A Prayer for Bensonhurst: Pictures of an Italian Neighborhood on the Wane
Sicilian-born Delizia Flaccavento, a woman with brown hair cropped close to her head, wearing glasses and a button-up shirt, is speaking with an energy she can barely contain. A gaggle of women have huddled around her and they listen, glasses of wine in hand, as she talks about her project. Flaccavento’s exhibit, on view now at the Italian American Museum (temporarily housed at the John D. Calandra Institute), consists in a series of photographs she took of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and specifically its church, St. Dominic’s. The church is a pillar of traditionally Italian Bensonhurst, a community lynchpin, a repository for the Italian customs of yore, and—Flaccavento will be quick to inform—the only church in New York to still perform daily mass in Italian. Within the circle of middle-aged women that has formed around her, nostalgic voices ring “When I was a kid they used to take us to St. Lucy’s to hear Italian mass!”, “St. Barnabus in the Bronx still has one of those masses every Sunday...”
And this was the photographer’s premise: she wanted to capture St.Dominic’s, its parishoners, its significance to Benshonhurst, just as the neighborhood is losing its Italian identity and becoming increasingly Latino. Remarking that Bensonhurst is going the way of Manhattan’s Little Italy, St.Dominic’s priest says he’s sure that in 10 or 15 years there will no longer be a need for daily services in Italian. Flaccavento’s subjects, the neighborhood residents photographed inside the church and out, are in truth, more recently immigranted than one might think. They constitute what she calls the “last wave” of immigrants from Italy, distinct from the Ellis Island masses at the turn of the century, and never really recognized by scholars. She studied the “last wave” and its descendants as part of her dissertation and found it was a group characterized by disillusionment with post-WW II southern Italy, where the pace of reconstruction was slow, economic conditions tough and jobs scarce. Through the documentarian’s lens we get a glimpse at these last authentic Italian Americans of our time, unwitting participants in the rites of a community that is slipping away, perhaps even at risk of extinction—bridesmaids in lavender dresses, boys twirling flags for the Carinesi d’America Association, elders wringing their hands in prayer.