Bath Beach

Italian cultural center offers free legal advice to Bensonhurst and beyond

April 7, 2023 Robert Abruzzese
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BATH BEACH — Jack Spatola said that he first got the idea to offer free legal services to the Italian-American community when speaking with a rabbi in 1983. Nearly 40 years later, Spatola is finally getting to realize that dream.

Spatola is the president of the Federation of Italian-American Organizations, which operates Il Centro, an Italian-American cultural center located on 18th Avenue. While the neighborhood has undergone drastic changes in recent decades, Spatola hasn’t changed much from 1983 in that he’s always looking for ways to help Italian-Americans and for ways to improve his community.

After Il Centro opened in May 2018, he thought he finally got the opportunity to realize his dream from 1983 and open a legal clinic — so he discussed his ideas with some of the other leaders at FAIO and was told, “no.”

Spatola did not expect that, but it didn’t stop him. Eventually, he was speaking with Greg Lendino, who is a Columbian Lawyer and is active in the local legal community. Lendino offered his services to Il Centro for free which meant that now nobody could tell Spatola no.

“I was speaking with the rabbi and he said that they have doctors and lawyers who come once a month to the synagogue,” Spatola said. “I asked how much people paid, he said $1. It must have been $3,000 a month with so many members. I brought that idea to the Federation and they said, ‘How do we know what you’re going to do with our dollar?’

Gregory Lendino (left) with Jack Spatola, president of the Federation of Italian-American Organizations of Brooklyn.

“When Greg approached me and brought up this concept, and explained that he would do it for free, I immediately said come, come,” Spatola explained.

Lendino has since spearheaded the legal clinic at FAIO. It operates out of Il Centro on 18th Avenue in Bath Beach from 2 p.m. until 5 p.m. on the first and third Thursday of every month. Some people call ahead to make appointments, but walk-ins are welcome.

“We started this past November and it has been really successful so far,” Lendino said. “We do get walkins, but people make appointments too. I already have three appointments scheduled for this week.

“We handle a whole gamut of legal issues,” Lendino continued. “Surprisingly, I haven’t gotten anyone with any immigration questions. So far most of the issues have been real estate, elder law, or personal injuries. If it was a complicated issue that I couldn’t handle, there are attorneys that I can refer people to.”

FIAO Il Centro currently has approximately 3,500 active members, but Spatola explained that nearly 7,000 people from the community come into the building on a regular basis. Many of these people, he said, don’t have easy access to free legal advice, which is why organizing something like this was so important to him.

Part of the effort that helped to organize FAIO Il Centro in the first place came from immigration drives amongst the Italians who lived in Bensonhurst in the 1960s and 70s. Spatola said that groups of Italians would then organize to help people with immigration issues and any other problems they might have, and that eventually a storefront was set up on 62nd Street for people to come when they had issues.

Today, it’s not just Italian-Americans who access the free legal clinic at Il Centro. The neighborhood, which still has many Italian-Americans living in it, is much more culturally diverse than in years past with large Chinese, Russian and Hispanic populations. Lendino made sure to tell the Eagle that everyone is welcome to walk into the clinic.

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