Debbie Harry and Martin Scorsese Support Landmarking 239 Elizabeth Street in Little Italy and so Should You [OP-ED]

Posted on: July 12th, 2016 at 5:19 am by
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What follows is a selection from a “Request for Evaluation” sent to the Landmarks Preservation Commission last week to calendar 239 Elizabeth Street for landmarking. Author of the pitch, building resident Beth Joy Knutsen-Papaleo, even received letters of endorsement from Debbie Harry and Martin Scorsese.

“I am dead sick of tasteless developers who never wanted to live in NYC deciding what’s right for a neighborhood. The neighborhoods are like small towns and have their own histories and identities which are vitally important to maintain and remember. Let’s keep the many flavors and colors that make New York City such a special place, not just another bland expression of greedy commercialism and bad architecture.” –Debbie Harry

“For over 25 years, I have advocated for the preservation of our cultural heritage through film preservation because it is so important to understand and appreciate our past. Elizabeth Street between East Houston and Prince is a crucial piece of Little Italy’s history and an important landmark of New York’s unique immigrant heritage.” –Martin Scorsese

We, the 239 Elizabeth Street’s Tenant’s Association, believe the time is now to landmark our building’s incredible history, alongside its pivotal location, for generations to come. Our rent-stabilized tenants span decades, living here in our building and neighborhood by sharing great stories of times past.

A reflection of community for me for the past 18 years, and for my daughter’s future residing here, has been woven into the fabric of unique, outstanding memories of years past and yet to come with excitement. A sense of fortitude and family values flourishes when I open the door to our distinctly historic and soulful building.

It is not only our building, but the block of Elizabeth Street between Prince and East Houston that must be preserved for the sake of what made our little street so incredibly important.

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Scorsese and De Niro filming Taxi Driver

Landmarking our outstanding building is the first step. Generations of Italians spanning 9 decades still call this home and are asking you, The Landmarks Preservation Commission, to listen to our request with an open heart and mind.

Conceptualizing our building in 1904 collaborated in the form of the greatest architectural trio at the turn of the century. The 3 brilliant designers: William Kurtzer, Charles Rentz & Stanford White. It was commissioned by Peter P. Acritelli.

  • William Kurtzer: was famous for his specialized cast iron ornamentation and foundation work on building’s interiors and exteriors. It was his dedication to the German Renaissance & Neo-Grec style. He also designed/built properties for The Astor & Vanderbilt families around New York City.
  • Charles Rentz: a prolific architect was known best for designing and building the now land-marked Webster Hall with terra cotta facade and his specialty of Renaissance Revival.
  • Stanford White: an inspiring and instrumental builder of our great city. In being the pioneering expert of Beaux-Arts American Renaissance Architecture, he chose our building to be his first and only tenement work. He built the Washington Square Arch, The Cable Building, and The Bowery Savings Bank among other amazing NYC structures.

On our corbelled, crowned facade at 239 Elizabeth Street, one can view the letters/word “ACRI” as a convex iron stamp to represent Peter P. Acritelli. As the proprietor of our building, he wanted it to be the best on the block. At the turn of the century, he was the official Coroner of NYC. Previously, he held title of Deputy State Fire Marshall of NYC, also was powerful in the labor unions when he worked for Tammany Hall. His son ran a steamship agency from our building to bring more immigrants from Sicily. He owned/brokered a few properties on our block but this was his home.

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Debbie Harry outside CBGB

One can also scour through pages of books (or Google) about our building and block which encompasses so many still well-known establishments today of Little Italy. I went to the Municipal Archives two summers ago to start work on what I am writing to you today with utmost importance. In that time, I found old documents that I could not only touch (written in beautiful script of the era) but also reading stories on microfiche that also had pictures one cannot Google of our block.

I started out here 18 years ago in 1998 at 239 Elizabeth Street #7, and this will be my home, and my daughter’s, always. I love that she can visit our artist neighbors who are just like family now at 237 Elizabeth Street where the late, great Robert Kobayashi created his metal art masterpieces and always cheered me on and loved that my daughter would be the next generation here.

I worked for Mr. Johnny Buffa at Buffa’s Diner which stood at the corner of Lafayette and Prince Street since 1926 and is now still owned by him (Delicatessen). He, too, is sad that so much of Little Italy is disappearing and content to know that one of his best waitresses is working on saving what is left of Little Sicily.

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Mr. Vinny Vella, Ms. Vivie Papaleo, Mr. Moe Albanese, Summer 2016

But way before I arrived, lots of fascinating events traspired here.

The first bank of Little Italy occupied the storefront downstairs; it was subsequently robbed in a heist of 2 banks on the street in the early 1900s.

Before our building stood here, one of the Ferrara family heirs (Rosalie) was shot at by a suitor in 1894 when she rejected his advances. She lived on and so does her famiglia’s bakery.

I was informed that Robert De Niro lived here in the 1960s; countless films, including The Godfather, used our street as background, foreground, and even had many of our longtime residents appear in them; Moe Albanese of his eponymous Butcher Shop is concerned for our block’s survival as well and applauded our efforts; he has been here, and his mother Mary before him, since the the turn of the century; Actor Vinny Vella, known as the Mayor of Elizabeth Street, has lived on our block for decades and also wants to see our landmark request approved for the sanctity of traditional Sicilian people; Martin Scorsese grew up at 241 Elizabeth Street and studied at the now-defunct Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral Catholic School.

The most astounding fact to me personally was that Debbie Harry of Blondie music fame resided in my actual apartment in 1977!

Martin Scorsese's Letter of Support to Landmark 239 Elizabeth St.

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