"Listen, everybody gets old, don't throw us away like garbage. It's not fair, you cannot have a senior citizen thrown in the street, where they gonna go, what if they don't have a family? In other words, senior citizens have no rights."
Eighty-five-year-old Adele Sarno is facing eviction this week. She goes before the housing court judge, who will decide her fate, this Thursday. She told me: "And you wanna know, Holy Thursday we're going to court, so I got a good thing with me, it's Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the next day, and Easter Sunday. See, God is with me."
In a stunning display of irony, one of the last eyewitnesses to what it was actually like to be an Italian-American in Little Italy after World War II is being evicted by the very repository of this rich history, The Italian American Museum. It would be laughable, were it not so tragic.
Evict her? They should hire her.
In 1945, when Adele was 16, she was crowned Queen of the Feast of San Gennaro, on Mulberry Street below her apartment and which honors, the patron saint of her father's native Naples.
As reported in the New York Times: "You're fighting a museum that purports to exhibit Italian-American culture and then proceeds to evict a living artifact," said Victor J. Papa, director of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, an affordable housing group that has helped Ms. Sarno in her effort to stay. "That's absolute hypocrisy."
"The lawyer with the briefcase can steal more money than the man with the gun." - Mario Puzo, The Godfather
When I saw Adele on CBS, I was compelled to meet her. I felt like Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters. I had such empathy for her, as I'm a senior citizen, and after a bad accident, fell behind in my rent. Alone and unable to afford a lawyer, I was evicted -- Marshall, sign on the door, the whole deal -- and when I went before that housing court judge and told him, "Your Honor, it says In God We Trust over your head," through tears, he simply said "Next!" and slammed the gavel. I had no family, was living on Social Security and believe it or not, was living on $58 in food stamps. Had a friend not given me her couch, I honestly don't know where I'd be... at 70.
So, I attended a small rally in front of the museum this weekend, and when Adele showed up to thank the crowd, I asked if I could come up and interview her.
The crooked staircase (which Adele says she fell down last year and were fixed just recently because of her impending eviction) looks like something out of Alice in Wonderland, leading to the fastidiously neat apartment, filled with lots of love and a cat asleep on the bed. It was apparent that Adele is a woman of deep faith.
In 1962, when her longshoreman father, John, moved into the walkup, cold water flat at 182 Grand, he installed base board heating. Adele told me: "My dad did all this, this was nothing, no walls, my father put the bathroom, the cabinets, base board heat, my dad did all this." And for 53 years, Adele faithfully slid the rent envelope under that landlord's door. Never late.
Little Italy was different in those days, she tells me. All deals were consummated with a "handshake," she says. A spokesman for the museum told AM New York: "The Museum is expanding pending the outcome of negotiations with developers," and because the building was never landmarked, they can nearly "double the height."
According to the New York Times:
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."
The apartment on the top floor goes for $4,700 a month. Il Palazzo, a family-owned restaurant for 30 years located on the ground floor, was shut down. Nevermind that they received 9 out of 10 stars in the New York Times.
"We're Mad As Hell And We're Not Going To Take It Anymore"
But, in this age of poor doors and no doors, with the number of homeless at 60,000 people (up 5,000 since de Blasio took office) a night -- 23,000 of whom are children -- the people of New York City are hopping mad. They are mad at their neighborhoods being pillaged by greedy 80/20 developers. Who is this city for anymore?
I won the affordable housing lottery twice (out of 100,000 people) and, after being vetted for four months, was disqualified because of the eviction. This was 30 months ago, if it had been 36 months, it wouldn't have shown up on my perfect 750 credit report.
Adele is my hero and my sister, and we are in this fight together, "for all the senior citizen's," elderly, whatever you want to call us, who have no voice, who are disenfranchised from the shame.
As Adele says, "They got laws, you can't smoke, you can't drink, what about us?"
Perhaps, they picked the wrong two people to mess with: an 85-year-old Queen of San Gennaro and a 70-year-old woman with a camera, 5,000 Facebook friends and three million YouTube views. Adele is fighting her eviction for, "all senior citizens," and I am fighting for Adele, because nobody fought for me when I got evicted.
Is it possible that the Board of Directors of the Italian American Museum are not aware of the living connection to the past right under their noses?