Little Italy Near Extinction, Media Report (Again)

DSC02020

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.

The Arbëreshë – Pre-Ottoman Albanians In Italy

tradizioni1In the 15th Century, the surging Ottoman Empire was pushing into the Balkans. The troops of Sultan Mehmet II in 1453 famously toppled Constantinople and slayed the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI. In the meanwhile it was making its presence felt in Albania and along the Adriatic in a more gradual, but no less dramatic fashion. By the turn of the 16th, the land had been ceded, and an Albanian exodus was already in motion; most of these exiles fled across the water to – guess where? – Italy.

The descendants of these refugees live on today as the Arbëreshë people. Found in pockets mostly over Southern Italy and Sicily, the Arbëreshë are distinct from modern Albanians in that their customs, language, cuisine, and other traditions bear greater resemblance to the Albania of 600 years ago. Thanks to their stubbornness and, more recently, Italy’s embrace of its minority cultures and languages, even the Arbëreshë language is closer to pre-Ottoman Albanian than what’s spoken in modern Albania. In fact, “Arbëreshë” was the name the people of Albania called themselves before the invasion.

Today there are roughly 100,000 Arbëreshë spread out over 50 different communities in Italy, mostly in the south and in Calabria. Although many of their names may have been Latinized, they were allowed from the outset to practice their Orthodox brand of Christianity in this Catholic land. Thus in many of the Arbëreshë dwellings, the town has two main churches, one Latin and one “Greek.” (Albania today remains half Muslim, either in spite of or because of the best efforts of its national hero, Skanderberg.)

Arbëreshë is not considered an official language in Italy, it has been fiercely preserved along with the customs, food, and traditional garb brought over centuries ago. Not to mention it also gave us this awesome Italian-Albanian hybrid flag.

Flag_of_the_Italian_Arberesh

Although the straight-up Albanian flag is even more badass.

Albanian_Flag_by_MondiG

List of Arbëreshë settlements in Italy.

esplorazionicosentineLa cultura arbëreshe nella biblioteca Bellusci

New York Mayor-Elect de Blasio Maintains Strong Italian Roots

deblasioOf course Bill de Blasio won’t be New York’s first Italian-American mayor, but the man elected to that office last week has shown great pride in, and strong connection to, his ancestral homeland.

The New York Times ran a story yesterday discussing de Blasio’s grandfather’s birthplace, Sant’Agata de’ Goti, outside of Naples in Campania.

Mr. de Blasio has become something of an Italian sensation, within and beyond this town’s medieval walls. A Neapolitan artisan fashioned a terra cotta figurine of Mr. de Blasio, with tricolor sash; a pizza-maker wrote “Napoli Love de Blasio” in mozzarella on a pie. In New York, candidate de Blasio offered interviews in Italian; his campaign staff jokingly designated a press aide who spoke a bit of the language as the “Italian desk,” and on election night, 15 journalists from Italy showed up to cover the festivities at the Park Slope Armory Y.M.C.A.

According to the article, de Blasio is an Italophile through and through. He’s visited Sant’Agata de’Goti half a dozen times, given his kids Italian names, he practices speaking Italian, and of course keeps plenty of fresh mozzarella at home. As for Sant’Agata, residents have reciprocated this pride, hanging American flags from balconies, naming a cake for him, and at least a few said they plan to come to New York for his inauguration.

EDIT – The good people over at the Italian Dual Citizenship Message Board have determined that Mr. de Blasio is most likely an Italian (dual) citizen by birth, through ancestry.

The New York Times – His Roots in Italy, de Blasio Now Has Fans There

Blitz Quotidiano – Sant’Agata dei Goti festeggia l’elezione di Bill de Blasio