The echoes of Italian accents filled the old bank at 155 Mulberry Street.
Joseph V. Scelsa, standing in front of a teller’s window marked “Steamship Tickets” on a recent afternoon, held a receipt in his hand dated Dec. 3, 1894, that had belonged to a man named Raffaele Alonzo, who had paid $30 for a third-class ticket that had taken him to New York from Naples, Italy.
“He probably sat in steerage,” said Dr. Scelsa, a sociologist and professor emeritus at Queens College. “In those days, $30 was a lot of money.”
Those days will be celebrated beginning on Tuesday at the opening of the newly relocated Italian American Museum, at the site of what was once Banca Stabile, a bank used by Italian immigrants who flocked to Lower Manhattan in search of a better life. The bank operated from 1882 to 1932, when the area that would become known as Little Italy had one of the largest populations of Italian-Americans in the United States.
According to Scelsa - the museum's president - fewer than 1,000 Italian-Americans still live in Little Italy, adjacent to Chinatown, adding that the Stabile family was the community's financial engine.
In the bank’s vault, he discovered bankbooks filled with handwritten transactions, Italian and American money, steamship luggage tags from various passenger lines, cablegrams and a small revolver. In the bank itself, tellers' windows are marked in gold writing: Drafts-Money Orders, Foreign Exchange and Paying-Receiving.
The vault’s contents revealed that the neighborhood elite also banked with the Stabiles. A ledger card shows that Antonio Ferrara, who in 1892 founded the pastry shop that is still in business across the street, closed his account on Jan. 31, 1931, taking his $211,131 fortune with him. Before that, a telegraphic receipt from April 3, 1920, shows that Mr. Ferrara wired 75,000 lire from Banca Stabile to the Hotel Londres in Naples to reserve a vacation room there. Two years later, Mr. Ferrara bought two first-class steamship tickets from New York to Naples for a total of $110.
Museum board member Maria T. Fosco said that the neighborhood was a cluster of enclaves within an enclave; various streets represented various regions of the old country: Mulberry Street for those from Naples, Elizabeth Street for the Sicilians, Mott Street for the Calabrians, and north of Broome Street, for Bari.
“So if a boy from Mulberry Street married a girl from Elizabeth Street,” Ms. Fosco said with a grin, “that was considered a mixed marriage.”
If you are a New Yorker of any ethnicity, you've likely attended the annual San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy. Scelsa and Fosco said they were hoping that Thursday's popular festival opening would bring in descendants - who now live elsewhere - of these immigrants.
Funding - $9.4 million - was raised from city and state grants and contributions from museum trustees. The museum will be enlarged to 10,000 square feet over three lots which the Stabile family sold to the museum in June, including the bank building and two adjacent lots).
Retired surgeon Dr. Jerome Stabile III, 76, - great-grandson of the bank's founder - said everything in the bank building is original: “I never removed anything from the bank or its vault because I had hoped all along that the space would one day be used as something more significant than just a restaurant or some other store.”
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