Scotto’s Funeral Director John Heyer negotiates peace between rival Italian clubs.
2013: New York City Council will vote in January on naming Court Street between Third and Fourth Place “Citizens of Mola Way.”
“Our children, our grandchildren, they make history,” says Van Westerhout member Joe Balzano, 71, who came to Carroll Gardens on a boat by himself when he was 14. “Our children, they are lawyers, bankers. Joe Manfredi, he is a big car dealer on Staten Island, he carries Toyotas, and makes a fortune. God bless America.”
Hard-working hands of a local Molesi man, a former longshoreman, from the Van Westerhout Cittadini social club on Court Street and 4th Place.
I walk from the bright, crisp air on Court Street with grocery shop owner Allegrino Sale into the dim, electric lighting of one of South Brooklyn’s exclusive clubs for Italian men, the Van Westerhout Cittadini Molesi Social Club, on the corner of Court Street and 4th Place in Carroll Gardens. For years I’ve been dying of curiosity to visit one of these Carroll Gardens Italian clubs, where men hang out smoking cigars, watching people walk by. Here I am.
There are several round tables in the room. Men play cards and eat lunch. Bottles of wine sit in the middle of the tables. A cooking show on Italian cable plays on a large-screen television. The walls are lined with sporting trophies and black and white pictures of the Madonna, and the good ol’ days. There’s a bar in back with a big espresso machine.
The men are quiet, as men often are, except when they start conversing loudly in Italian.
Women aren’t allowed into the club, and I assume young urban cosmopolitan types are frowned upon, but as I’m with Sale, the club president and owner of Good Food Italian grocery on Court, between 3rd and 4th place, all is OK. The atmosphere in the club is drab, 70s, but the men are colorful and warm. Some don’t speak much English.
Joe Balzano, 71, offers me an espresso, then some wine. Balzano for more than 50 years owned a cheese shop at President and Hicks widely regarded for its mozzarella, and operated a little restaurant in back that hosted celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe when she was here for the shooting of “A View From the Bridge.”
“No, thank you, I’m fine,” I say.
Balzano smiles broadly and pours me a healthy dose of red wine in a plastic cup.
“What do you guys do in here?” I ask him.
“Oh nothing,” he says. “Kill time. Play games.”
“This is like a family,” say club 1st Vice President Gino Masi. “We always leave the door open.”
“It’s open to the public?” I ask.
“No, no. This is a personal, private club. It’s for our purpose. We come from the other side, we’re all immigrants,” Masi says.
“If someone comes from Italy, they can come in here, if they want a coffee or to watch TV,” says Balzano. “We don’t chase nobody. No matter what, we don’t chase nobody.”
Balzano is funny, and very friendly. At one point he starts talking to me passionately about history while waving a large knife around. Sometimes you feel like you are in a movie, and this is one of those times.
Sale tells me that members come from all around, Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, Staten Island, Westchester County, to meet for lunch, speak Italian and help each other out.
It’s an exciting time for the club, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. In January, the New York City Council will vote on naming Court Street between 3rd Place and 4th Place, “Citizens of Mola Way,” in honor of the club. The club was started by 14 teenagers back in 1960, and to be a member, you must have been born in Mola di Bari, a tiny fishing village of 2,500 people on the Adriatic Sea in Southern Italy.
The men are proud.
“When we came from Italy, this is where we came. We made Carroll Gardens the way it is now,” Sale tells me. “People, they think the members of the social clubs are members of the mafia. It’s not that way. We opened businesses. We had a lot of shops. Carroll Gardens is this way because of us.
“Our members fought in the Vietnam War and were injured. We had four guys perish in Sept. 11.”
When the local Community Board 6 in November voted in favor of sending the street naming request to City Council, “it was like a victory,” Sale says. “I was so honored to have the name of our town here.”
The Van Westerhout Cittadini Molesi Social Club. President Allegrino Sale, middle, owner of Good Food grocery.
Founding member Mike Pesce, a judge on the N.Y. State Supreme Court, spoke at the community board meeting, giving a passionate case for the street naming.
“When I ran for the state assembly in 1972, there were 3,000 to 4,000 immigrants from Mola, this one single small town. We worked on the docks, worked in businesses. Our children are more successful than we are. We would like to make a statement and leave a statement. We are not going anywhere. We are attached. We feel like we contributed more than any other group that has lived in Carroll Gardens. Our kids will keep coming back.”
Sale sits down to tell me the history. His voice is raspy with a strong Italian accent. The club has about 100 members, 30 of whom still live in Carroll Gardens. The Van Westerhout name comes from a famous music composer from Mola di Bari, whose Flemish family immigrated to Italy in the 1600s.
I ask why so many from Mola came here, and nobody seems to know. The founders, including Sale, Pesce, Balzano and Masi, came to New York on the month-long ship ride, and often, by themselves, when they were 14 and 15 years old.
Mola di Bari, Italy, on the Adriatic Sea
People from Mola di Bari began their immigration to Carroll Gardens in the 30s, but thousands came after World War II, when there were no jobs in the fishing town. Often, parents would come first, then send for the kids.
