By Albert Amateau
What better way to celebrate Columbus Day than to gather in Father Demo Square and talk about preserving the South Village as a historic district where Italian immigrants, their sons, daughters and grandchildren have made an indelible mark?
The sun was shining brightly, the fountain splashing gaily in the newly rebuilt plaza and the crowd full of enthusiasm on Monday morning. In a program conducted by Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, residents, merchants and community leaders remembered their immigrant roots from Italy and elsewhere Villagers all.
They urged the creation of a South Village Historic District extending south of W. Fourth St. between Seventh Ave. S. and La Guardian Pl. to Houston St. with a triangle extension in Soho from Houston to Watts St. between W. Broadway and Sixth Ave.
Silvia Musto Beam told the gathering her roots in the Village go back three generations.
My paternal grandparents arrived from Avellino in the late 1890s, she said. They were married in St. Anthonys Church in 1898, raised 13 children and lived their lives on Sullivan St. My mothers family arrived in 1907, a hundred years ago, from a small village near Parma in northern Italy. My grandparents were married in Our Lady of Pompei Church, as were my parents, my husband and I and my daughter four generations.
This neighborhood is precious to me, as it is to many others, but it is getting more and more difficult to know the Village as it once was, Beam continued. Things change and not always for the best. There is so much we must preserve and protect for future generations, the architecture, the culture, the soul of the Village. If we dont do it now it will be too late.
Father Joseph Lorenzo, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua, the oldest existing Catholic church built for an Italian congregation in the New World, and Father John Massari, pastor of Our Lady of Pompei Church, built in 1927 for a congregation of immigrants founded in 1892, also called for preservation of the neighborhood.
Its good to be proud of the past, said Massari. Change cannot be halted, but its up to us to keep our Village a beautiful place.
Romana Raffetto, whose late husbands family founded the food emporium on W. Houston St. 101 years ago that her two sons now run, said she wanted a new generation to enjoy a South Village neighborhood where beauty and charm are as loved and preserved as they are in Italy.
Matt Umanov, whose Matt Umanov Guitars has been in the South Village for 43 years and on Bleecker St. for the past 30 years, said, Theres no place Id rather be. I love this place, the streets and the small shops.
Peter Longo, Village born and bred and owner of the 100-year-old coffee and tea purveyor Porto Rico Importing Co., recalled the excitement of growing up in a neighborhood where the children of immigrants learned about books and art from bohemian neighbors.
The Columbus Day event also marked the publication of The Italians of the South Village, a 97-page report commissioned by G.V.S.H.P, by Mary Elizabeth Brown who began delving into the archives of Our Lady of Pompei and old newspaper morgues in 1979 to find out how people in the South Village lived. The report is posted on the Web at www.gvshp.org/documents/SVItaliansReport.pdf.
We cant make another Village, Brown said. We have to do what we can to preserve this one.
I was raised in this neighborhood and Im so proud of it, said Lucy Cecere, co-founder of the Caring Community, which runs programs for local seniors. This was a real village. Roosters from the chicken market on Thompson St. used to waken us in the morning. It was a Village where people cared for each other. Dont let anyone take it away from us, she said.
State Senator Tom Duane said he was asking the citys Landmarks Preservation Commission to make the South Village Historic District designation a reality as quickly as possible. Duane noted that property prices in the area are rapidly escalating, encouraging developers to build big buildings to get the biggest bang for their bucks.
Nevertheless, David Gruber, chairperson of the Carmine St. Block Association and a real estate developer, said landlords have joined residents and business owners in calling for landmark designation to protect the neighborhood.
He pointed to garish business signs south of W. Fourth St. on Sixth Ave. that, he said, make the neighborhood look like Coney Island, and compared those blocks with the ones north of W. Fourth St. that are protected by the existing Greenwich Village Historic District.
The Landmarks Preservation Com-mission received an 80-page proposal for a South Village historic district in January of this year.
Its a massive proposal and were still reviewing it, said Lisi de Bourbon, spokesperson for the commission.