Sunday, February 27, 2022

Sad Neighborhood News: On The Passing Of Celia Cacace

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Celia Cacace (in red) on a visit back to "South Brooklyn in 2015.

UPDATE
A mass for Celia (Cecilia ) Maniero Cacace will be held on Thursday, May 19th at 10:00 AM at Sacred Hearts & St. Stephens Church, located at 125 Summit St. (between Hicks and Henry Street).

This afternoon, I received some very sad news. Celia Cacace, who was born and raised in what she continued to call South Brooklyn/Red Hook long after others had renamed it Carroll Gardens, passed away yesterday.

I received the sad news from Michael Jaworski, her nephew. who wrote:
"I wanted you to know that my Aunt Celia passed away yesterday, the 26th of February 2022. Her son Robert and daughter -in- law Anna were there at the time of her passing in Colorado. For some time my aunt's health has been failing and yesterday, she slipped away peacefully. She was a huge force in South Brooklyn in the 1970's, 80's and 90's. Her interaction with the Community Board and CB6 as well as the Brooklyn President were instrumental in keeping South Brooklyn (Carroll Gardens) in line with the times.
I wanted you and the readers to know of her passing.
"

Celia Cacace (nee Maniero) was fiercely loyal to South Brooklyn.  She watched out for our seniors, got involved in every issue and gladly shared her vast knowledge of the neighborhood's history. She seemed to be at every meeting, whether it was at Public School 58, the 76th Precinct Community Council, or at Community Board 6 where she was a member for many years. She always took copious notes with her multi colored pens and asked her famous four point questions.

When people referred to our neighborhood as Carroll Gardens, she immediately corrected them. "Call it Red Hook or South Brooklyn, the way it used to be called. The other name was invented by realtors who wanted to gentrify this neighborhood back in the 60's"

She was once famously quoted in the New York Times, foreshadowing the changes that would come to her beloved South Brooklyn, saying: "I don't care if they are yuppies, puppies or guppies moving in. Gentrification is not going to be good for us."

Her pronouncement foreshadowed the fact that Celia become a victim of gentrification herself.  After an entire life spent in South Brooklyn, she had to move to Wisconsin and then to Colorado to live with her son after she lost her apartment and was priced out of the community. Her departure was bitter sweet.

For a few years, Celia came back to her old neighborhood to spent some time with friends.  I always loved running into her on Court Street.
When we realized that it had been some time since we had heard from her, my husband Glenn reached out 
to her in late January and had a lovely conversation with her. I am glad they connected.

Celia was one of a kind. Though she never held public office, she was always watching out for her community and was not afraid to stand up for what she believed was the right thing to do.
She was fearless.

In the past few years, I often wondered what Celia would have said about the massive Gowanus rezoning and the City's insistence of building residential apartment towers on Public Place, one of the most polluted sites in New York State. I am not sure she followed events from out West, but I know she would have had lots to say about these issues.

I will miss her very much and would like to extend my condolences to Celia's family

According to her nephew Michael, Celia will be laid to rest in Greenwood Cemetery next to her son Gregory and my Uncle Joey in the family plot.  

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Celia Cacace as a Child in Red Hook
(Cacace family photo)
Celia Cacace (on the right) with former Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden (on left) at the Carroll Park re-opening ceremony in the 1980's.
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Celia at Community Board 6's Christmas Party in 2011
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At the Veterans Day Celebration in Carroll Park

Below is a lovely biography on Celia by her friend Carolina Salguero, founder and director of PortSide NewYork,