In Carroll Gardens there was already an established Italian community dating from the late 1800s, mostly from Sicily and the Neapolitan region. But the big influx of Molesi people was significant.
By the mid-1960s, there were more people in Carroll Gardens from Mola di Bari than lived in the small Italian town. At the 50-year anniversary party, the club had a “dinner dance” with more than 300 people. The mayor of Mola di Bari came over for the celebration.
“Thirty or 40 years ago, this neighborhood was strictly Baresi (from the Baresi region of Italy, including the town of Mola di Bari), the Sicilians and the Neopolitans,” Balzano tells me. “I think we earned this honor, for all that we did for Carroll Gardens,” Balzano says of the street naming.
I ask Sale if it bothers him that people associate the clubs with the mafia.
“No, not at all,” Sale says.
But clearly, it is bothersome. The men tell me of their fathers, who had it rough—they worked on the docks down in Red Hook, where they had to pay to get jobs. Van Westerhout members also worked on the docks, but many chose to work at shops instead. They made sure their kids went to college and got good jobs.
“Our children, our grandchildren, they make history,” Balzano said. “They are lawyers, bankers. Joe Manfredi, he is a big car dealer on Staten Island, he carries Toyotas, and makes a fortune. God bless America.”
When families made money, they moved to Bensonhurst, Staten Island, New Jersey and Long Island.
“They sold their houses for peanuts. Now they all regret it,” Sale says.
“Who’s idea was the street-naming?” I ask Sale.
“A while ago I passed by Henry Street, and they have the Citizens of Pazzalo Way,” Sale said, of the Sicilian social club on Henry and Sackett streets that had the block named after them. “I got the idea, why can’t we do the same thing.”
I’m told that there are more Sicilians in Carroll Gardens today, but that over time, more immigrants came from the Molesi region. Sale tells me that there are five social clubs in South Brooklyn of people from Mola.
“Why five?” I ask Sale. “Why not merge? Are the groups friendly?”
“Well actually,” Sale tells me. “There is a war.”
Sitting Down at the Funeral Home
I push the buzzer at Scotto’s Funeral Home in early December. It’s 5:15 p.m., dark and freezing out. I have an appointment to meet Funeral Director John Heyer II. Heyer is the man who is handling the Van Westerhout club’s request to get Court Street named “Citizens of Mola Way.” He is also an avid Italian-in-Carroll-Gardens historian.
I ring the bell several times. I almost give up when suddenly the door buzzes. I push it in.
I walk into the foyer and it’s quiet, deserted. In front of me, stairs lead to a second floor. They foyer is dark with a low glow from red lights, and the staircase is illuminated in blue. Lamps on a desk light a side room, so I head there.
A voice comes over the machine that buzzed me in. “Hey there, how can I help you?” says a female voice. Any fear I may have felt subsides. “You all right down there, hunnie? Comfortable? I’m up here if you need anything. Just call up. John should be here shortly. Some people are leery. You’re not, are you, hunnie?” Her use of hunnie relaxes me.
I sit on a beautiful blue couch and look at plaques commending Buddy Scotto for his work on the Gowanus Canal cleanup effort, and a famous framed front page from the Village Voice in 1977, in which Scotto was quoted by the Voice as saying the mafia needed to be cleaned up from the Red Hook waterfront. Scotto tells the story of how the morning the story hit the newsstands, he had to pack up his wife and preschool-aged kids and leave town, because locals were so mad at him.
Heyer shows up. Says he was stuck in traffic after a funeral. He is an absolutely gracious, friendly guy, and puts me entirely at ease.
We head down stairs past stained-glass artwork to Heyer’s office, in a small room that features coffin floor-models.
Heyer’s a busy guy. Not only is he a funeral director with several funerals a day to attend, but in October, the Catholic Bishop of Brooklyn, Nicholas DiMarzio, appointed the young man to be the peacemaker between warring groups of Molesi social clubs.
We sit down to talk about what’s going on.
John tells me that when the people of Mola di Bari came to Carroll Gardens, they brought with them a sacred tradition from their hometown. In 1948, an exact replica of the town idol, which stands in the town square, the Maria Santissima Addolorata, named “Our Lady of Sorrows,” and wearing an elaborate medieval dress, was brought over on the boat.
For the past 62 years, twice a year, the Italian Carroll Gardens community, lead by the local Molesi leaders, gather at Sacred Hearts-St. Stephens Roman Catholic Church at Summit and Hicks streets. Men carry the statue of the sorrowful Maria on their shoulders in an hours-long procession throughout Carroll Gardens that includes singing, traditional clothing, incense, and stopping every once in a while to play instruments and sing. The Mary is in mourning over the death of Jesus, and is symbolic of the suffering parents feel when a child dies.
The procession for the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows takes place the second weekend in September. It is the major annual event for the American Molesi.
I remember the shock I felt watching the procession for the first time. It’s a romantic scene straight from Fellini, and an interesting cultural moment in a community that is almost thoroughly Manhattanized today.
