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Italian-Americans Blast SoHo Jail Cell Art as an 'Insult' to Heritage

By Andrea Swalec | October 10, 2012 2:00pm

SOHO — Local Italian-American groups are crying foul over a replica of a Rikers Island jail cell set to arrive in Petrosino Square — blasting the installation as a disgrace to the park's namesake and New York's Italian history.

Italian-American advocates have started a petition urging the city Parks Department to stop a 9-foot-tall triangular cell from being installed in the park, which is dedicated to Lt. Giuseppe "Joseph" Petrosino, an Italian-American NYPD officer who fought organized crime at the turn of the century.

"To desecrate a park with a jail cell is outrageous, and it shouldn't be allowed," said John Fratta, a member of the Feast of San Gennaro board, who started the petition that had been signed by more than two-dozen people as of Wednesday afternoon.

"I think it's an insult to our Italian-American heritage."

Harlem artist Jessica Feldman told DNAinfo.com New York that her piece "The Glass Sea" is an interpretation of the living conditions of inmates and patients past and present on the islands that surround Manhattan, including Rikers Island, Governors Island, Randalls Island, Wards Island and Roosevelt Island.

Three people will be able to fit inside the low-ceilinged cell, which replaces another public-art installation at the triangular park, at the intersection of Spring Street, Lafayette Street and Cleveland Place.

But Bill Russo, membership chair of the Italian Heritage & Culture Committee of New York, said the placement of the art in Petrosino Square was insulting, especially during October, which is Italian Heritage and Culture Month.

"The feeling in the community is that this is inappropriate, especially now," he said.

Russo said he also worried that associating Italian-Americans with prison contributed to lasting stereotypes about the ethnic group.

"Our portrayal in the media is still of criminals or buffoons," he said.

Feldman said "The Glass Sea" is modeled after both jail cells and hospital rooms and was "in no way intended to disrespect the Italian-American community."

"The project is certainly not intended as a targeted critique of Lt. Petrosino, but as an invitation to consider the relationships between different practices of isolation in our city," she said in a statement.

Lifelong Lafayette Street resident Frank Alba, 41, said he hoped Italian-Americans would consider holding a protest in the park.

"I don't think that any letters or phone calls are going to stop this," he said. "Petrosino put his life on the line. Why can't we at least respect that?"

Petrosino immigrated to the U.S. from Salerno, Italy, in 1873 and led the NYPD's Italian Squad, which fought organized crime, according to the Parks Department's website. Under his command, more than 500 offenders were jailed and crimes against Italian-Americans dropped by half. He was killed in 1909 while on assignment in Sicily.

A Parks Department spokeswoman defended the placement of the replica jail cell, pointing out that the plaza where the art will be placed falls outside the boundaries of the fenced park named for Petrosino.

This latest selection of the agency's "Art in the Parks" program was approved by Community Board 2 and Friends of Petrosino Square, a spokeswoman said, and it follows 24 previous pieces of contemporary art that have been installed at the park since it was renamed for Petrosino in 1987.

The spokeswoman added that the Parks Department is working with Italian fraternal orders of police to commission markers to Petrosino that will be installed on the south end of the park.

Russo said he appreciated the effort to keep the officer's memory alive, but that the jail cell goes too far.

"We don't want prison cells," he said. "We want attention to who Joseph Petrosino was."