Italian American Museum Battles Longtime Tenant

In its mission statement, the Italian American Museum proclaims it is “dedicated to the struggles of Italian Americans and their achievements and contributions to American culture and society… and to raising “public awareness and appreciation of the accomplishments and contributions of Italian Americans to the American way of life.”  But Adele Sarno, who’s lived in the museum’s building since 1962, says her way of life is under siege.

Sometime soon, the New York State Division of Housing & Community Renewal (DHCR) will rule whether Sarno, 81 years old, is entitled to stay in her apartment at 185 Grand Street.  She argues her home is rent controlled, a claim the museum disputes.

In the past several months, the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council has been trying to help Sarno. In a news release emailed to The Lo-Down last month, the neighborhood preservation group stated:

Two Bridges believes that the evidence under review by DHCR to indicate whether it is or it is not a rent-controlled apartment is really not the crux of the matter. For an institution that purports to promote Italian-American culture through the means of “…gathering and preserving memorabilia, reminiscences, oral histories, documents and other appropriate material in an archive and library…”, the museum fails profoundly in recognizing that its most valuable asset to that end; that its most potent symbol of all that the museum hopes to preserve, resides within the very premises of the museum itself. That failure speaks not so much to the mission, as to those entrusted to execute that mission.

The Italian American Museum purchased 185 Grand/155 Mulberry in 2008 for around $9 million. At the time, founder Joseph Scelsa told Downtown Express he considered Little Italy to be a “cultural and emotional capital for Italian Americans.” The New York Observer reported he planned to eventually build a few stories on top of the existing building.

But the future of the museum could be uncertain. On Massey Knakal’s web site the building (185-189 Grand) is being offered for $9.9 million. Here’s how the listing reads:

185-189 Grand Street are 3 contiguous mixed-use buildings totaling approximately 10,598 sf. Upon sale, the entire ground floor could potentially be delivered vacant creating a unique opportunity for one retail tenant to occupy 60′ of frontage on Grand Street and 75′ of frontage on Mulberry Street. The buildings are currently occupied by three different ground floor tenants and each building features 2 residential apartments for a total of 6 units. Of the six residential apartments, 5 are free market and 1 is rent controlled.

The Lo-Down contacted Mr. Scelsa to find out more about the Sarno case and  the Massey Knakal listing. We received a reply from Joe Carella Public Relations indicating that the museum could not comment since the matter is in litigation.

The museum is open weekends, but not Monday-Friday.  Matilda Cuomo (Mario Cuomo’s wife) and Katharine LaGuardia (the mayor’s granddaughter) are among the organization’s honorary chair persons. Two Bridges emphasized they have great respect for the museum’s mission and for its supporters. But they felt compelled to speak up for Ms. Sarno, “one of Little Italy’s oldest residents.”

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  • Elliott_Hurwitt

    The people of Little Italy, such as Adele Sarno, ARE the neighborhood. I haven’t been here nearly as long as she has (only since 1978 in my case), but the changes I’ve seen here recently have largely been negative. Losing affordable housing for a longtime resident while demolishing some of the finest local buildings is NOT something the neighborhood wants, Mr. Scelsa and his cronies notwithstanding. It’s pretty ironic to have to stand up and save the people of the neighborhood–and its historic heritage–from its museum! A tip of the hat to the Two Bridges organization for spearheading the fight to prevent multiple tragedies from taking place on the corner of Mulberry and Grand Streets, the heart of Little Italy.