Once Upon a Movie Theater: The Story of Belmont Library
Nestled on a small tree-lined side street just off Arthur Avenue in "the heart of Little Italy, the Bronx" rests the Belmont Library and Enrico Fermi Cultural Center, proudly celebrating 30 years of service this fall. "What the Hester and Mott Street corner is to Little Italy in Manhattan," wrote the New York Times in 1980, "the Arthur Avenue and East 187th Street corner is to the Italian shopping district in the Bronx. It is a central location." The anachronistic neighborhood radiates with old-world flavor: the yeasty smell of baking semolina bread, savory meats and cheeses, and percolating coffee. "Even if you've never lived there, if you grew up in a similar neighborhood in the '30s, '40s, '50s or even '60s, it's the type of place that makes you feel nostalgic," writes Il Progresso. "The area is a throwback to another time."
Directly adjacent to the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, an indoor culinary shopping center established by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1940, the Library epitomizes a community institution. But before the building opened its doors as the Belmont Library in 1981, the structure housed a very different kind of cultural commodity: Cinelli's Savoy Theatre, or, as it was fondly referred to by local residents, "the Dumps." Cowboy television shows and 3-D science fiction movies reigned at the Dumps during the 1940s and 50s, where, as Stephen M. Samtur and Paula DeMarts Mastroianni recall in their book, Little Italy of the Bronx: Belmont & Arthur Avenue, "Entire Saturday afternoons were spent there — cartoons, serial story installments, newsreels, and finally one or two "B" movies — all for the price of a quarter! Sitting in the back rows, old ladies could be seen shelling peas for that night's supper."
Sadly, by 1970 the theater had shuttered its windows, the empty building quickly transforming into a "glaring example of community decay and a source of community resentment." The Italo-American Times reported in 1971 that the Savoy had become "a dangerous attraction for neighborhood youngsters who climb its walls and roofs during the daytime, and a center of activity for muggers and addicts who prowl its recesses during the night."
Many of the neighborhood's Italian residents and community groups coalesced around the possibility of creating an Italian cultural heritage and resource center in the area. Momentum built rapidly, with more than four dozen Bronx organizations and several elected officials on board. By 1970, monies totaling more than one million dollars were put in place for a library and cultural center.
The battle had been won, but the war was not over: with the city's subsequent fiscal crisis, construction was delayed several years. A Borough President's Advisory Committee for the Belmont Library and Cultural Center was established, consisting of more than 75 prominent members of the Italian-American community in New York City, and extensive lobbying was done in Washington. The New York Public Library, which was then sending a Bookmobile to the Belmont neighborhood, was approached with the idea of housing a full-service branch under the same roof as the cultural center. With funding and plans in order, construction finally began in 1978, and the Library's ribbon-cutting ceremony took place May 3, 1980, during Italian Heritage and Culture Week.
The Belmont Library and Enrico Fermi Cultural Center officially opened its doors to the public September 14, 1981. The Cultural Center is named for the Nobel Prize-winning Italian physicist who fled Facism and took refuge in the United States in 1938, where he would create the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction and foment the atomic age. Far from the dangerous streets of the late 70s, the Belmont neighborhood was, in 1983, rated by the Figgie Report as the safest community in the country, according to Good Housekeeping magazine.
Alongside NYPL's landmark Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, Belmont Library also celebrates an anniversary this year: 30 years of service to a thriving, diverse, and ever-evolving neighborhood. Under the sponsorship of the Enrico Fermi Cultural Committee, the Library has hosted dignitaries, esteemed artists, and performers through the years, including Italian heads of state, doo-wop singer Dion DiMucci (of "Runaround Sue" and "The Wanderer" fame), historian Lloyd Ultan, and many borough presidents, councilmen, pianists, and Italian opera singers.
And, of course, Belmont Library also boasts all the benefits of a neighborhood library: computer access, popular new DVD, CD, and book releases, free programming, and knowledgeable staff. The Library additionally holds the largest circulating collection of books in Italian as well as a special Italian Heritage Collection. You can also like Belmont Library on Facebook and follow us on Twitter (@BelmontNYPL)!
We hope, dear reader, that you'll take the time to visit Belmont Library and its charming surroundings — you may find yourself checking out some cannolis in addition to your next good read!