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.