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Queens Chronicle

Museum in Little Italy taking shape

Italian American Museum should be open by San Gennaro in 2021

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Posted: Thursday, September 12, 2019 10:30 am | Updated: 12:04 pm, Thu Sep 19, 2019.

Like so much else in New York City, the new Italian American Museum now under construction in Manhattan got its start in Queens.

As Dr. Joseph Scelsa, the founder and driving force behind the IAM, likes to point out, he got the idea and laid most of the groundwork for the museum while working at Queens College.

“The idea was to show visitors that we are more than cannoli and pasta,” Scelsa told the Chronicle.

“But it all started in Queens.”

Actually, Little Italy has had an Italian American Museum since 2008, when Sclesa, the former director of the John D. Calandra Italian-American Institute at Queens College, opened it in a storefront at Grand and Mulberry streets.

For a decade, the museum did its best to capture the Italian-American experience in 1,800 square feet of space, roughly the size of a nice-sized Manhattan apartment.

Two years ago, a developer bought the two-story property from Scelsa and his board members. The new owners agreed to provide a new home for the museum rent-free in the mid-rise apartment building that will replace it.

“They broke ground last November,” said Scelsa. “The foundation will be finished by the end of summer.

“Another year for the edifice and we should be open by spring 2021,” he said. “That’s my hope.”

The new museum will cover 6,500 square feet on four floors.

Much of the permanent collection that will be in the new IAM will have come from the attics of New Yorkers — mandolins, barbers’ tools, extortion letters from the Black Hand (a kind of forerunner of the Mafia) and former New York City cop Frank Serpico’s gun.

The museum will be divided into four sections, beginning with the first Italian immigrants to the New World in 1635.

“Everybody thinks the Italians arrived here at the turn of the 20th century,” Scelsa said. “Not true.”

The first Italians in America were nobles and adventurers, attracted by the promises of the New World, he points out

The second section is about daily life in Little Italy, once the largest colony of Italians outside the boot.

A third section is on “becoming Americans,” which Scelsa is intimately tied to World War II and thousands of Italian Americans proving their loyalty by going to war against their ancestral homeland.

It also covers the migration of Italians out of the Little Italys of American cities into the suburbs, where they became nearly indistinguishable from other Americans.

“They didn’t feel they had to be in a enclave to protect themselves any longer,” said Scelsa.

“How We See Ourselves” is the final section, the one that tackles the barbed stigma of “The Godfather” and gangster films like it.

“Unfortunately, we are painted with a brush we don’t deserve,” said Scelsa. “Hollywood continues to portray us as nefarious people. That still goes on and it hurts.”

A singular Italian perspective on life no longer exists, he also argued.

“There are now Italians on the extreme left and Italians on the extreme right,” said the professor. “Italian Americans really are Americans, in that they choose their own values now.”

Scelsa, 73, retired from Queens College in 2008, expressly to get the museum started.

“It was my retirement job, you might say, but I found out I’m still working full time,” he said.

The museum is being built, he said, not by any big contributors but by a group of small businessmen from Italian- American backgrounds.

“They understood,” he said, “that, in America, unless you have a place where your voice can be heard, you’re not paid attention to with any seriousness.”

Welcome to the discussion.