An Italian-American Sunset Falls on Carroll Gardens

Home Brooklyn Life An Italian-American Sunset Falls on Carroll Gardens

John Heyer Jr., parish archivist, said Italian-American attendance is down at Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary & St. Stephen's Roman Catholic Church (Photo: Regan Penaluna/The Brooklyn Ink)


On Court Street in Carroll Gardens, where once stood Café del Sud, a popular hangout for Italian-American men to drink espresso after work, a Dunkin’ Donuts now sits. Two nearby Catholic schools, where Italian-American families once sent their children, are now condominiums.

Carroll Gardens was formerly the heart of Brooklyn’s Italian-American population. The number of those with Italian ancestry living in the general area dropped significantly between 1990 and 2000 from 13,814 to 11,226 and though the population has since held steady, their cultural influence continues to wane. Church attendance is down, social clubs are disappearing, and many ethnic businesses have been replaced by establishments that cater to a young, cosmopolitan clientele.

While some Italians remain in the neighborhood, in spirit, “We’re not here anymore,” said Andrew Mariello, 57, a longtime resident.

Italian immigrants began moving to the neighborhood in the early 19th century and continued well into the 20th century. Most were working-class, and many of the men toiled as longshoremen on the docks along the East River. The immigrants brought the traditions of their hometowns, such as Naples, Sorrento and Sicily, to Carroll Gardens and honored their cities’ patron saints in day long celebrations. They also established social clubs in honor of their city of origin, such as the Van Westerhaut Cittadani Molesi, founded by residents from Mola di Bari.

In search of more space in the 1960s and 1970s, many of the Italians left Carroll Gardens for Staten Island, Long Island, and Queens. In the 1980s, gentrification set in. Young professionals from Manhattan flocked to the brownstones in Brooklyn, including those in Carroll Gardens. Ron Schweiger, Brooklyn Borough Historian, said that this influx “changed the face of the community.” The Italians saw the price of their homes increase, and, according to Schweiger, they decided to “cash-in” and move away. Frances Kopito of Brooklyn-Real realty in Carroll Gardens said that in the late 1980s the price of a brownstone was around $300,000, and today the same one is worth well more than a million dollars. Some, she said, top $4 million.

John Heyer Jr., 28, a current resident, remembers as a child seeing Italian widows dressed in black, old men smoking cigars, and young men in white tank-top undershirts. Cadillacs would roll by him along Court Street. Joseph Paino, 79, who left the neighborhood 14 years ago, said that not long before he moved away, “If you didn’t speak Italian, you didn’t understand. You were lost.”

Nancy Foner, a professor of sociology at Hunter College, said that a downturn in church population can be a sign of ethnic decline. Indeed, fewer Italian-Americans are attending Mass at Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary & St. Stephen’s Roman Catholic Church, the oldest Italian church in the neighborhood. Heyer, the parish archivist, said that in the 1980s, the congregation was 95 percent Italian-American. Now it is 60 percent. The church also did away with its Italian-only service. In 2007, the church closed its Catholic school, the last of five in the neighborhood to close.

Similarly, today only two Italian social clubs remain. One honors the Italians from Mola di Bari on Court Street and the other serves those with ties to Polazzo on Henry Street.

A number of other factors indicate the decline of an urban ethnic culture, said Japonica Brown-Saracino, a sociology professor at Boston University, including the closing of commercial establishments frequented by a particular ethnic group, such as shops, bars, and restaurants. Often, she said, these businesses are replaced by those that cater to newcomers.

Joe Balzano, 72, has a thick Italian accent and enjoys reminiscing about his mozzarella shop, Laticcini Barese, which closed in 2002. He said his cheese was known for its very milky flavor, which brought locals back and attracted Hollywood stars such as Danny DeVito. But neither of his sons were interested in taking over his business, and instead one works as a longshoreman and the other for a cable company. Balzano said that there was not much of a future in his line of work anyway, because the new generation of residents prefers to buy their mozzarella from grocery stores.

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, Anthony Graffeo, 70, has run the Carroll Gardens Florist Shop on Court Street for decades. Until recently, the primary source of income for Graffeo’s store was the Italian funeral business. He specialized in elaborate sculptures made out of flowers for wakes. In an album, he has photographs of a pair of boxing gloves from red rose petals for a fighter, a deck of cards of white roses for a card shark, and—perhaps his most enterprising—a dripping ice cream cone of pink and cream-colored petals for a local ice cream salesman. But now there are only two Italian flower shops in Carroll Gardens out of an original five. “Fewer funerals,” he said, “fewer shops.”

Heyer, who is a parish archivist at Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary & St Stephen’s Roman Catholic Church and works for Scotto Funeral Home, confirmed that the funeral business in Carroll Gardens has been down over 25 percent in the last decade.

Ed Morlock, a research associate at the Center for the Study of Brooklyn at Brooklyn College, said the Italian-American population has aged. Between 1990 and 2008, the average age increased from 44 to 47 and the number of individuals over 85 has also grown.

Meanwhile, a number of new restaurants have sprung up in the neighborhood. Along Court Street are a Thai restaurant, a Sushi bar, and a French café. Stephanie Diamond, 36, who moved from Manhattan to the neighborhood in January, said she often eats at a local Mexican restaurant and another that sells things she remembers from her childhood like Ritz crackers and Bazooka gum. Dennis Portello, 36, said that since he moved to Carroll Gardens from Atlanta eight years ago, “a lot of restaurants opened up.” He enjoys the American bistros, such as Prime Meats and Buttermilk Channel.

Many local Italians say these new restaurants are not there to appeal to them, but to the new residents. Mary Bellocchio, 76, said that Italian families “were always together and would cook good food at home.” Now people have moved in who prefer to eat out and who “don’t have the same lifestyle.”

Mike Sale, 54, who has worked at an Italian specialty shop for 40 years, echoed Bellocchio’s observation that Italians traditionally prefer to cook at home. Many used to come to his shop to buy three to four pounds of sausage. Now he gets mostly non-Italians coming in every so often to “buy one sausage.”

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