Register Tuesday | December 7 | 2021

The Italians, the French and the Catholic Shrines of Brooklyn

At Court Street and Fourth Place is the Van Westerhout Cittadini Molesi Social Club’s Madonna Addolorata

Jesus has risen again on Brooklyn’s Wyckoff Street. His hand outstretched toward passersby, Christ silently sermonizes from a lightbox that both protects him from the elements and casts a holy aura around his colorfully-painted, ceramic torso. He’s also a home improvement with which the Joneses can’t keep up — the small stone statue next door (it looks a little like popular images of St. Francis of Assisi) is literally outshined and overshadowed by the devotionally double-padlocked shrine that’s built around him.

Wyckoff Street is technically in Cobble Hill, a largely gentrified slice of brownstone Brooklyn bordering tony Brooklyn Heights. Further south is Carroll Gardens, where awnings grow more metallic, siding more aluminum, and residents are more consistently old timers, many of them Italian. Carroll Gardens has seen its share of wealthier newcomers, too, but not to the extent of Cobble Hill.

The density of its shrines is a testament. Spreading out in Carroll Gardens’ unusually spacious front lawns (which give the neighborhood the second half of its name), boldly occupying prime real estate even on Court Street, one of the area’s main drags, Catholic iconography stands guard against the aesthetic imperatives of newcomers whose taste for prosciutto is more affected than acculturated.

Though part of a country where Catholics didn’t form the religious majority for well over a century, Carroll Gardens’ devotion to the Church of Rome began much earlier. Named for Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, it was first settled by an early wave of Irish Americans. St. Paul Church, properly considered to be in Cobble Hill, is the oldest continuously operating Catholic place of worship in Brooklyn (though a plaque on its wall claims the more extravagant honor of being the oldest Catholic church in New York State).

The long front gardens separating the neighborhood’s rowhouses from the street appeared in 1846. They also predate the Italian presence (as did an interlude of Norwegian protestants, whose community was large enough to elicit a visit from the Scandinavian country’s king) but only with the return of a Catholic majority did the neighborhood’s front lawns start to live up to their potential. Today, saintly icons are rarely their only adornment — the gardens and lawns are practically the only place in brownstone Brooklyn where you’ll find such a surfeit of lawn kitsch, from Halloween scarecrows to inflatable Santas.

Longtime Italian residents’ penchant for homeownership (and their own rising incomes) have probably decreased the odds that Carroll Gardens’ remaining quirks will fall entirely to the renter-class that’s propagated Brooklyn’s homogeneous brand of hip, even if Court Street is being increasingly peppered with foodie scene restaurants and hipster boutiques, like one recent arrival that sells a combination of espresso and LPs. Instead, a more surprising challenge to the Italians’ cultural hegemony over Carroll Gardens has emerged: the influx of another European ethnic group.

A memorial labeled “Saint Lucy in Memory of Tuddy Balsamo” occupies an entire front garden at Court and Third Place

Since the late 1990s, an increasing number of French expats have shown a preference for making both Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens their home. Pasta restaurants, pizza shops, and Italian delis still predominate along Court Street, but nearby Smith Street, a block away, has become a bastion of bistros. Sandboxes set up for pétanque now shut the street down every Bastille Day.

Sophisticated Gauls weren’t exactly drawn to the neighborhood by the charm of red-nosed Rudolphs casting their ruby beacons down residential streets every Christmastime; a bilingual program offered by a local public school that would allow their children to remain immersed in la belle langue for free was what caught their eye. The programs have since sprouted at other schools citywide, but Carroll Gardens retains the largest number of French residents. According to the French Embassy, 3,000 Gallic families have settled there in the last ten years.

“Vive le Carroll Gardens!” was how the New York Daily News welcomed the growth of Brooklyn’s flourishing francophone epicenter, taking note that most of the neighborhood’s Italian businesses were taking the influx in stride, importing French favorites to sell along with mainstays from the mezzogiorno. Few local residents seem to be raising a fuss about a cultural deluge changing the neighborhood — or about the rising prices that typically accompany increased interest.

That may be because the Italian presence in Carroll Gardens has done more than secure its physical presence alone. Members of the neighborhood’s deeply traditional Italian social clubs — recent Italian immigrant men very welcome, but women sometimes not allowed — are determined to make the world aware of their continued predominance. A Sicilian club’s initiative resulted in part of Henry Street being renamed “Citizens of Pazzalo Way;” more recently, members of the Van Westerhout Cittadini Molesi Social Club, which maintains one of the largest shrines on Court Street, pushed to rename their block after Mola di Bari, the single town in southern Italy where many of Carroll Gardens’ most recent wave of Italians emigrated from in the 1960s and 70s.

All the subtle territorialism and exclusivity aside, Carroll Gardens’ latest arrivals seem more than comfortable among their new neighbors. The neighborhood’s shrines are as far from sources of friction as local store shelves’ proportion of gorgonzola to gruyère. While the French are products of a very different Europe than the one the men of Mola left behind — one that’s now trending more toward laïcité than liturgy — they’re also used to reveling in worldly activities in the shadows of their own religious monuments. They continue to do so in Carroll Gardens, where many of the faddish new beer gardens gentrifiers favor often fill the same long front gardens abutting those still populated by icons of Christian art.

From Urban Photo. Follow Szabla on Twitter.

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