In Bensonhurst, Chinese and Italians again live side by side


Tim Law, a Hong Kong native and long-time resident of Bensonhurst, counsels Chinese immigrants who move to the once predominantly Italian-American Brooklyn neighborhood.

He recalls a crippled, 75-year-old Chinese-speaking man who panicked when his food stamps were turned down at a local supermarket. When Law called the city agency that had cut off the man’s eligibility, he said, he found out what went wrong. Since the elderly man could not read or understand English, he had discarded notices the agency sent seeking income verification, thinking they were unimportant.

“The greatest barrier for the new Asians of Bensonhurst is that of language,” said Law, 65, a former city school official who worked for years helping Chinese students and their families to adjust to America.

It is also the barrier that stands between two generally compatible but insulated ethnic communities in Bensonhurst: the long-time but fading Italian-Americans, and the rapidly increasing Chinese immigrants. Their shared dedication to hard work has brought them together, even as their insulation from each other creates some tension between these communities.

Law, a member of both the community planning board and community education council serving Bensonhurst, said that the Italians have treated the Chinese pleasantly. Bensonhurst would be the ideal place for Asians to join together with others once the language issue is solved, according to Law.

“Bensonhurst is a neighborhood that accepts the Asian culture,” he said. “Here, all Asians feel comfortable. In other places, people make fun, throw stones, and yell.”

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“They don’t buy from me,” said Maria Campanella, the well-known Italian ice cream girl of Bensonhurst.

Campanella, a middle-aged woman who has lived in Bensonhurst since she was seven years old, said that until 10 years ago, her entire block was Italian. Over the past decade the young Italian population has moved to Staten Island as the Asians settled in Bensonhurst, said Campanella. Census data analyzed by the Center for the Study of Brooklyn confirms this. Its report on Community District 11 of Brooklyn, which includes Bensonhurst, states that in 2000, Asians made up 23.2 percent of the district’s population, while in 2009, they amounted to 33.7 percent.

The census data also show that as the Asian population of the district increased, the population of those of Italian ancestry in Community District 11 declined from 30 percent in 2000 to 21.5 percent in 2009.

“They’re very nice people,” Campanella emphasized when asked about her new neighbors. “The problem is just that they don’t circulate their money around the entire community.”

According to Campanella, it is for this reason that many Italians cannot afford to keep their businesses open. She said that it is sad to see businesses that have been opened for decades close.

“When an Italian business in Bensonhurst closes, we all go crazy,” she said.

Campanella is dedicated to her ice cream truck business, which was once her father’s. When her father became sick, she made a commitment to help her family and the business.

“Although he’s not with me anymore in the physical sense, spiritually he’s with me every day,” she said. “I still hold that commitment.”

Campanella described her Chinese neighbors as hard-working people. She said that in most Asian families, both parents work hard and long hours, while children are looked after by their grandparents.

Campanella illustrated the language barrier by recalling time she saw an elderly Asian man sitting on a bench with young kids whom she assumed were his grandchildren.

“They were sitting on a bench with wet paint because the couldn’t read the sign. They’re nice people,” she reiterated, “but they just have to get it right.”

*     *     *

Dominick Carielli, director of the Center for Italian American Studies at Brooklyn College, said that the young Italian generation moved out of Bensonhurst before the Chinese moved in. This resulted in empty homes in Bensonhurst, which soon served as the homes of Chinese immigrants.

“I wasn’t like the Italians were pushed out by the Chinese, or supplanted in any way,” he said. Carielli, now in his 50s, has been a resident of Bensonhurst for 25 years. He holds a doctorate in psychology from Fordham University.

Carielli said that the Italians settled who settled in Bensonhurst a century ago were members of the working class. According to Carielli, Bensonhurst caters to this class.

“As the children of the Italian immigrants became educated, they moved out of this enclave,” he said.

The second- and third-generation Italian-Americans moved to more spacious homes in Staten Island and New Jersey. Carielli said this is a natural progression.

