third of the number in the city in 1980, according to
an analysis of Census numbers by the Department of City Planning.
Because of their ages (about a third are over 55) and linguistic
isolation (the number of people speaking Italian as their main
language declined by 20 percent in the past seven years), Italians
have needs that tend to be different from those of other immigrant
groups, which have continued to grow. Angelo Siciliano, who runs an
agency in Bensonhurst called Associazione Siciliani Uniti, or Sicilian
United Association, said that when Italians who do not speak English
need help, "they don't go to their children — the children are busy;
they're living away.

"They come to us." One of his most difficult tasks, Mr. Siciliano
said, is to convince them that there is no shame in applying for
Social Security, subsidized health insurance or even a discounted
MetroCard. "You don't know how many times I've had to tell them:
'Signora, it's not that you're begging. You've paid taxes and this is
your right.' " Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg signed an order last summer
requiring all city agencies to offer translations in the city's most
commonly spoken foreign languages, including Spanish, Chinese,
Russian, Korean and French Creole. The idea is to increase immigrants'
access to public services in a city where a language other than
English is used in nearly half of all households.

The need for Italian translation will most likely be modest and
centered in a few pockets of the city — neighborhoods like Ridgewood
and Middle Village in Queens; Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst and Bath Beach in
Brooklyn; the South Shore of Staten Island; and Throgs Neck in the
Bronx. They are New York's last remaining bastions of first-generation
Italian immigrants.

The agencies had to submit their plans by Jan. 1, and it could be many
months until they are implemented. Until then, older Italians will
continue to seek help where they always have: in churches, at senior
centers and neighborhood social services agencies that cater to them
and with their council members.

These days, as they gather, they often find themselves alongside
immigrants from elsewhere but are unable to connect with them.

On a recent afternoon at the Amico center, the recreation room was
abuzz. On one side, the Italians teased and shouted at one another,
and traded chips back and forth in animated games of poker. On the
other side, the Chinese played mah-jongg in quiet concentration. The
only sound from their tables was the swish of the tiles against the

The two sides hardly speak, in large part because they cannot
understand each other, said Joan Pastore, director of the senior

Mr. Buonincondro, the former Italian soldier, said through a
translator that he increasingly had fewer people to talk to. "Many of
my friends have died," he said. "There aren't many Italians around
anymore like there used to be."

Iole Mazzaro, 68, who traveled to New York from Sicily as a tourist in
1968, met her husband here and never went back, recalled how prevalent
Italian used to be on the streets of southwest Brooklyn. "Just as much
as you hear Spanish today," she said.

"On my first week here, my aunt asked me to go to the bakery to buy
some bread. I walked there repeating to myself, 'bread, bread, bread,'
" Mrs. Mazzaro said. "But then I get to the bakery and the man was
Italian. We had a big laugh."

She sighed, lowered her gaze and added, "That wouldn't happen anymore."
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