Exit BVM, enter elephants and lions

A charming piece — indeed, a hopeful story in mean times — on the editorial page of the NYT today, “A Changing of the Guard on the Front Lawn” by Francis X. Clines, about lawn statuary in a period of neighborhood change. It begins:

Where are the lawn Madonnas of yesteryear? One of the charms of wandering the outer-circle neighborhoods of New York, far from the towering commercialism of Manhattan, has been the statues of the Blessed Mother staring out serenely from the postage-stamp lawns of rowhouses.

“A lot of new nationalities came in, it isn’t what it was,” said Lou Campanella III, a statue and masonry dealer whose family firm sold “something like 300 Blessed Mothers a month” in her saintly front-yard heyday, which lasted into the 1990s. “Now, maybe 15 to 20 a month.”

But the beauty of the city’s continual immigration churn is that there are newcomers who have fresh preferences in lawn statuary, creating a new market.

Louis Campanella, 69, poses with a statue of the Virgin Mary that he painted at his workshop in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn

In some neighborhoods the lawns might have pink flamingos, or gnomes, or gazing balls, or lawn jockeys. But Campanella mostly supplies working-class ethnic neighborhoods, where the BVM has been gradually superseded by elephants, guardian lions, and Buddahas. From Clines:

“Different ethnicities, different religions — we sell a lot of elephants now,” Mr. Campanella noted. “People from India love them and the Arab newcomers, too. And foo dogs — guardian lions — for Chinese customers,” he said, referring to different popular icons revered for much the same protective powers attributed to statues of the Madonna.

“And Buddhas, all kinds of Buddhas, fat Buddhas, meditating Buddhas,” he explained in the Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, workshop of L. J. Campanella & Son, which has shipped out assorted elves and saints, gremlins and fairies to the region’s garden suppliers and masonry yards for the past 66 years.

“Go with the flow,” said Lou Campanella’s 69-year-old father, Lou, who has worked since the day he turned 6 in the shop founded by his father, Lou. “My father started out selling mother ducks — with the little ducks behind them. And from there, it’s just God bless: They wanted bird baths. They wanted animals. And the dwarfs. And the Blessed Mother.”

Even for resolute atheists, the sight of Mary prevailing humbly along numerous side streets can provide a welcome moment of high-order kitsch. In Catholic statuary, her popularity still ranks ahead of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Anthony, St. Jude and a new favorite icon, Padre Pio, the mystic friar who died in 1968. More practically, she reigns firm as stone in the city’s alternate-side-of-the-street parking regulations, even as demand for her lawn statue wanes. The parking restriction is suspended every Aug. 15, the Feast of the Assumption — her special holy day, celebrated by every canny car parker in the city, agnostics included.

From their special perch, the Campanellas are a welcome antidote to the anti-immigration rhetoric that spews from Donald Trump. They can speak firsthand about what is happening on the ground among new Americans choosing imaginative ways of marking their place. “The new immigrant,” said the older Mr. Campanella, celebrating his latest customers, is “the Chinese, the Arab, the Mexican. We’re seeing a recycling of what was. The Italians and Jews who built this neighborhood have moved on.”

Far from fearing change, he revels in the newcomers and their elephants, foo dogs and Buddhas.


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