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

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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.

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  1. Why not have Adele Sarno remain and bill her as the last genuine Italian-American remaining in Little Italy?

  2. Is that true? What about her brother whose apartment she mistakenly claimed as reported by AM NY? All the coverage either omits that fact or excuse it as AM NY and NBC did. It’s not a good sign and probably is another created issue to expand and extend the rent regulations in Albany. I can trade one of my market units to move her in if she didn’t claim another apartment in exchange for a break in real estate taxes which are MORE than total residential rent in our building and my retail rent is about half what they are claiming is too high market rent which is what 132 Mulberry Street’s restaurants resigned at a few months back.

    All of this press coverage is not impartial including the New York Times. It might be useful to clobber Albany into going along – don’t fight the toxic agit prop, dont come off as racist, greedy and anti-elderly OR ELSE these news outlets will ruin your reputation while going easy on Leland yee and Sheldon Silver.

    its who they go after and who they dont – that’s interesting

    lodown is the only one that mentioned that she claimed another unit in the neighborhood and then am ny and nbc printed excuses

  3. The irony. Be careful what you ask for. Two Bridges successfully campaign to help make “Little Italy” an historic distric. But caveat emptor. Although noble, when you make an area “historic”, you actually limit development and force rents to skyrocket. It essentially becomes a tourist trap and unfortunately, not much else. With limited storefronts and residential units, prices have no where to go but up. Demand, supply, etc.
    If you take a look at the court documents you will see that the case is pretty clear. We’d all like to be able to keep our (I reside in one also) rent controlled apartments and most will do whatever it takes to keep the bargain. First rule of thumb though is to never “move”, no matter what.
    Looking at recent Lo Down articles also shows a few interesting tidbits. Two Bridges itself also appears to be developing a 47 story market rate condominium project in the heart of the Two Bridges historical neighborhood. I find these comments especially perplexing. “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…”
    And this,
    “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.’”
    Let’s see how this all plays out as developers continue to assail what’s left of the lower east side.

  4. I thought she was getting free legal representation. I emailed justice at caav.org earlier to suggest alternative housing but the email got kicked back. Who is her lawyer?

  5. so these are competing developers? or are they working together to build up a platform for expansion of the rent regulations and the museum is the pseudo bad guy?

  6. We in the community wish these were landmarked buildings, but the LPC rejected them. Since it is only a National Register historic district, Little Italy has no restrictions on overdevelopment. The historic district has nothing to do with development potential, which is a distraction from Ms. Sarno’s plight.

    If you’ve drank the REBNY kool-aid, you will believe that more development is the best thing to help the little guys, but it is only helping rich developers; neighborhood character (and characters) should not be seen as impediments to progress.

  7. or does someone more hooked up to the machinery (hence the coverage that this has gotten and who has covered it) want that corner?

    News coverage in this city runs in a series along a theme and it can’t be a coincidence – then followed by the “appropriate” legislation and no one says anything about it because the style of coverage is judgmental and always has a designated beast:

    And Margaret Chin is now in charge of elder issues, right? And Scrie got expanded because the income was too low to find anyone who needed it to an income level that is higher than most households in the city:


    they’re going to use the elderly and insane as sacred cows somehow with Albany to get further control of real estate while asking for billions to “repair” NYCHA when those billions could build Chung Paks for just such needy cases in places like Rockaway Boulevard which lie fallow like Detroit Michigan.

    Look at that wall in the NYCHA picture – she may have cynically moved in and not really lived with her husband (it happens in rent regulated situations) but no way are absolutely NO nonprofits stepping forward to help this genuinely needy case to concoct the appearance that something must be done about the way the current laws are in NYCHA and rent regs because look at this scandal – it’s draconian!

    That’s why they placed Margaret Chin in charge of the elderly.

    And there’s something going on with NYCHA as well – maybe Albany is being given the excuse to just hand it over to the City because look at all the weird long term water damage and the FACT that there is a repeated sidebar on iirc the daily news website complaining about the mold issue in NYCHA – it could be about screwing with someone else’s property to make them let go of that property – I have at least two tenants who play with water damage.

  8. yeah that’s why they can take this away from upstate where all the Republicans are – cuz I am guessing Long Island Republicans are NYers first in terms of who they adhere to powerwise.

    I just want to point out again that the federal government should not want this iminent custodianship of this geographical location on the East Coast – I don’t care how trusted, how in on it these guys are – it’s not a good idea because they went after law enforcement (and gave them massive overtime in return) but when it comes time to respond with the cops armoring up – the press and the tone of the politics should already have done a 180 and how are you going to do that if things keep going the way they are going?

  9. We have 10 more days before we go to court again. I’m a non-legal advocate for Adele – since.. this past Sunday. I think there is a lot of misinformation out there and also a lot of information that has been a bit buried. There are a few different things going on, and there are a lot of questions to be asked about what went on prior. The most important thing though – is a compassionate and respectful solution for this 85 yr old grandmother who has lived there for decades. I believe, there is proof that she lived there before 1969, and that there is proof that she never moved out. It may be too late to prove that. In the interim, Dr. Scelsa and the Italian American Museum needs to take care of her roach problem that she has asked him to take care of for the last 5 years, fix her doorbell, and her broken staircase that she felt down last year, and would be difficult for anyone to walk up.

  10. I want to live in a trendy Manhattan area and get one of those rent stabilized units but I can’t because nobody, for generations, leave the apartment. I see both sides because its sad to get rid of an old tenant and on the other hand landlords are not in the charity business. I’m sure her rent doesn’t even cover her taxes, heat and hot water.

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