Followup: Italian American Museum vs. 85-Year-Old Adele Sarno

italian museum protest 1
Community activists gathered in front of the Italian American Museum to denounce the pending eviction of Adele Sarno.

Here’s more on the controversy swirling around the Italian American Museum, which is moving to evict an 85-year old resident of its building at 185 Grand St. Yesterday, local housing activists descended on the museum, located on the southwest corner of Grand and Mulberry streets, to protest the decision. The last minute appeal had the intended effect — all of the television stations were there and this morning the New York Times has picked up on the story.

As previously reported, the New York State Division of Housing & Community Renewal (DHCR) and a civil court judge ruled against the elderly woman, Adele Sarno, finding that her 2-bedroom apartment is not rent controlled. The museum was given the go-ahead to begin eviction proceedings. Local activists, however, have assailed the eviction of a lifelong Little Italy resident by an institution dedicated to preserving Italian American heritage. In the Times, representatives of the museum mounted a defense:

A spokesman for the museum said ethnicity had nothing to do with (the decision to evict Sarno). The museum owns a total of six apartments, including Ms. Sarno’s, in three contiguous tenement buildings at Mulberry and Grand Streets, and relies on the rental income to help pay expenses. “So the museum should be running a charity or providing residences at discount rates?” Joe Carella, the spokesman, asked. “That doesn’t match the mission.” …

In an interview, Joseph V. Scelsa, founder and director of the museum, rejected the idea that the eviction was at odds with the institution’s mission. Little Italy, he said, “is not a community of Italian-Americans any longer.” He said at some point the population that gave the area its name would disappear entirely, but that “the legacy would still remain because we have an institution that does that.”

Two Bridges Neighborhood Council organized yesterday’s rally. Victor Papa, the organization’s president, acknowledged that “the museum won” in court.  But he added that the institution is “finally exposed for who they truly are. They are no different than any speculating landlord and developer found all over this city, except that they claim lofty academic credentials as an anchor of this community, exploiting under the guise of a museum the noble history and culture of Italian Americans who ironically they wish to evict.”

Two Bridges was joined by other community groups, including affordable housing advocacy organizations GOLES and CAAAV.  “We have to take a stand,” said GOLES Executive Director Damaris Reyes. “We have to say, ‘no more will we allow developers, landlords, museums, institutions to come to our community to tell us that the people who have built our communities are no longer necessary.'”  Longtime Little Italy activist John Fratta singled out the museum’s founder, saying, “Shame on Joe Scelsa, who I once called a friend. I can no longer call him a friend any more.”

“As much as we need an Italian American Museum,” Fratta asserted, “it is impossible for us to look at this museum as one of ours. We are urging all the sponsors of this museum to pull their sponsorship until the owner starts acting in a positive way.”

italian american museum

Victor Papa of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council.
Victor Papa of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council.

The museum purchased the building in 2008 and made plans sell the property to a developer, while reserving an expanded space for itself on the ground floor of a new mixed use building. Two years later, Sarno asked the State Division of Housing & Community Renewal for a “determination of her rent controlled status.”

Sarno claimed that she had lived in the apartment since 1962 and furnished supporting documents, including a birth certificate and her parents’ death records. Her attorney presented a rent ledger showing that Sarno had made payments starting in 1974.  But the museum’s case was backed up by a rent ledger from a nearby building, 173 Mulberry St., showing she was the “tenant of record” there for at least nine years in a span between 1974 and 1996. Sarno claimed that she moved out of 173 Mulberry and into her current apartment after separating from her husband in the early 1960’s. But the state agency ruled against Sarno, saying she was not “entitled to succession rights as a rent controlled tenant” because she could not provide sufficient proof.

AMNY talked to Sarno and museum reps about the discrepancy as to where she actually lived all those years:

That is an error that resulted from her living at (173 Mulberry)… before 1962, but her name remaining attached to the address after her brother (now dead) remained, Sarno said. “One New York City court and one state agency have determined she has no standing as a rent controlled tenant and that the apartment was never subject to any kind of rent regulation in its decades-long history,” said a spokesman for the Museum. Other residential tenants in the trio of buildings owned by the Museum at 185, 187 and 189 Grand St. — including a 76-year-old man under rent control — are not being evicted, the spokesman noted.

Sarno has been paying $820/month for her apartment, but says the museum wanted to charge her $3500. The eviction notice indicated she must be out by April 6.  She’s due back in court April 2 to make one last appeal before a judge.

In a related development, Il Palazzo, a restaurant operating from the building for 30 years is also being forced out. Channel 11 explained:

Following several court fights and rent disputes, the owners were forced out of their space on Mulberry Street by (the) landlord, The Italian American Museum. “My heart is ripped out, I have aches in my stomach,” said Il Palazzo owner Annette Sabatino. The Italian American Museum sent PIX 11 a copy of a judgment they won in court against Annette Sabatino, and the Museum maintains Il Palazzo’s managers owed them hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sabatino said Wednesday it was difficult for any restaurant to keep up with the rising rents in Little Italy. “How will I pay $30,000 a month selling $5 dollar pasta?” she asked.