Heyer tells me that Sacred Heart-St. Stephens is the oldest Italian congregation on Long Island. He worries about the history getting lost.
He says that when Robert Moses built the BQE in the 50s, he ran the highway literally through the front doors of Brooklyn’s three Italian Catholic churches, from Red Hook to Carroll Gardens to Williamsburg and the Navy Yard. It was an effort to “break up the Italian ghetto,” Heyer says.
There’s an effort now to backtrack and retain the hundred years of history of Italians in Carroll Gardens, Heyer said. But it’s hard. Modernity has set in, as has distance.
Decades ago, all the people from Mola lived in Carroll Gardens. Now they are spread out. Three of the Molesi clubs are in Bensonhurst.
Of the five clubs, three are social only, including the Van Westerhout club. The fourth club is religious, the Congrega Maria S.S. Addolorata, an umbrella group that handles the procession.
“So what is this war about?” I ask.
Heyer breaks it down.
“Six or seven years ago, one of the women in the Congrega (the religious umbrella group) wanted to advance fast. She was motivated. She hit a brick wall in the congregation and couldn’t get above that. She split away with a few other members, and started her own club,” Heyer says.
Lucrezia Nardulli launched the Associazione Culturale Pugliese Figli Maria S.S. Addolorata. “For better or for worse, she started her own thing,” Heyer said.
“It’s a sore point. People have relatives on both sides. Cousins, sisters and brothers.”
The battle surrounds the annual procession for Our Lady of Sorrow, Heyer says. For 60 years, there was one procession, and one statue. The statue is kept at Sacred Hearts-St. Stephens. The statue is cared for with kid gloves. Her clothes are changed a few times a year, including undergarments. She wears all black for a second procession, on good Friday. When she is carried into the church, she is faced outward, for there is superstition that she may not want to leave again if she faces into the church.
Two years ago, Nardulli organized a second procession, with a second idol, in Bensonhurst.
This competing parade has outraged the other clubs. The anger reached such tense levels Bishop DiMarzio named Heyer to make peace.
Historic photo of the processional congregation at Sacred Heart and St. Stephens Church on Summit Street at Hicks, in Carroll Gardens
“The old group just wants to pay homage to the patroness. This woman pushed them, and they didn’t want to do all of that.”
Heyer, a funeral director for Salvatore Buddy Scotto, a well-known community activist who invented the name Carroll Gardens in the 1980s, is carrying on a tradition that dates back to the grandfather of Buddy Scotto, owner of Scotto’s Funeral Home. Scotto tells me he is the “patron,” to the people of Mola living in Carroll Gardens, and as such, helps the community with any problems it may have. He is the only non-Molesi “honorary president” of the Van Westerhout Cittadini Molesi club.
The first patron was Scotto’s grandfather, who came to Carroll Gardens from Palermo, Sicily, in 1898. Scotto’s father came in 1910, Scotto said.
When the big wave of Molesi came to Carroll Gardens, “when they met my grandfather, he would handle their problems. He was the patron, and they immediately related. That went from him to my father, and from him to me.”
Scotto says the system is an Italian tradition. He said Italians are “extremely parochial and family-orientated, believe in extended family, and have a potent distrust of government.
“In Italy, they change governments like they change underwear,” Scotto says.
When Scotto was growing up, South Brooklyn was all Italian, except for the Irish, many of whom lived in Red Hook.
“I thought the whole world was Italian American,” Scott says. “I went to cultural shock in college.”
Scotto says Italians were afraid to be Italian, and felt they needed to meld into the melting pot. But once the black revolution took place in the 1960s, “the Italians came out of the closet. They said, ‘Wait. If it’s OK to be African-American and Puerto-Rican-American, we can be Italian American.’”
The Molesi hold on to their traditions through the social and religious clubs, and with the procession of Our Lady of Sorrows.
So far, negotiations between the groups is not going well, Heyer says. One breakthrough was made: Nardulli holds her procession on a Saturday, so that the Carroll Gardens procession can take place on the feast day, Sunday.
It’s a start. Heyer is praying the groups can agree to co-exist. There haven’t been physical fights, he says, but the verbal battles have not been pretty.
“There’s so much bad blood you can’t move forward. It’s very touchy and delicate. We are trying to find a way to move forward in a Christian way.”
As Heyer and I leave the funeral home, he tells me he is hopeful there will be peace. He’s glad that someone is writing down the story.
“There is so much history here. This procession is the community’s link to their past. One day these stories will be gone, and there will be new stories. It’s good to get it all written down.”
To read the women’s side of the story, check out: Mama Maria: Tradition vs. Modernity
Watch our film on the annual procession of Maria SS Idoloratta.
To read more on the vibrant Italian community in South Brooklyn, check out our story Stuffing Salami at Espositos and Sicilian Shop Survives Modernity.
To read more on the annual procession, visit: http://www.mariaaddolorata.com/pb/wp_b9b182c9/wp_b9b182c9.html