Il Centro is bellissimo!
Bellissimo, the Italian word for beautiful, was the most commonly used phrase uttered by lawmakers and civic leaders who came to Bensonhurst on June 21 to help the Federation of Italian American Organizations (FIAO) mark the grand opening of Il Centro, a new cultural, educational and recreational center.
The English translation for Il Centro is “The Center.”
Hundreds of well wishers crowded into the auditorium for a dedication ceremony hosted by FIAO President Carlo Scissura and Chairperson Jack Spatola. The crowd then spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of the building at 8711 18th Ave. to see Scissura, Spatola, former New York State First Lady Matilda Cuomo, local elected officials and other dignitaries cut the ribbon to mark the official opening.
Il Centro is the first Italian cultural center to open in New York City. “It took the Italians in Bensonhurst to put this together,” said Scissura, who is the president of the New York Building Congress.
New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli described Il Centro as “the Italian’s community gift back to the borough.”
The community center, which took more than two decades to plan, fund and construct, actually opened earlier this year, but FIAO officials held off on a grand opening so that the ceremony could take place in warm weather.
The six-story, 44,000-square-foot Il Centro houses classrooms, an interactive learning library, a fitness center, a gymnasium, an auditorium and an indoor pool on the fifth floor that boasts floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides offering breathtaking views of Bensonhurst, Coney Island and the Manhattan skyline.
English language lessons, yoga, swimming programs, dance lessons and history classes are among the activities offered in the community center.
The goal of having a cultural center is to promote a sense of pride in the residents of Bensonhurst, according to Spatola, a longtime educator who serves as principal of P.S. 172 in Sunset Park.
“What is the purpose? To basically be proud of your heritage. Please join us in keeping and preserving the rich culture that each of us has. A house is just a structure unless there is a family inside,” he said.
The building also serves as the official headquarters for the FIAO, which moved from its former offices at 7403 18th Ave. and set up shop there.
New York City re-named a mile-long portion of 18th Avenue “Cristoforo Colombo Boulevard” more than 20 years ago to honor Christopher Columbus as a tribute to what was then a large Italian-American community in Bensonhurst.
But the opening of Il Centro comes at a time when Bensonhurst has seen enormous changes in its cultural landscape. While the community maintains a sizeable and vibrant Italian-American population, it is now a mixture of residents of several nationalities, primarily Chinese.
People from Russia, Central America and the Middle East have also been moving into Bensonhurst in large numbers taking the place of Italians who have moved out.
Scissura and Spatola mentioned the ethnic changes in their opening remarks and both sought to reassure the community that everyone will be welcomed at Il Centro.
“Il Centro serves all immigrants, no matter where you came from. We all came from someplace else,” Scissura said.
“It cannot only be for the Italian-American community,” Spatola said.
The FIAO, which was founded in 1977, provides educational programs, immigration assistance and social service referrals to more than 15,000 people a year. The organization also operates several after-school centers where more than 10,000 children play sports and get homework help.
The FIAO is the sponsor of the annual Brooklyn Columbus Day Parade, which takes place every year on 18th Avenue.