On March 15th, I drove around southern Brooklyn with my friend and colleague Anthony Scotto photographing Italian-American yard shrines for my forthcoming book on vernacular religious spaces in New York City.
At the end of this grand tour, Anthony showed me a decorated flowerpot in front of an abandoned house at 1466 80th Street in Dyker Heights. You can see the flowerpot in situ in the current Google map.) Back in September, Anthony had driven me around the neighborhoods of Dyker Heights and Bensonhurst to document this little-known Italian-American folk art, which I subsequently blogged about here.
There was nothing to be done. The flowerpot was on private property. But Anthony promised to keep an eye on the situation.
On April 29th, Anthony texted me the following message:
Flower Pot Emergency! That house on the next block with planter in the walk has been demolished! It’s surrounded by a plywood wall.
Three hours later he wrote:
Just walked by work site. Planter is intact but partially buried under rubble. I need to intervene, but don’t know how. The site is secured with a padlock. I don’t sense much respect for these artifacts.
Planter is completely covered in rubble!
I’m confident that it’s still intact, but they’re taking the whole house down.
The workers have left for the day. I don't know if they’ll be responsive.
On May 6th, Anthony contacted me again via text:
Standing in front of demoed house–there are actually 2 planters!
They’re intact (appear to be) and one we saw has been lifted.
I’m waiting for the workers to appear. They just hauled some stuff to dumpster but now they’re in back somewhere.
Damn! They are not coming out. The dumpster is full; maybe they’re waiting for truck. I need to leave now...
I waited in my office.
And then Anthony sent me this photo:
He told me that the workers had come out and when he asked about the decorated flowerpots, they said he could have them and offered him a wheelbarrow to transport them to his car.
This decorated flowerpot’s style and execution is rather simple when compared to the works we photographed last year.
This rescue mission may seem frivolous to some. All this energy spent on two simple objects. And now what?
In 2002, I organized a symposium for the Calandra Institute titled “Historic Preservation and the Italian American Presence in New York City” where we examined “current thinking about and practical issues concerning the official recognition and presentation of buildings and sites particular to the Italian-American community of New York City.” By that point, I had worked on listing two buildings to the National and New York State Registries of Historic Places: the Staten Island Grotto in Rosebank, Staten Island, and the Lisanti Family Chapel in Williamsbridge, the Bronx. Since then people have been active in preserving other sites associated with Italian-American history and culture, like the Our Lady of Loreto Church in East New York, Brooklyn. In addition, the Italian-American community in the New York City area lacks a reputable museum that has the vision to take in such humble works of folk art.
Anthony’s modest but heroic act has preserved a small part of Italian-American expressive culture. What happens next is up to us all.