Carielli said he gets along well with his Chinese neighbors, and described them as “nice, friendly, and hardworking.”

Regarding Italian shops, Carielli said that many bakeries and stores have been forced to close. However, he said that the Chinese may not buy from the Italians simply because the products in Italian stores do not appeal to them, and not because they refuse to circulate their money.

*     *     *

Law related a story of his experience in another neighborhood, one he would not identify, but said those residing there were less accepting of Asians. He said he was sent to this neighborhood’s post office by the city Department of Education.

“As I stepped out of the car, a few people yelled, ‘what are you doing here Chinaman!?’” he said. “I was so scared, that I ran back into the car, called the Education Department, and told them I could not complete the task at hand.”

But in Bensonhurst, Law said, he feels comfortable walking around at night, talking in the streets, and going about his daily business. He said that the Chinese get along with the surrounding populations despite the fact that they cannot fully communicate with them.

As a member of the community education council of School District 21, Law sees Italian and Asian children interacting and becoming friends.

Community Board 11 District Manager Elias-Pavia said  Asians and Italians are socializing with each other, although she added  that  language was a barrier to their integration. She noticed the groups mingling at the senior-citizen programs in Bensonhurst Jewish Community House at 7082 Bay Parkway.

“You’d be surprised with the diversity there,” she said. “All of the populations of Bensonhurst are interacting with each other, and using the services.” But, Elias-Pavia said, language tends to separate the communities.

“Many of their signs and advertisements are not in English,” she said of the Chinese.

Elias-Pavia said that many people would be more willing to enter an establishment if the signs were in English.   “If the restaurant menu is in Chinese, they just can’t order,” she said. “So why bother?”

*     *     *

Jerome Krase, 69, a sociologist from Brooklyn College who is  expert on the development of the Italian and Asian populations of New York, said that the Italian-Chinese connection dates back to the late 19th century. Then, he said, the Italians and Chinese began to settle in lower Manhattan. At that time, the Chinese population was quite small.   As it grew, Krase said, the Italians began to leave lower Manhattan  and move to other parts of the city. [See “Recalling Jews and Italians in Old Bensonhurst,” Brooklyn News Service.]

Over the past 10 years however, Chinatown has “filled up,” which left new Chinese immigrants to find new neighborhoods to settle in. Krase said they began to establish themselves in places with convenient modes of transportation.

“The Chinese connection to Bensonhurst is transportation [and] is the same as their connection to Flushing and Sunset Park,” he said. “It is transportation.”

Krase pointed out that the Chinese and Italians have settled in the same neighborhoods, as reflected in their inhabitation of Bensonhurst and lower Manhattan. Krase said this is because the Chinese and Italians are insular communities.

“Insular communities tend to settle near each other,” Krase said. “This is a typical social phenomenon.”

Regarding the relationship between Italians and Chinese of Bensonhurst, Krase said that in 2000, there were reports of conflicts in real estate. During that time, there were ominous flyers that said, “the Chinese are coming.” Yet Krase said he thinks that this was not indicative of conflict;  rather, it was a campaign pushed by real estate interests.

“The companies who put out these flyers are the same ones who put out flyers that said ‘the blacks are coming’ in East New York,” he said.

However Krase did say that there seems to be conflict between the Italian and Asian youth in Bensonhurst. Typically, he said, the clashes between ethnic groups often involve the younger generation.

Krase also said that friction has and continues to develop with public programs. For instance, he said, the senior center in Bensonhurst has been serving Italians for many years. As the aging population of the Chinese in Bensonhurst is increased, Krase said, they too wished to take part in the programs offered by the senior center. Yet the Italians argued that the center was for Italians only, he said. Instead of making further attempts to cooperate and get along, the Chinese sought to create a senior center of their own. This creates more competition and division, Krase said.

“Rather than create their own, the Chinese should get on the board of the existing, and work together,” said Krase.

Photo: Stores on Bay Parkway between 86th and 87th streets, Bensonhurst.

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