Could We Do It Today?

Each generation gets cockier than the last. It’s normal, I guess, to think we are more savvy and better off than our parents and grandparents.  But in the case of Italian Americans I have concluded that our past is hard to beat.

It’s not just about nostalgia for close families or how we were once surrounded by all things Italian. After a while, I got tired of mandatory Sunday dinners when I needed a day at the beach or a quiet rest before the weekly grind.  But, I’ll admit I often miss those gatherings and those days when Italian entertainers dominated movies, radio, and television, making us all proud.  There was a feeling of solidarity, vigor, and common politics among our people.

Today, there are only a few vestiges of that old vigor: the Verrazano Bridge in New York, Balbo Street and Column in Chicago, or the Columbus Monument towering over Columbus Circle in Manhattan.  Those memorials didn’t happen on their own.  They happened because past generations willed them into existence.

Naming the Verrazano Bridge in 1964 was accomplished by one activist – John LaCorte of Brooklyn.  It was to be called The Narrows Bridge and then The John F. Kennedy Bridge.  But, LaCorte utilized the research of his contemporary, Giovanni Schiavo (Four Centuries of Italian American History), to prove that an Italian explorer was first to sail into New York Harbor in 1524 – eighty-five years before Henry Hudson.  Behind Schiavo and LaCorte was also a united community.

Could we do it today? New York Governor Andrew Cuomo managed to replicate the feat, as state boss, by adding his late father Mario’s name to the Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River.  Be assured that Mario Cuomo did not explore the river, settle it banks, or build the bridge.  But, I guess all those vowels on a bridge sign add to our greater glory.

At Columbus Circle, Manhattan. Those are Roman triremes jutting from the column, a classical motif

A more difficult challenge: Could our major organizations build a Columbus monument on the scale of the one in Manhattan or the one in front of Union Station in Washington, DC? Controversy aside, there is no question they could never muster the will or the resources to produce what a generation of immigrants managed to accomplish in 1892. How little we know of, or credit, Carlo Barsotti, publisher of the newspaper il Progresso, the driving force behind the monument.  His funding efforts also placed statues of Garibaldi, Verrazzano, and Giuseppe Verdi around city parks, all before the Sons of Italy and NIAF were born.  But think of how the immigrant Barsotti convinced the city fathers to honor so many Italians at a time nativists considered us dregs of the earth.

Carlo Barsotti 1850 – 1927

Then, there is La Casa Italiana at Columbia University.  That six-story $20 million palazzo, created by the Paterno Family and our community in 1927, could never be built today.  Sadly, we lost control of it in 1991 when it was sold to Italy.  We can’t even find an Italian American in this building, run as a fiefdom by Prof. David Freedberg and his landsmen.  Today, only UNICO, an Italian American service group, has made Italian studies at universities a priority.  But even the modest “chairs” they fund cannot replicate La Casa in its heyday.

Who today is a Barsotti, Paterno, LaCorte, or Schiavo? Dr. Vincent Sellaro founded the Order Sons of Italy in 1905.  In 1975, entrepreneur Jeno Palucci and civil rights activist Geno Baroni joined forces to create the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF).  Both these organizations fulfilled a need for their time – the former social welfare, the latter political action.  Since then, neither has provided national leadership for the community or the resources to back the true activists on the front lines.

If there is one lesson I have discerned after a lifetime of Italian-watching, it is that change and progress only come to us through determined individuals, not organizations. -JLM

2 thoughts on “Could We Do It Today?”

  1. Being in a part of the country that has relatively few I-A’s (and no chapter of OSIA), I have no direct experience with OSIA or NIAF. I have never felt, however, that either of these two organizations has the slightest bit of relevance to me or to my family. The fact that U.S. presidents and Hollywood celebrities have shown up at the galas of these organizations produces no tangible benefit for Italian Americans in general. What would benefit I-A’s is if these organizations came together and acted in unison and with effectiveness in addressing the special needs of I-A’s in a very rapidly changing country. It would be somewhat surprising if either of these two organizations even recognize such special needs. I think it would be a fair statement to say that such organizations do more harm than good because they are assumed to be providing the needed leadership but, in fact, are clearly not doing so. If they can’t do the job, they should at least admit it so others more qualified can do what needs to be done.

  2. John, some good thinking but certainly a disagreement with your closing thoughts, for NO ONE person has done it, and I know some of those you names would never think that they alone did anything, although we seem to coronate at times such individuals. I can recall being with a John LaCorte and hearing him say that with regard to his efforts in naming such project as the Meucci Park in Brooklyn or the monument at the Verazzano Bridge, that it took many people and letter writing etc. Who do you think has forced efforts thru their members to save the Advanced Placement in Italian? Yes, on major personage was Congressman Frank Guarini in a major fund raising effort to stabilize the AP but many people were with him in raising some $3 million. And what about all of the scholarships and charities that have been supported by major Italian American organizations! True, that oftentimes it takes SOMEONE to start it but no one person does it alone, and having shepherded many an effort as a State and National President of the OSIA, I know what it took to reach success on many a front. It is WITH an organization that one is successful!

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