Updated news on the Gambino, Genovese, Bonanno, Lucchese and Colombo Organized Crime Families of New York City.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

New York’s Little Italy, Littler by the Year

NYC: Little Italy In 1950, nearly half of the more than 10,000 New Yorkers living in the heart of Little Italy identified as Italian-American. The narrow streets teemed with children and resonated with melodic exchanges in Italian among the one in five residents born in Italy and their second- and third-generation neighbors.
Luigi Di Palo, the owner of Di Palo’s with his sister Marie and his brother Salvatore, in the background. Fifth-generation family members work in the store and sell goods online.
Of the nearly 4,400 foreign-born residents of the heart of Little Italy who were counted in 2009, 89 percent were born in Asia.
By 2000, the census found that the Italian-American population had dwindled to 6 percent. Only 44 were Italian-born, compared with 2,149 a half-century earlier.
A census survey released in December determined that the proportion of Italian-Americans among the 8,600 residents in the same two-dozen-square-block area of Lower Manhattan had shrunk to about 5 percent.
And, incredibly, the census could not find a single resident who had been born in Italy.
Little Italy is becoming Littler Italy. The encroachment that began decades ago as Chinatown bulged north, SoHo expanded from the west, and other tracts were rebranded more fashionably as NoLIta (for north of Little Italy) and NoHo seems almost complete.
The Little Italy that was once the heart of Italian-American life in the city exists mostly as a nostalgic memory or in the minds of tourists who still make it a must-see on their New York itinerary.
The only streets that really feel like they belong to Little Italy, Mulberry and Grand, are still crammed with venerable Italian restaurants and shops. But Chinese-language advertisements for reflexology spas pepper the sidewalk, a poster announces the Lunar New Year celebration, and a “for rent” sign hangs on a new seven-story condominium building at 182 Mulberry.
The Gambino crime family’s old Ravenite social club at 247 Mulberry is now a shoe and handbag boutique. As recently as 2005, Vincent Gigante, the 77-year-old boss of the Genovese crime family, roamed the neighborhood in a bathrobe and slippers feigning mental illness to avoid prosecution. Last month, more than 100 reputed members of mob families were charged with federal crimes; none lived in Little Italy.
Sambuca’s Café, at 105 Mulberry Street, is listed by Yelp, the food-oriented Web site, as being in Chinatown — a particularly humiliating geographic transgression because it is owned by the president of the Little Italy Merchants Association.
Last year, the National Park Service designated a Chinatown and Little Italy Historic District with no geographic distinction between the neighborhoods. The two neighborhoods have begun organizing a Marco Polo Day and an East Meets West Christmas Parade.
City Hall will soon further erase the boundaries.
Following the lead of three local community boards, the City Planning Commission is expected in March to approve the creation of a Chinatown Business Improvement District, which would engulf all but about two square blocks of a haven that once spanned almost 50 square blocks and had the largest concentration of Italian immigrants in the United States.
“It’s really all Chinatown now,” said John A. Zaccaro Sr., owner of the Little Italy real estate company, founded by his father in 1935.
Even the Feast of San Gennaro, which still draws giant crowds to Mulberry Street, may be abbreviated in size this year at the behest of inconvenienced NoLIta merchants.
The number of residents of Italian descent in the neighborhood has been declining since the 1960s, as immigration from Italy ebbed and Italian-Americans prospered and moved to other parts of the city and to the suburbs.
“When the Italians made money they moved to Queens and New Jersey, they sold to the Chinese, who are now selling to the Vietnamese and Malaysians,” said Ernest Lepore, 46, who, with his brother and mother, owns Ferrara, an espresso and pastry shop his family opened 119 years ago.
Still, about 30 Italian-American babies born in the neighborhood are baptized at the Church of the Most Precious Blood on Baxter Street every year. And some residents cling to a neighborhood that is rich in history and culture.
Natalie Diaz’s children are the fifth generation of a family that arrived on Ellis Island from Naples in 1916. She still lives in the same gray five-story building on Mulberry Street above Il Piccolo Bufalo where she grew up. Ms. Diaz, who is 34, runs a group for parents of twins and triplets. Her husband’s parents were Irish and Puerto Rican, and he works as a manager at her family’s restaurant in the neighborhood, La Mela.
“Little by little, everyone wants a little more, more space, and moves away,” Ms. Diaz said. “There are some families, mostly from my mom’s generation, who have held out. To be honest, though, I feel a really strong sense of tradition. I owe it to my ancestors. I feel that everything my family worked for from the time they got off the boat is here.”
Of the 8,600 residents counted by the census’s American Community Survey in the heart of Little Italy in 2009, nearly 4,400 were foreign-born. Of those, 89 percent were born in Asia. In 2009, a Korean immigrant won a tenor competition sponsored by the Little Italy Merchants Association. That same year, a Chinese immigrant, Margaret S. Chin, was elected to represent the district in the City Council.
Ms. Chin played a key role in galvanizing diverse factions to create the business improvement district, which reaches north from Chinatown with two arms that flank Mulberry Street and arc toward it from the middle of two parallel streets, Baxter and Mott.
“We opted out” of the district, said Ralph Tramontana, president of the Little Italy merchants’ group and owner of Sambuca’s Café. “We didn’t think there was a need for it, because through the merchants’ association we already do what a business improvement district does.”
“I told Chinatown businesses,” said David Louie, who helped push for the district, “ ‘You should look at Little Italy and follow their example — at 8:30 in the morning you can see them scrubbing down the sidewalks.’ ”
Cleanliness, quaintness and low crime have broadened the neighborhood’s appeal, which has driven up rents. Rent-controlled apartments are still home to some Italian-Americans, Mr. Zaccaro said, but market-rate residences cost vast sums more. An 800-square-foot one-bedroom in a six-story renovated building at 145 Mulberry was advertised recently for $4,200 a month. The owners of a two-bedroom co-op on Grand Street are asking $1.5 million.
Paolucci’s, a popular restaurant that opened on Mulberry in 1947, moved to Staten Island after the owner’s rent was raised in 2005 to $20,000 a month from $3,500, he said.
Still, other Little Italy landmarks have not only survived, but appear to be thriving thanks mostly to tourists and to what the author Nicholas Pileggi described decades ago as suburban “Saturday Italians” — the “prospering overweight sons of leaner immigrant fathers.”
Di Palo’s, an Italian specialty food store at 200 Grand Street, opened for business in 1903, a decade after the Alleva dairy at 188 Grand, which advertises itself as the nation’s oldest Italian cheese store and which, like Ferrara, opened in 1892. Fifth-generation family members work in all three stores, and all three also sell their products online.
In 1990, Lou Di Palo said, his ailing father handed the next generation the keys.
“We decided we’re going to take our business and go backwards — focus the way our grandparents and great-grandparents ran their operation: family-oriented, hands-on customer relations,” he said. “We’re going to cut your piece of cheese and slice your prosciutto. We’re still a neighborhood store, but we took the initiative to make our shop a destination.”
“It went from an immigrant store to an Italian-American store focused on authentic products of Italy,” Mr. Di Palo explained. “We don’t expect our customers to come on a daily basis. A great customer we’ll see once a week, a very good customer we’ll see once a month. People used to say to me, ‘You’re still here!’ I said, ‘As long as you keep coming, I’ll be here.’ ”



Post a Comment