Celia Maniero Cacace
Fearless, feisty, loving and frank
A champion of our community's weaker members
by Carolina Salguero
Celia Maniero Cacace is the mother and walking memory of the neighborhood she still calls South Brooklyn Red Hook; that's Carroll Gardens, Columbia Waterfront District and Red Hook for those of you got here after the 1960's.
To walk Court Street with the diminutive, doting Celia is to feel in the presence of a community Mayor. She's stopped every few feet or hailed from across the street by seniors or children to share news or advice. 
Having served as a one-woman social service agency for decades, 77-year old Celia is now in need of some help herself. She is obliged to move from her apartment since the building is being sold, and she needs to find that rare, inexpensive place in a neighborhood where prices have soared beyond the fixed incomes of seniors. Know someone who wants a granny au pair, or granny doorman? A committee is forming to help her find a place; and if need be, help launch some fundraising to cover the gap between her fixed income and the rent. She moves out of her current place on January 14 to her son's in Wisconsin. 
We are organizing a send off party for Celia and a campaign to bring her back. That kicks off Sunday January 1/13/13. (Details at bottom) Everyone is invited. Please bring a memory of Celia if you can.
Celia's life and prodigious memory describe a time when people stayed in a neighborhood—Celia has lived her whole life in 8 apartments within a 10 block radius— and when this area was largely Italian, as far back as when Italians still faced discrimination as the new immigrants.
Even today, Celia's back straightens as she says, "my older sister Jennie was one of the first Italian-Americans to knock down the walls on Wall Street. She was an amazing mathematician."
Celia is the 8th child of nine, of parents from the Island of Ischia in Italy. Her mother worked as a governess in France before emigrating to the United States. With pride, Celia says her mother gave birth to her last child at 51. The family was displaced from 107 Rapelye Street for the construction of the BQE, an early experience with public works which might be what sharpened Celia's ability to analyze land use issues.
Tomboy Celia broke her nose and ran with the boys until she was married in 1960 to the boy next door Joseph Cacace.
She had two sons, Gregory and Robert, and was widowed early in 1979.
Over the years, Celia's community service had formal and informal components.
She served for more than twenty years as an active member of Community Board 6, on the Housing, Human Services, Economic development, Land Use, Landmark, Transportation, and City Properties Committees. Celia has been recognized for her perfect attendance at CB6 meetings, which demonstrated her serious purpose and commitment to her appointment to the Community Board. Aside from keeping meticulous meeting notes in her famous black and white copy books in multiple color inks, Celia is also remembered for her "compound questions", as City Council member Brad Lander has noted.
Celia's role in CB6 and other public meetings was often the voice speaking truth to power. Her private good works took the form of tending to the community's weaker members without fanfare or public acknowledgement.
That work followed the rhythms of the pre-blog, air conditioning and play date era when life was lived and information exchanged on the stoop and playgrounds, in street festivals and over laundry lines strung behind the brownstones. Someone needing help would be told "go see Celia."
Her helping likely began, she's not keeping track, with coordinating summer jobs for youth of Italian American Club of South Brooklyn which had her run clean up crews for the annual Feast of Our Lady of Sorrow. That Feast began around 1945 and ran from Kane to Summit Street. Celia joined the tradition in the 1960s, and worked it until its waning years on Court Street in the 1980s. She found work for youth, and for adults, in the booths, worked with Sanitation to keep the feast site clean and well run and prevented fights between the teens.
Over the decades, she would get summer jobs for teens. She was firm about the rules. "You gotta get your parents to talk to me, kid", to make sure they approved, "faccia a faccia" ("face to face" in Italian). All her serious business is done faccia a faccia; forget the phone.
During the 70s and early 80s, she organized festivals in Carroll Park with clowns, concerts and DJs. Ever inclusive, she arranged for teens to have DJ time, and insisted they play some of everyone's music, Italian, Puerto Rican, rock n roll and oldies. She also allowed teens to DJ before the feast and procession, cannily roping in and managing the younger generation. 
"If they blasted the music, they had to account to me since I was the person speaking for them. I had a nice rapport, I never pointed my finger at them. If I had to talk to someone, I would walk them down the block and talked to them privately. If you talk to them in front of the other kids, then they would rank them out."
Celia also helped reactivate the original Society of Mother Cabrini of South Brooklyn, their feast and procession. Celia has that rare combination of deep pride in her identity (a layering of family, ethnicity, neighborhood) and the ability to simultaneously support others affirming their own, plus the smarts to understand that everyone needs to be included for a community to work.
Ever the intermediary between groups, she facilitated special events like the 100th anniversary for the Norwegian Seaman's Church (now condos), coordinating between the Scandinavians, the Italians and the police; and helped arrange donations for many churches not her own.
By the 1990s, she was ensconced at a desk at Postal Press on Court Street, where I first spotted her when I went in for photo copies. Her small head would pop up from behind a desk piled high with clippings from local papers. I observed a steady stream of people coming in to have hushed consultations over the counter with her: problems with bad landlords, unfair evictions, seniors who didn't understand their meds and had Celia be a liaison with the pharmacist, older Italians needing translation help, teens looking for jobs, people who needed help with city permits or were stymied by bureaucracy, or were just overwhelmed for whatever reason.
By the 2000's, I would catch up with Celia at Joe's Restaurant on Court Street, where she spent hours every morning cutting clippings from local papers and serving as on-the-spot greeter, advisor and nanny. Many a weekend morning, I saw young parents come in for brunch and sit frazzled by their children. Celia would step in with toys she bought on sale or at stoop sales and then boiled and bleached at home. I could see parents relax and see them find time for one another as the tikes' action was transferred to Celia.
Celia's beef with the term "Carroll Gardens" is that she remembers the slight to her pride.
This area was once redlined, her own family could not get a loan; and real estate brokers and other activists invented the term in the 60's to help market the brownstone area and delineate it from what is now called Red Hook "across the tracks" of the BQE. Rather than rebranding where she lived and pulling away from others, Celia preferred to help get jobs for people from "the Hook" and to wear a t-shirt "I live in South Brooklyn Red Hook not Carroll Gardens and I'm proud of it." It's a "love us for who we are, not who you want us to be" approach. She delivers a lot of love on the ground.
Several years back, I and Allison Prete, the director of the documentary film about the Gowanus Canal "Lavender Lake" agreed that someone should make a documentary about Celia Cacace. Her stories, meeting notes and clippings are legion. As her apartment is being packed up, some 40 bankers' boxes have already been transferred to an archivist, journalist and local historian. 
Celia Cacace is mother and memory of this community which needs her as much as she needs to be here. 
Did Celia Cacace live in your house? Local addresses of Celia Cacace.
107 Rapelye Street 288 Van Brunt Street 28 First Place 64 Third Place 252 President Street 271 Union Street 285 President Street 83 First Place.

