Little Italy Near Extinction, Media Report (Again)

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If you’ve been to New York City’s Little Italy neighborhood anytime over the past ten years, you’ve probably noticed that it feels not so much like a neighborhood but a theme park or open-air museum. Mulberry Street, its main (and besides a bit of cross-street spillover, only) artery is still a parade of Italian restaurants and souvenir shops, and local organizers still put on a big bash with the San Gennaro Feast every September. But the percentage of residents claiming Italian ancestry has dropped to less than 5%, and its borders have closed in over the years as Chinatown has encroached from the east, south and west, and trendy clothing boutiques from the north. We may be witnessing the extinction of an ethnic enclave that once counted 10,000 Italian residents.

That’s what the New York Post reported last month, when it interviewed Robert Ianello, Jr., owner of Umberto’s Clam House at 132 Mulberry Street. Ianello is just the latest commercial tenant in Manhattan to see his rent spike after a new landlord bought the building ($34,000, more than double). And Umberto’s has relocated twice already since 1996. Granted, periodicals have come to praise and bury Little Italy before, including this New York Magazine piece from 2004, and this New York Times death watch from 2011. But when you read the Post’s latest, you get the glum feeling that the neighborhood really is about to go the way of the Oldsmobile: Eight restaurants have closed in the past year alone. Beyond the statistics, however, is the harsh reality that to stroll through Little Italy is to be awash in tourists and touts and little else. You’d be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of Italian residents. It’s not so much that I mind the tourists – they’re all over Manhattan – but that Little Italy has been reduced to an oversize, tacky Italian airport gift shop. I’ll never forget the time I passed by a couple of pasty-white yokels standing next to a souvenir stand on Mulberry, pointing and guffawing at a black T-shirt that read in white lettering, simply, “Fuhgettaboutit.” There’s a time and a place for that kind of kitsch, but in today’s Little Italy there doesn’t seem to be much left but kitsch. As the excellent film location scouting blog Scouting New York put it:

I’ve been in Little Italy all week, and I gotta admit, of all the neighborhoods in Manhattan, I think Little Italy might depress me the most. Have you ever been to the Countries at Epcot, where they create kitschy miniature recreations of China or France? The Little Italy of today reminds me of what it would be like if Epcot created a version of historic Little Italy: a smidgen of history and culture, surrounded by endless crappy gift shops, overpriced restaurants selling subpar food, and silly recreations of what once had actual meaning to a world that has disappeared.

It’s a far cry from a neighborhood that, thanks to the wave of Southern Italian immigration in the early 20th Century, was at one point 98% Italian, and was spread past Mulberry onto Mott, Elizabeth, Bayard, Baxter, Worth, and Pell Streets. Within the district itself, sub-neighborhoods were established based on region – Sicily, Calabria, Naples, Basilicata. Once immigration slowed down and the post-World War II boom came about, many residents moved to the outer boroughs, Long Island, or New Jersey. Some old-timers remained, but as the generations passed, Little Italy’s Italian population and merchant community thinned out. Some still hold on – Alleva Dairy at 188 Grand has been in operation since 1890, and Ferrara Bakery and Cafe (195 Grand) since 1892. But mainstays such as these are fewer and farther between, so go visit them today.

I suppose there will come a day when Manhattan’s Little Italy is reduced to a museum or a plaque on a wall alerting passers-by to what once was. After all, the Irish were there before the Italians, and plenty of other ethnic enclaves have evaporated here and elsewhere. You don’t see a lot of German or Dutch neighborhoods these days, to say nothing of the Lenape. Check out Little Italy while you still can, but if you want to see some better-preserved Italian neighborhoods, you’ll have to go to Big Italy.

Arturo Licata, Sicilian And World’s Oldest Man, Passes Away At 111

Arturo-Licata-1Last week, Arturo Licata of Enna, Sicily, who was the oldest man in the world, passed away just shy of his 112th birthday. He was born in Enna in 1902 and seems to have lived most if not all of his life there. It would be tempting to extrapolate Sig. Licata’s longevity and link it to the Mediterranean Diet, but record-breaking old people have come from all over the world. And anyway, I have no idea if Licata ate lots of fish and olive oil or Cheetos and candy bars. Though if I had to wager, I’d go with the former.

What’s more interesting is the world that Licata witnessed during his 111 years and 357 days on this spinning blue marble. No, I’m not talking about moon landings and Twitter feeds (though Twitter might be considered a step backward). While our technological advances have been extraordinary, the immediate world outside Licata’s door no doubt affected him more as it, too, endured fascinating changes.

