By Annie Basulto
In 2014, I was hundreds of miles away in Miami raising small children and preparing to return to our Fort Greene, Brooklyn apartment. During this life-break of motherhood, I decided to research my granduncle’s Cuban music career. I was on a quest to find someone to re-create the New York and Miami of the 1940s. Then, destiny introduced itself. I phoned Nina Olson at the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance and she connected me to Henry Medina, a collector and archivist of historical media. Medina suggested I call Vincent Livelli of the Greenwich Village who was 94 years old at the time. Unbeknownst to me, these connections led me to a New York treasure, to a man that holds the keys to the rich history of New York and beyond.
When I returned to New York in the Summer of 2016, I was determined to visit, learn from, and assist him in any way—for the sake of history. Friendship soon followed. My love affair with history led me to a man that is my own personal Google—sidebars filled with anecdotes, tailored historical facts, and romances better than fiction.
My weekly visits to Livelli’s Perry Street four-story walk-up teeter between formalities and granddaughter adoration. I greet him with the respect of a deity, then sit as his feet while he talks, till he politely asks me to go home to my young children. His storytelling is cinematic, which tempts me to begin audio or camera recording, which Livelli is always obliged to do.
Livelli was born in 1920 on Sullivan Street and raised in his family-owned tenement near St. Anthony’s Church. He consumed paint chips along the walls of his room as a child, causing severe hearing loss; he considers this an opportunity to “see the world in a different way.” Livelli met his lifelong friend, New York Times critic and author Anatole Broyard, at Brooklyn College. He was amongst future notables—at the time just artistic young adults. Present day research of those friends on Wikipedia reveals that he was in the company of literary and art figures hanging out at historical landmarks like the San Remo and Cafe Latino.
Livelli trailblazingly hiked to Harlem to listen to Latin bands at The Park Plaza in the late 1930s. He fatefully caught the attention of a Latin dance duo who approached and offered to teach him the Rumba. Cuban dancers Rene y Estela, are often credited for his love for “La Musica” and the trajectory of his career. In 1940s Cuba, a Santero told Livelli, “You will carry this music around the world.” To add credit to this prophecy, Livelli traveled the world countless times, as an escort to nobility, a dance instructor in Miami Beach, and a cruise director for almost 30 years. He always found a way to introduce Latin music to those around him. He speaks Spanish effortlessly, along with Italian, French and some German. Afro-Cuban music and dance still bring him great joy today.
You may be lucky to spot Livelli on his stoop in the fall with the prideful and welcoming disposition of a Village resident. Cold weather won’t stop him from his routine exercise of collecting mail on the ground floor, then going back up on his mental one, two, three count.
Livelli’s artful storytelling technique re-creates the stories of people, places, and things we see everyday. Through firsthand accounts of items considered common knowledge, Livelli probably knows special details impossible to find in books.
It is no surprise then that Livelli has also worn the hat of writer. His works are upwards of 500 essays containing memories from the last century, and they are worthy of preservation. With that in mind, I am launching The Vincent Livelli Preservation Project on January 27th and February 3rd at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP). We are seeking up to 30 people to transcribe Vincent’s work. Once transcribed, we will organize and present the material to a publishing house. I am attempting to expedite this process so that Vincent can see his literary labor come to fruition.
232 East 11th Street, New York, NY 10003
January 27, 2017 – 3:00pm to 6:00pm
February 3, 2017 – 3:00pm to 6:00pm
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