A week before Christmas, when the New York sun is perpetually in your eyes, I was standing in a crowd at the corner of Henry & DeGraw Streets, an intersection that was about to be dedicated to the memory of Mary Crisalli Sansone.
While we squinted into the distance waiting for Mayor DeBlasio to show up, it occurred to me that when Mary Sansone was born in 1916, women couldn’t vote. Much has changed, of course. However…While women are 51% of the US population, they make up only 27% of Congress, 30% of statewide elected executives of any kind, 31% of the largest cities’ mayors, and 0% of elected Presidents.
Suddenly Comptroller-elect Brad Lander was at the lectern, feeling nostalgia for all the street re-namings he’s attended over the past twelve years, followed by Councilmember Dominic Recchio apologizing for this renaming taking three years to accomplish, and then Mayor DeBlasio was there, towering over Mary’s daughter, Carmela. As he droned on, I wondered if Henry Street had originally been named for the Oh Henry! candy bar. I pulled out an almost obsolete iPhone 6 and learned the ground on which we all stood had been named for Thomas Henry, a prominent physician in the 1820s who treated the early aristocracy of Brooklyn Heights. Next I tried DeGraw Street: named for a 1700s land-owner.
Mary spent her youth just west of DeGraw at 489 Henry Street in a row house bought by her grandfather in 1919. The 1930 Census found 26 members of the Crisalli clan occupying that four-story building (dwindling to 20 by 1940), still standing tall amidst an area then considered the heart of Italian Brooklyn. In many ways, Mary became the heart and soul of the Italian diaspora of New York. In the 1960s, together with her husband, Zachary, she founded the Congress of Italian American Organizations (CIAO). CIAO opened day care, senior and social service centers throughout the city and became one of New York’s largest social service agencies.
That’s when the Mob and the Politicos came calling. Mary courageously rebuffed Joe Columbo – then trying to co-opt CIAO as a feel-good propaganda front to cancel out his Mafia mayhem – but she embraced Italian Mayors Giuliani and DeBlasio. As my late brother-in-law Carl Aloisio used to say as we drained beers arguing Beatles vs. Stones: “Menza Menz.”
When Zachary died in 2010, Councilman Recchia’s proposal to rename 59th Street in Borough Park was tabled after some members pointed to Zachary’s stint in Mussolini’s army as a draftee during WWII. Mary’s service in the Red Cross during the War and her husband’s post-war work rebuilding Sant’ Antonio Abate outside Naples balanced that out. Plus, Mary was a fierce advocate for her spouse. In the end he got a whole block named for him.
Today, Mary got just an intersection.