Luisa Russo

Interview by Valerie Russo / Edited by Leah Shaw

Watching Neighborhoods Change

Luisa Micelli Russo is the daughter of two Italian immigrants from Ischia, a small island off of Naples . . .and a born and bred Brooklynite. “You can tell by my accent,“ she told her daughter, Valerie Russo, who interviewed her.

Luisa Russo’s mother came to the U.S. at 2 years old but when the time came to get married, her mother took her home to Italy for an arranged marriage with the man who would become Luisa’s father. A month and a half later the two were married.

Russo, the second of two daughters, grew up in Carroll Gardens. Her father was a construction worker and during the downturn of the economy in the 1970’s, he was out of work for 3-4 years. He got a job for a while at a second cousin’s fruit stand. “I remember seeing hunger in those days,” she said, “even as a child (and in those days children didn’t know what was going on with their parents). I remember the feeling of fear of not having enough to eat.”

Her mother used to make a meal of leftover tomato sauce, four eggs and all the leftover hard bread they had over the week. “Our meal was hard stale bread, one hard boiled egg and tomato sauce for dinner. That is a poor man’s meal,” she said. “Even as a child, I knew we were poor.”

When she was in elementary school, Russo remembers an influx of new Italian immigrant children. “Every few months, a new Italian kid was sitting next to me,” she said. Even though she only spoke the Neapolitan dialect mixed with English, because she was one of the top students, “the teachers would put the new immigrant students next to me to teach them English,” she remembers. “I was a free tutor, in other words.”

So while her elementary school was almost completely Italian, “there was a real disparity in Brooklyn then,” she said. When she got to her junior high school, it was predominantly black. She remembers that the only classes that had white kids in them were the SP classes—the top classes.

It was right after the Civil Rights Movement and there was a lot of racial antagonism between black students and Italian immigrant students. She was picked on by a number of the black girls…but couldn’t tell her father. Why? “He was very strict and he said, ‘if you ever got into a fight at school, you are going to get it—a beating.’”

Looking back, Russo said, “it was really sad….we didn’t know black culture…” she said, except for one black teacher she had in 4th grade and later for 6th grade, who taught them about the history of black Americans. She was her favorite teacher, “but that was the only black person I had contact with before that,” she said.

But by the time she had grown up and was living with her own family in Red Hook, the racial and ethnic antagonisms had died down and families were getting along and mixing in the multiethnic neighborhood.

But for Russo, the biggest threat to the neighborhood is gentrification. Russo has watched the neighborhoods she has lived in–Carroll Gardens and Red Hook–change as people with money have bought up buildings where working class and poor people live. “These people are coming in and paying $1.2 million for a floor in a brownstone. Do these people know what $1.2 million is?” Most people she grew up with can no longer afford to live in these communities. Because of the skyrocketing rents, “there’s no place to call home.”

Carroll Gardens
Luisa Russo grew up in Carroll Gardens, a neighborhood filled with working class Italian-American families. By the 90’s, pushed out by gentrification, she moved east to Red Hook, on the waterfront. In 2002, by that time a single mother, she moved with her three kids to Gravesend, for the schools. She has watched gentrification spread all over Brooklyn.