This is the third article by our guest blogger, Carol del Ciello. Please also read “The Elegance of Food” (August 12) and “Virtual Graffiti” (May 19).
Italian-Americans are the largest group of immigrants of european origin in New York City as well as New York State. Like many other immigrants, when the Italians arrived, they tended to remain together in their own neighborhoods. They spoke the same language, ate the same food, and were able to create a support structure in their newly adopted home.
More than 4 million Italians immigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1922. For the most part, they came from Southern Italy. Many remained in New York and lived in a well-known neighborhood referred to as Little Italy, located in the East Village in Manhattan.
But in fact, during this period, the Italians established another Little Italy in East Harlem. It is considered the first Little Italy in New York City. The area extended east of Madison Ave between 116th and 125th streets. “Italian Harlem” reached it’s peak in 1930 with more than 100,000 first and second generation Italian-Americans. Today, very little remains of this population in Harlem.
Therefore, the Little Italy best known is in the East Village. At one time, it was a Neapolitan village recreated on these shores with its own language and traditions as well as its own financial and cultural institutions. But at the same time, it was an Italian ghetto because it was a very poor neighborhood. Today, Little Italy is a patina, a collection of about 50 restaurants and bars for the tourists in a neighborhood comprised of only a few blocks where Chinese immigrants live along side young adults that cannot afford the higher rents in Soho or other more expensive neighborhoods. There are few remaining Italians in Little Italy.
At the beginning of the 20th century, 90 percent of the population was Italian. Now the number is only 8.25 percent. In contrast, in neighboring Chinatown, the population of Chinese is about 80 percent.
But all this is not news. After the second world war, the Italians began to leave the neighborhood moving to Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens and Long Island as their financial situation improved. Then, with the U.S. Immigration Act of 1965, national quotas for immigration were abolished and the boom in Chinese immigration began.
With this expansion of Chinatown, Little Italy began to disappear. Now, Little Italy consists of only a few blocks comprised of Mulberry Street extending from Canal Street to Broome Street. But there are attempts at preserving what is left of Little Italy. The Feast of San Gennaro is held every September there along with cheese cutting and cannoli eating contests on Columbus Day. Also the owners of the remaining buildings within the neighborhood try to replace empty stores with Italian businesses.
In 2001, The Italian American Musuem was opened in the heart of Little Italy at the intersection of Mulberry and Grand Streets. The building was the original site of the Banca Stabile, which was established by Rosario Stabile in 1885 and served the Italian immigrant community.
The precarious state of Little Italy is summed up by the comments of Robert Ianniello, the co-owner of Umberto’s Clam House, where Joe Gallo, the New York gangster was shot dead. When asked what would happen if a Chinese restaurant wanted to open on Mulberry Street, he responded “ We wouldn’t have a problem with that; however, what I truly fear is a Starbucks”.