Forty years ago, Tim Law, head of the Chinese American Social Services Center, and Joseph Rizzi, director of external affairs at the Federation of Italian-Americans of Brooklyn, forged a friendship while working at the city Department of Education.

“We know each other from different lifetimes,” Rizzi says. 

LONGTIME TIES: Joseph Rizzi of the Federation of Italian-Americans of Brooklyn, center, speaks alongside Tim Law of the Chinese American Social Services Center.

This old friendship is bringing the Chinese and Italian communities of Bensonhurst together in new ways. 

Law and Rizzi, Bensonhurst residents themselves, recognized a need for stronger ties as more Chinese immigrants moved into a once predominantly white neighborhood that was home to Brooklyn’s Little Italy. 

When both men found themselves working in leadership positions in the neighborhood, they decided to bring the two groups together, attending each other’s meetings and encouraging more integrated events.  

Over recent decades, the growth of the Chinese community in Bensonhurst brought changes similar to those in lower Manhattan, where the city’s oldest Chinatown expanded and the Little Italy section beside it shrank.

Squeezed out of Manhattan and even Brooklyn’s own Sunset Park by escalating rents, Chinese American residents were drawn to Bensonhurst by educational services offered by local public schools and the area’s transit connections. More than 40% of Bensonhurst residents now identify as Asian, with the vast majority of that group identifying as Chinese.

The answer to any wariness within the Italian American community about newcomers to the neighborhood, Rizzi and Law decided, was connection. They began encouraging dialogue and an open-door policy for events.

“[We] hold a lot of meetings, and let them come here and talk, and share their feelings—that’s the most important,” says Law.

Holidays make it work

An invitation from the Italian American federation, also known as Il Centro, to members of the Chinese center to take part in the annual Columbus Day Parade along Bath Avenue, was one of the most visible signs of their bridge-building efforts.

Chinese center members marched in the parade—some dressed in traditional ethnic attire—and enjoyed the event’s speeches, food and games.

At Thanksgiving, the Chinese group traditionally passes out free poultry for families in the neighborhood, which include many visitors who may not be members. 

Both centers offer an array of services, from flu shots and COVID-19 vaccines to after-school programs and translation services for non-English speakers. 

“We serve all kinds of people, all ages, all races, blindfolded,” says Rizzi. 

The next big event will come at the Lunar New Year in February, when the Chinese center plans to hold its annual Bay Parkway parade, with a celebration of the Year of the Tiger that aims to welcome all.