By Alec Pruchnicki
While walking through the San Gennaro feast on Little Italy’s Mulberry Street this year, as I have for 45 years, I thought about its future. This Italian neighborhood formerly stretched from Greenwich Village south of Washington Square Park, all the way to below Canal Street. Now it includes only Mulberry Street from Kenmare to Canal, at least if you judge by the local restaurants.
The original Italian immigrants and their American born offspring have moved to other less crowded parts of the city, suburbs and country, to be replaced by Chinese immigrants or non-ethnic gentrifiers ( yuppies?, millenials?). But, there are still signs of life in the ethnic traditions. A few relatively new Italian restaurants and pizzerias are north of Kenmare, as is the Basilica of Old St. Patrick’s (which harkens back to the pre-Italian Irish history of the neighborhood). The new Italian American Museum, of which I am a member, on Mulberry and Grand has recently expanded and has weekly programs on topics of Italian culture. There are also a handful of Italian American families still living there and active in local cultural, religious and political life.
Look around the city. I recently visited Arthur Avenue in The Bronx, where I grew up. You would think it was entirely Italian, even though the residential population is mostly Hispanic and Albanian. There are several times more Italian restaurants, cafes and pizzerias there now, along with newer Albanian and Mexican ones, than when I left there in the early 1970s. The family-run specialty food stores selling meat, seafood, fresh cheeses, pastry, bread, and imported foods are mostly still the same as fifty years ago. New additions to the neighborhood include the Enrico Fermi public library and cultural center, the annual Ferragosto festival, a carrying of a giglio ( a tall religious statue lifted on the shoulders of many volunteer men ), and even a beer garden in the indoor Arthur Avenue municipal market. These attractions have brought in neighborhood ex-pats, other Italian Americans from New York, Connecticut and New Jersey and countless food hunting tourists. This has been accomplished by neighborhood people, local politicians, and business-owning families all working to preserve the area’s history.
East Harlem, now Spanish Harlem, used to be the largest Italian American neighborhood in the city, and possibly the country. Only a few old restaurants, most notably Rao’s and Patsy’s, have survived along with a few Catholic churches that originally had Italian parishioners. Although the ethnic composition has changed, there has been a recent attempt by the children and grandchildren of the original immigrants to revive the old traditions. There is still at least one Italian style street festival complete with an impressive giglio once a year, along with a few new Italian restaurants.
Should we care about this? One of the things that makes this city exciting is its diversity, and ethnic and historical diversity is one form of this. If the Little Italy areas are to survive, instead of going the way of long gone German Yorkville or Irish Hell’s Kitchen, the people in those areas have to work hard to preserve or restore them. And, it isn’t just the old areas and former immigrant groups. If Chinatown someday is only a few blocks long and shrinking, people should work hard to preserve it also. Otherwise, look forward to a homogenized city where most neighborhoods are identical and filled with chain banks and drug stores—no longer the city we know and love.