NEW YORK — A fight in Manhattan's Little Italy neighborhood between a landlord who wants a tenant out and a tenant who doesn't want to leave isn't your run-of-the-mill New York City real estate struggle.
That's because the landlord is a museum dedicated to the legacy of Italian-Americans, and the tenant is an 85-year-old Italian-American grandmother who has lived there for more than 50 years.
"Why would you want to throw me out when I lived here all my life?" asked Adele Sarno, a feisty, raspy-voiced woman who proudly tells how she once even served as queen of the annual Feast of San Gennaro, Little Italy's most well-known event. "This is my neighborhood."
Sarno said the fight over her $820-a-month, two-bedroom apartment above the Italian American Museum began about five years ago. That's when she received a letter seeking to increase that rent to $3,500 a month, far more than the retired shopkeeper says she can afford.
The spat is the latest involving the museum to cause a commotion in Little Italy, a neighborhood of former tenement buildings and narrow streets in Lower Manhattan that was once a bustling center of Italian immigrant life. An Italian restaurant that had been open for decades closed its doors last week in a separate rent-related dispute.
"The negative press that this has caused is so detrimental to the spirit of the Italian immigrant," said Lou Di Palo, whose family has run an Italian specialty foods shop in Little Italy for over a century. "I'm upset over it."
But in recent decades, the character of Little Italy has been transformed by waves of gentrification and wealthy newcomers. The latest Census data from 2013 shows only 554 out of 7,816 residents, about 7 percent, in the Census tract encompassing Sarno's street identify as having Italian ancestry.
Museum president Joseph Scelsa told The New York Times that even after all Italian-Americans had gone from the area, "the legacy would still remain because we have an institution that does that."
Neither the museum's president nor its spokesman replied to multiple emails and phone messages from The Associated Press seeking comment. But they have said the museum is looking to expand its space, or sell the properties to a developer and remain there rent-free.
Sarno, who has a daughter in Wisconsin and a granddaughter on Staten Island, believes the museum is just after more money, pointing out that her upstairs neighbors pay several thousand dollars a month in rent.
Sarno tried to go through the courts to see if the city's rent regulation laws could help, but it was determined that her apartment wasn't covered. Still, she is hopeful she can fight through the courts to forestall the eviction order. A judge has given her lawyers until April 13 to find some kind of solution.
Il Palazzo, the shuttered restaurant, was evicted after being in business since the 1980s.
Perry Chrisciatelli, who ran the restaurant with his wife, said they had been late with a $17,000 rent payment in February, and were told they would have to go unless they were willing to pay almost twice that per month.
"Now another piece of Little Italy is gone," he said.
Truthfully, there's not a lot of Little Italy left, mainly a couple of blocks of Mulberry Street, populated with Italian restaurants and tourist stores featuring trinkets and "Kiss me, I'm Italian" and "Fuggedaboutit" T-shirts.
"The sort of everyday lived experience of the place as a residence of Italian Americans for all intents has been over for decades," said Joseph Sciorra of the Italian-American Institute at Queens College.
But for a museum dedicated to that history, turning Sarno out shows "a lack of vision," he said, suggesting it could have tapped Sarno as a speaker or in some other capacity.
Sarno, he said, "is literally the living embodiment of the living history of Little Italy."
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