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Bensonhurst Italian-American cultural center finally opens after years of delays

Ribbon cutting: Local luminaries and politicians celebrated the long-awaited opening of the Italian-American community center Il Centro in Bensonhurst on June 21.
Brooklyn Daily
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Call it a slow-cooked Italian dish.

The city’s first Italian-American community center, “Il Centro,” finally opened its Bensonhurst doors on June 21 — nearly a decade after the project was first announced.

Construction of the center, at the corner of 18th and Benson avenues, was delayed for years because of hundreds of complaints neighbors filed with the city about the construction and debates with the builder, according to the chairman of the board for the Federation of Italian-American Organizations, which owns the property.

“The delay basically was a result of the bureaucracy and the innate factors in constructi­on,” said Jack Spatola. “Every time [there was a complaint], an inspector would come and stop work. Some of the other delays were going back and forth with the builder and the owner related to the value engineering.”

City records show that there are nearly 300 complaints about the property on file with the Department of Buildings — about workers smoking cigarettes, construction after hours, and allegations of illegal plumbing and electrical work, among other issues — dating back to 2011, plus 11 violations, all of which were dismissed. Plus, neighbors called in 11 complaints to 311 since 2011 — about noise, electrical, and general construction concerns.

Stakeholders began discussing plans for the center around 2004, Spatola said, and the Federation of Italian-American Organizations first announced plans for it in 2009, saying at the time it was scheduled to open in 2011. But the builder didn’t even break ground on the property until 2012, Spatola said, insisting that it was never intended to open in 2011.

In 2014, the federation hosted a get-together at the still-under-construction site, and then told this paper in May 2016 that the center would be finished and opening imminently — and that costs had jumped from the initial estimate of $15 million to more than $20 million.

Spatola said officials had hoped the center would open by November 2017, but the completion was delayed by wrangling with the builder over interior features including the elevator, soundproof glass, and the kitchen. Spatola said the group didn’t try to find a less contentious builder because they were worried that would delay the project even further, to the detriment of the community.

“If we did, it would delay the construction and completion and availability to the community to bring the center further along,” he said.

Spatola added that the cost for the construction was actually close to the initial estimate of $15 million, but that the additional costs that brought the final price tag to $20 million included expenses such as architect’s fees and the purchase of the land — though the construction delays did add about $500,000 to the overall cost.

The federation raised most of the money to build the center from private donors, but did receive some public funding. State Sen. Marty Golden (R–Bay Ridge) kicked in $2 million, and former Rep. Michael McMahon (D–Bay Ridge) allocated $700,000.

The center’s first floor is open to the public and includes classrooms, a cultural library, a conference room where the center will host free panels and events, and a pantry that Spatola says will soon become a kitchen. The upper floors — available to dues-paying members — include a gym, a full-sized basketball court, a pool, and soon-to-come rooftop garden, Spatola said. Annual individual membership starts at $78, with discounts for teens, families, seniors, and couples.

Spatola, who came to the neighborhood from Sicily in the 1960s with his parents and sister, said the center will offer an opportunity to highlight the positive examples of local Italian-Americans who are contributing to the community, thereby countering negative stereotypes in popular culture.

“There’s always a negative connotation with Italian-Americans in the mass media, and I think one of the things that’s lost is what to glorify,” he said.

Plus, he added, the center will function as a gathering spot and place of cultural exchange among the neighborhood’s diverse residents.

“It’s open to everybody — we have Arabic youth, Russian youth, Chinese youth who are using the facility,” he said. “[The neighborhood] has always been an incredible mosaic. Everyone retains their identity, but they make it incredibly beautiful.”

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.
Updated 1:34 am, July 10, 2018
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Reader feedback

Bikerchick from Sheepshead Bay says:
Wow! I had no idea that there were any Italians left in Bensonhurst!
June 28, 9:12 am
noname from Bensonhurst says:
Big deal!!
June 28, 5:59 pm
Goggles Paisano from Bedrock says:
Is B’Hurst occupied by Russians and Chinese? I thought all of the Italians moved to Jersey and Pennsylvania.
June 28, 10:28 pm
Debra Shapiro from Bensonhurst says:
Bensonhurst is probably one of the most diverse neighborhoods in NYC. Besides Russians and Chinese who have done a great job opening businesses in what were abandoned storefronts and renewed the schools in the area there is still an Italian community that has not left. What you notice is that when you are in an Italian bakery on 18th avenue or Bay Parkway many of the customers are not Italian. the newcomers are helping to keep these businesses going.
June 29, 10:01 am
TOOLATE from ASTORIA BABY says:
There aren't any Italians left. This will be a Chinese grocery in 3 months. Bensonhurst is now one of the worst neighborhoods in NYC. Just people rushing, pushing and shoving with bags of crap. Dirty and depressing. —— that place!
June 29, 4:51 pm
NoName from Bensonhurst says:
No Italian bakeries left on 18th Avenue except for Villabate and one near 60th Street from what I see. The Asian population does not shop in 99% of American stores. Bensonhurst is not what it was as you can see if you walk the streets. Garbage is thrown all over the ground even though their are receptacles on the corners and trash bags are being thrown on sidewalks open. There are rats now as I've seen by the dead carcasses in our streets. Nobody wants to pay huge property taxes and get nothing in return except filthy conditions.
June 30, 7:51 am
Elated and Happy from Bay Ridge says:
I am happy the center is open .... looking forward to learning more about Italian Culture ..... it is great I no longer have to go Manhattan for Italian Learning. Thank You.
June 30, 11:34 am
Debra Shapiro from Bensonhurst says:
Asians shop in all American stores. They are the most tolerant people you will ever come across in your life. Italian businesses are still thriving in Bensonhurst. My Asian neighbors wash down their sidewalks every day. Bigotry does not work here.
July 2, 8:04 am

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