New Jersey is a State that has always been of great interest to me. Ill-treated by the media, considered more provincial by Manhattan, it is instead not coincidentally called the Garden State, is home to one of the most prestigious universities in the world, Princeton, and has beautiful nature, especially in fall.
New Jersey is also the third largest State by percentage of Italian Americans, but the first two are Rhode Island and Connecticut, which are much smaller. It does not have one city that is definitely larger and more important than the others. There is, however, one city named after the state, Jersey City: and that is where we meet Lisa Collodoro, representing Italian Americans who gather at Casa Colombo.
Hi Lisa, please tell us about your Italian heritage
I was born in Gela, Sicily and immigrated to the USA in 1964. My family and I returned to Italy every four years and those summertime visits are among my fondest memories. Days spent at the beach with my cousins, making pizzas in the outdoor oven they had built, going to the countryside and building a fire pit to roast the baby artichokes and other delicacies are embedded in my DNA.
You are the Executive Director at The Italian Educational & Cultural Center/Center for the Arts at Casa Colombo. Tell us something about the history of this wonderful institution
IECC is the longest-running occupant, and current owner of Casa Colombo. Casa Colombo, a beautiful building that was built in Jersey City in 1936 by Italian immigrants, was originally built to educate American-born children of
Italian descent, the language, history and culture of Italy.
The IECC continued Casa Colombo’s original mission by providing various services: immigration assistance, social assistance, translations, counseling and advice on Italian pensions, social and cultural events and Italian language classes. Today, the IECC uses Casa Colombo to house an Italian Village Gallery, “Jersey City’s Italian Village: Our Common Core”, a Heritage Hall filled with donated Italian and Italian American artifacts, an immigration exhibit and an art gallery where we host monthly art exhibits.
What are the activities of the Italian Educational & Cultural Center?
We present a variety of programs throughout the year in our main art gallery featuring music, poetry, book readings, film screenings and other performing arts and a myriad of cultural events. We also have monthly art shows exhibiting local, national and international artists.
What is the Italian Village in Jersey City?
In Jersey City specifically, Italian immigrants settled in the part of Downtown that became known as the Italian Village, or the Village, which functioned as a cultural, social and recreational hub for the community. They formed a sense of community that has endured long after the time when Italian-Americans were the predominant group in the neighborhood.
And what about the Center for the Arts at Casa Colombo, where you are Art Gallery Director/Curator?
The Center for the Arts at Casa Colombo is situated in the heart of downtown
Jersey City where we have a very vibrant art scene. Every year the city hosts
JCAST which is the Jersey City Art and Studio Tour, a time when all the galleries and individual art studios open their doors to the public. We also have an annual art fair called ArtFair 14C, which brings thousands of people to Jersey City.
What’s the story of the Italian emigration in Jersey City?
The American economy during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was characterized by a period of extreme growth, driving demand for low-cost labor from abroad. Spurred to emigrate because of economic difficulties in Italy and the promise of financial opportunity abroad, Italian immigrants relocated to the industrial northeast in search of a better life. Strangers in a new land, these immigrants sought to replicate the sense of community they left behind and Jersey City became that place.
The IECC published a book called “Six Italian Americans who made a difference in Jersey City”. Please tell us about them
Our book, “Six Who Made a Difference” is about six people who had a willingness to challenge the status quo and to take calculated risks in order to rebuild outdated and dysfunctional structures. A push toward inclusion vs exclusion, and an impulse to serve the common good. Though their paths were diverse; law, medicine, immigrant and refugee work, human and social services, and arts and culture, their aim was one and the same, a drive for positive change. If you are interested in learning more or buying a copy of our
book, check it out here.
How is the export of Made in Italy in Jersey City? Is there room for more?
As far as food and wine, yes.
Your organization is called “Casa Colombo”. We’ve just passed another Columbus Day, and I can't help but ask you if Columbus is still celebrated in Jersey City, and what do you think about the attacks against him…
Yes, Jersey City still celebrates Columbus Day with a parade down Newark Avenue. As far as the attacks against him, things have quieted down a bit, though personally, I believe we should remember the past so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes.
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