When Licata was born, Italy as a nation was but 41 years young, and of course it was then not a republic but a kingdom cobbled together by dubious means and unified more by bayonet than any sense of patriotism. Its neighbor to the northeast was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a big mustard-stain-like splat on the map that enveloped whatever random Eastern European countries it could without ever taking the time to choose a catchier name. To its southeast and south, across the seas Adriatic and Mediterranean, lay the more memorably-named, indeed welcome-sounding, Ottoman Empire, or what was left of it. Both of these monoliths were one World War away from crumbling, but when Licata was born these events were still more than a decade away. Also in existence was the German Empire, stretching from Belgium to Russia, and of course the mighty Russian Empire, then on its last czar but still a good 15 years away from going as red as a box of Pall Malls. (Pall Malls were introduced just three years before Licata was born.) The Europe in which Arturo Licata came of age was still mired in the ways of centuries past, at relative peace but about to be torn at its tenuous seams.

And as for Sicily itself, that mystifying island was in the throes of one of the greatest exoduses in history. Between 1900 and 1915, some 3 million Italians came to America, the majority from the poor Mezzogiorno region which includes Sicily. (This does not even account for those emigrants who moved to Argentina, Brazil, Australia, Canada, and other destinations.) The majority were farmers or unskilled laborers. Sicily was still largely a struggling agricultural area, though you were probably lucky to be working on a farm rather than in a sulfur mine. If it was the latter, you might even be as young as five years old, working 8-10 hours a day, and in a state of indentured servitude. We know from the news stories reporting Licata’s death that he worked at the age of nine in a sulfur mine.

Licata later spent some time in the Italian army, including during its 1936 invasion of Ethiopia. From a political perspective, Licata saw his homeland shift from monarchy to fascism (there was technically still a king up through the end of Mussolini’s era), then to republic. Although Italy has had brief economic booms in the postwar years, Sicily itself has remained poorer on average, and it still struggles with the scourge of organized crime which was so rampant when Licata was born.

But that’s all newsy, political stuff. I don’t know to what extent any of these sea changes affected Licata personally. But it must have been amazing life all the same, 112 years on an island that’s used to witnessing change.

New York Times Op/Ed Writer Weighs In On Tourism In The Mezzogiorno, Or Lack Thereof

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In an Op/Ed piece from this past week in the New York Times, Beppe Severgnini offered up his thoughts on why so few travelers venture south of Italy’s “Mason-Dixon” line, i.e. Rome. He points out that only 13 percent of tourists visit the Mezzogiorno, citing failed infrastructure, bureaucratic disorganization (well that’s redundant), and blown tourism budgets, leading to a lack of real promotion of the region. It probably hasn’t helped matters that some knucklehead in the U.S. government was a few years ago quoted in a Wikileaks document referring to Southern Italy as a “failed state,” but for its attachment to the rest of Italy and Europe. These factors, plus the region’s poor economy and the continued presence of the Mafia, all make for great deterrents to Frank and Alice Fannypacker from Dubuque when planning their Italian dream vacation. (The Mafia is about as likely to harm a tourist as it is to start its own LinkedIn page.)

The great irony here is that so much of the Italian culture with which we’re familiar in the New World was brought to us by southerners – mostly Sicilians, but also Calabrese, Pugliese, Napolitani, etc. Theirs are the cuisines, traditions, languages, indeed even the facial features and clothing we think of when we think “Italian.” That’s not to detract from the great destinations of the north, nor is it to say that people can’t differentiate or don’t know who the Medici or Michelangelo were. I only mean to say that by writing off the south, people are missing out.

Part of me wants to tell Mr. Severgnini to dummy up, that the first rule of traveling to the Mezzogiorno is you don’t talk about traveling to the Mezzogiorno. It’s not that I want to rob the region of tourist dollars, but I’m reticent to see Palermo and Cosenza and Bari become flooded with trinket-peddlers and consumers in an approximation, however unlikely, of Rome, Florence and Venice-style tourist trap-ism. (To say nothing of the inevitable price inflation and corporate chains that would come with it.) We already live in a world where every place is starting to look like anyplace, so as much as I’ll tout the south’s great qualities and attractions, here’s hoping that its natural and man made beauty doesn’t become spoiled in pursuit of the Almighty Euro. In Texas’ capital they say “Keep Austin Weird.” Well, let’s keep the Italian South Southern.