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Melting Pot or Not? Brooklyn's Il Centro, New Italian American Cultural Center

Bensonhurst, Less Italian Than It Was, Seeks Ways to Preserve Heritage

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There's still Italian food galore in Bensonhurst. And over-the-top Christmas lights decorate the houses in Dyker Heights. One can still walk down the street and see signs for "social clubs" bearing the names of towns back in southern Italy. But over time, the essential Italian-ness of Bensonhurst is getting diluted with demographic shifts —  and Italian community leaders have a novel idea of how to preserve the best of that 20th century heritage.

It's an Italian American cultural center.

Ground has not yet broken on Il Centro as of 2013, but if and when this new multi-million dollar cultural center comes into existence, the new building promises to usher in a fresh chapter in rough-and-tumble, working-class Bensonhurt's Italian history.

The official vision behind Il Centro is of a cultural resource center for Italian Americans, a place to showcase and teach about the Italian and Italian American culture. Of course, the very name means, "the center."

But in a nod to the complexities of assimilation and the American "melting pot" experience, it is also meant to serve as a model to other ethnic groups "in how to preserve, celebrate, and care one's own heritage in a multi-cultural society."

(See "Visiting Brooklyn's Italian Neighborhoods" and "What to Look For in Brooklyn's Still-Great Italian Areas".)

From Social Service to Cultural Preservation

The project is an outgrowth of the Federation of Italian American Organizations (FIAO), founded in 1975. FIAO provides social services to immigrants and seniors, funds college scholarships, sponsors Brooklyn's colorful Columbus Day Parade, runs a coed youth indoor-outdoor soccer program, and offers language classes in Italian, among other activities.

It also focuses on "keeping kids off the streets," with afterschool and safe haven programs. According to the organization's website, "In 1991, as a result of the tragic killing of an African-American youth in Bensonhurst, FIAO competitively obtained an "Outreach" grant from the Department of Youth Services to provide alternatives for high risk youths who gather in schoolyards, parks, video arcades, street corners and shopping malls."

Staffing in 2012 included eight full-time and 180 part-time employees. Today the organization serves not just Italian Americans but local residents of various ethnicities and language groups.

Shifting Demographics, Once-Italian Neighborhood Now 40% Asian

As an indication of Brooklyn's fast-morphing demographics,Bensonhurst, once almost exclusively Italian and Jewish, is now a multi-ethnic neighborhood with a large Chinese and growing Russian presence. Located in Community District 11, the 2011 Bensonhurst data show a population mix that is about 40% Asian and 40% white. African Americans account for about 1 percent of Bensonhurst's population.

In response to evolving demographics and shifting community needs, core services of the Federation of Italian American Organizations now include translation and assistance with obtaining such services as visits to the home bound, escorting non-English speaking clients to governmental agencies, assistance with immigration and more.

Additional services envisioned for the new Il Centro center include a senior citizens center, indoor swimming pool and gymnasium, and a performing arts auditorium.

With the planned construction of Il Centro, which its backers call the first Italian American cultural community center to be built in New York, Brooklyn's Bensonhurst is seeking to cement its historical role as the one of the hubs of Italian-American immigrant life in New York City.

  • Il Centro
  • 8703-8711 Cristoforo Colombo Blvd (18th Avenue)
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