NEW YORK — Relatively few Italian-Americans remain in Manhattan’s Little Italy, a neighborhood of old tenement buildings and narrow streets where a small museum tries to keep a fading ethnic heritage alive.
One such tenant who remains might not for long: An 85-year-old Italian-American grandmother who has lived in Little Italy for more than 50 years says she is being forced out by her landlord. That landlord? The Italian American Museum.
“Why would you want to throw me out when I lived here all my life?” asked Adele Sarno, a feisty, raspy-voiced woman who proudly tells how she once served as queen of Little Italy’s most well-known event, the annual Feast of San Gennaro. “This is my neighborhood.”
Sarno said the fight over her $820-a-month, two-bedroom apartment above the Italian American Museum began about five years ago. That’s when she received a letter seeking to increase that rent to $3,500 a month, far more than the retired shopkeeper says she can afford.
The spat is the latest involving the museum to cause a commotion in Little Italy, which was once a bustling center of Italian immigrant life and now serves more as a tourist destination. An Italian restaurant that had been open for decades closed its doors last week in a separate rent-related dispute.
“The negative press that this has caused is so detrimental to the spirit of the Italian immigrant,” said Lou Di Palo, whose family has run a popular Italian specialty foods shop in Little Italy for over a century. “I’m upset over it.”
But in recent decades, the character of Little Italy has been transformed by waves of gentrification and wealthy newcomers. The latest census data from 2013 shows only 554 out of 7,816 residents, about 7 percent, in the census tract encompassing Sarno’s street identify as having Italian ancestry.
Museum President Joseph Scelsa told The New York Times that even after all Italian-Americans had gone from the area, “the legacy would still remain because we have an institution that does that.”
Neither the museum’s President nor its spokesman replied to multiple emails and phone messages from The Associated Press seeking comment. But they have said the museum is looking to expand its space, or sell the properties to a developer and remain there rent-free.
Sarno believes the museum is just after more money, pointing out that her upstairs neighbors pay several thousand dollars a month in rent.
Sarno remains hopeful she can fight through the courts to forestall the eviction order. A judge has given her lawyers until April 13 to find some kind of solution.
There’s not much of Little Italy left, mainly a couple of blocks of Mulberry Street, populated with Italian restaurants and tourist stores featuring trinkets and “Kiss me, I’m Italian” and “Fuggedaboutit” T-shirts.
“The sort of everyday lived experience of the place as a residence of Italian Americans for all intents has been over for decades,” said Joseph Sciorra of the Italian-American Institute at Queens College.
But for a museum dedicated to that history, turning Sarno out shows “a lack of vision,” he said, suggesting it could have tapped Sarno as a speaker or in some other capacity.
Sarno, he said, “is literally the living embodiment of the living history of Little Italy.”