10 comments:

Glenn Kelly said...

Such sad news. I had a lovely lengthy conversation with her just a few weeks ago and promised I would call back so that Katia could speak with her as well. Carolina suggested a zoom birthday party for her to let her know she was missed here and I was looking forward to that. I had just thought of it again this morning when Katia received the news. I'm glad though, that she is coming back to Brooklyn, to Greenwood which I visit frequently and where I will pay my respects.

G.Puleo said...

I will always remember Celia keeping an eye out for us neighborhood kids. RIP Celia, you will always be a neighborhood icon 😘

Unknown said...

My heartfelt condolences to Celia's famiy. It was aways wonderful to run into her - no one was more passionate and knowedgeable about the goings on in the neighborhood - yes, she always referred to it as Red Hook! Rest in peace in Greenwood, Celia. You're coming back to the Brooklyn you loved. Love, Margaret

Anonymous said...

I did not know her but had heard about her for years. I'm sorry I never knew her and am bery sorry for her family's and the neighborhood's loss.

Unknown said...

I participated in several Community Board 6 committees for many years, any of which would bring me in contact with Celia. She had an outsized impact on everyone who knew her, and thus on the community she loved & protected. Her family had a huge blessing in her presence, & so all the greater loss. Sorry for your loss. Cherish the reveries & recognize that light when it's reflected in others. 🌙

Maria Pagano said...

So very sorry to hear of Celia's passing! Everyone who knew Celia knew certain things for sure: She was proud, scrappy,(even fierce), vibrant and vigilant, our own bit of the mother with eyes in the back of her head. She had a confidence born of truth- her truth, that the good life was made up of the "old school values": family, work and neighborhood.
I learned a lot from Celia- as a newbie (newcomer in 1979),I was drawn into city life as it worked in blue collar Brooklyn. At first intimidated by Celia's outspoken, voluble comments, I learned that as long as I was honest and upfront with her, we could understand each other with no trouble.
As she, the indomitable fighter for the rights of others, got tossed out of the neighborhood by forces she could not change, I,too searched for that one. Safe. Clean. Affordable. Apartment where she could live. When that didn't happen, we set up the farewell party. I first mourned the loss of Celia when she moved- she was so much a part of the life of the 'nabe. Others have written beautifully of her no nonsense love of the place she, and now we, call home. AS the Great One wrote, "She may be but little, but she be fierce!" Rest in peace, Fierce One!
Maria Pagano

Mike C. said...

I remember bringing my young son to school everyday at P.S.58. Each morning we would stop at the coffee shop on the corner for breakfast. Cecilia was always there. There were times when she saw that I had to leave for work, and she would say, "Go. I have him. I'll make sure he gets to school safely". I will never forget Cecilia and how she freely gave her love and support to my son and I all during his elementary school years. Rest In Peace...
Much Love, Allison Conte

Beverly DiCovello said...

RIP CELIA. Missed by many. Enjoyed your company at Eileen Dugan Amico senoor center joining doing Current Events. Entertaining n dancing. Your inputs on necessary community problems. She attended and was spokeperson at CGNA meetings, CB6, TriBlock. She reached out and helped many and community personally with problems- communicating with Leaders in our District.

eric richmond said...

a welcoming presence upon arrival in "south brooklyn" in the late 80s. and one of a kind. she will be missed.

Thomas J. Russo said...

There you are Celia, the right-most of the three kneeling students in the photo of our class play, The Hazards of Fire, at PS 142 from around 1944. You are in a raincoat costume as is more than half of the class. There I am, similarly costumed, the left-most student in the back row. I am labelled "Sonny" although you never knew me by that name. A year or so later, we did a play where many of the boys held (wooden) swords and the girls wore gowns. There you are wearing a sort of floral crown and a smile. To your right is red-haired and freckle-faced Felicia Zumbo (she moved away before graduating from 142). Behind Felicia is Lucy Scivoletto, already on the way to becoming a dark-haired Italian beauty. A 1950 Census document shows a 14-yr-old Lucy still living on Second Place. My last school play photo, from about 1946, shows us as pilgrims. There you are holding hands aloft with Edward Straka. Behind you is Dominick Yodice who later told me Eddie had died some years ago. Dominick seems to be gazing sadly across the room perhaps to Phyllis Caminiti whose royal bearing is evident in all three of these old photos
Later, you went to Bay Ridge High School and I went to Brooklyn Tech. Was it in the 1970's or '80's that I learned you had become a neighborhood celebrity and found you on a visit to Red Hook. I've lost you again, Celia. -Tom Russo tjr4@psu.edu