Brooklyn Chamber’s Carlo Scissura knows Bensonhurst.
A Dyker Heights resident who grew up in the neighborhood, Scissura has served on Community Board 11, Community School Board 20, and Community Education Council 20. He also made his mark in local politics on the staffs of Vincent Gentile (during his State Senate days) and Assemblyman Peter Abbate. Most recently, he served as chief of staff to former Borough President Marty Markowitz.
In 2012, Scissura was seen as a likely frontrunner to replace Markowitz as borough president, but dropped out of the race to head the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, one of the fastest growing business advocacy and economic development organizations in New York State. Scissura is credited with revitalizing the Chamber, advancing the Brooklyn brand, and pushing to include less hip neighborhoods in the borough’s booming economy. In the last year, the Chamber has launched the craft beverage festival CHEERS NY at Industry city, created a snazzy new Explore Brooklyn tourism guide, and formed key partnerships with Google and Airbnb.
Scissura is also the president of the Federation of Italian-American Organizations (FIAO), where he is spearheading the building of Il Centro, an Italian cultural community center on 18th Avenue set to open in 2016. Despite his busy schedule, Scissura agreed to chat with us about southern Brooklyn’s business economy, FIAO, and why Bensonhurst in awesome:
1. So you are from the neighborhood… Tell us a little about yourself.
Born and raised in Bensonhurst. My parents came there probably in the late-60s from Italy, and it was during the time when there was a big wave of Italian immigration to that area. So I grew up there, went to local schools, and spent most of my life there.
2. What is special about Bensonhurst?
I think the best thing is that it will always be an immigrant community. And it doesn’t matter what the immigrants look like, or where they’re from. But it will always be a great immigrant community, and I think that’s what excites me the most about the neighborhood.
3. Over the summer, the Chamber published an assessment of Brooklyn’s economy. Can you share some of the study’s findings in relation to the business economy in Bensonhurst and the rest of southern Brooklyn?
I think one of the things that came out the most is that we are retail starved. So we need more stores. A perfect example is the whole Waldbaums thing on New Utrecht Avenue. And we are working now diligently to make sure that site remains a supermarket, because it’s too important of a site.
And that’s just one example. We need more stores, we clearly need more jobs in southern Brooklyn. We need more schools in southern Brooklyn. I was proud that during my years on the school board and on the community education council, I was able to get the largest capital investment of any district into district 20 and which you now see all those schools being built, and that’s very exciting.
4. If someone is starting a small business, why should they join the Chamber?
We’re a mix: big business, small business, and everything in between. So we’re basically to help your business grow regardless how big you are or how small you are. Obviously, as a southern Brooklyn resident, I’ve been doing a big push to get more of that community into the Chamber.
I’m also working on Il Centro, which will be an Italian community and cultural center in the area, so that will be a big boon to the Bensonhurst area. And we’re working with merchants to restart a merchant’s association on 18th Avenue, put some money into community resources there. So it’s really a mix of everything.
5. There’s been some handwringing over the changing neighborhood — particularly in the comments on Bensonhurst Bean. Folks are worried that the bulk of the Italian American community is dying out or moving away. As president of FIAO, has the organization’s mission shifted at all, and what are your thoughts on the future of Italian culture in Bensonhurst?
I think our mission is to serve all. For me it doesn’t mater if your from Italy, Russia, or China — we’re here to serve you, and were here to help students and after school programs. We’re here to help seniors. And yes, there will be a cultural component that will be Italian — and that’s as it should be.
As for people who comment about the changing neighborhood, it changed 45 years ago when my parents and that generation came. And people said, “Oh my God, these Italians, what are they doing here?” Change is part of New York City. I’m a product of that immigration wave and I’m proud of it. If people don’t want things to change, they should move! They shouldn’t stay put. But when you move, things change, and that’s OK; it’s a good thing.
You know, I shop in southern brooklyn a lot, and I was on recently on 18th Avenue at Bari’s Pork Store, which is an old-school Italian sausage shop with deep roots in the neighborhood. Then, right down the block, I notice this very cool, very trendy coffee shop. I go inside and I see tons of young people — Italian, Asian, Hispanic — sitting there on their laptops and mobile devices. It was amazing to see, because young people are realizing that Bensonhurst is a transportation center. Who wouldn’t want to live here? Anyone who says Bensonhurst’s days are over are living in the past.