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The evolution of Little Italy: From thriving migrant community to tourist trap

For more than six decades, Little Italy has been shrinking to a fraction of its former self, slowly morphing into a relic of a once thriving immigrant enclave.

The area, which started its existence as a tourist attraction in the 1940s, was such an important part of the Italian American community that it housed regional communities (i.e. Sicilani, Napolitani) on almost every block. Since then, its expansion has reversed as nearby neighborhoods such as Chinatown and SoHo encroached on its borders. The Italian-American population, which made up 98% of households in the area during the 1930s, started its migration to the suburbs in the 1950s as bank accounts swelled and the need for more space became urgent.

“Over the years, Little Italy has lost its boundaries and has transformed into Chinatown,” said Jodi Paulovich, a broker from Charles Rutenberg who has closed on rental properties in the neighborhood.

A real estate expert, who asked not to be named, said that the movement of many residents transpired because “third generation Italians are not too keen to go into the same business as their parents and grandparents.”

The area, which once stretched to about 50 square blocks, now only covers a six blocks-long expanse that runs along Mulberry Street from Canal to Spring Streets. Much of what was traditionally Little Italy has since been reclaimed by the city’s growing Chinese population, which also has outer borough outposts in Flushing, Queens and Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Perhaps there is no clearer sign of the increasingly blurry borders between the two areas than the establishment of the Chinatown and Little Italy Historic District. The joint district, which was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in February 2010, introduced protections for the area’s architecture and increased cooperation between the two enclaves. For instance, the East Meets West Christmas Parade, which snakes it way through Chinatown and Little Italy, features dragon dance performers, Italian singers and floats adorned with Chinese and Italian colors. The event is the second largest parade in New York City behind the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, according to organizers.

In spite of its shrinking size, the area remains attractive to buyers and renters. According to Adelaide Polsinelli, a senior managing director at Eastern Consolidated, rents for one-bedroom apartments range from $3,000 to $4,000, depending on whether the building has an elevator. The median rental price in the borough falls within this range. According to Douglas Elliman’s August 2015 Market report, the figure stood at $3,400.

Over the years, the area has been the setting for gentrification horror stories, with long-term residential and retail tenants said to be pushed out by skyrocketing rents. A New York Post report from last year declared that the area was “on the brink of extinction,” pointing to Italian restaurants such as Il Fornaio and Giovanna’s closing down after landlords increased their rent.

Council Member Margaret Chin, whose constituency includes Little Italy, disagreed with the notion that the neighborhood is awaiting its expiration date. She touted the area’s cultural contributions, particularly the Feast of San Gennaro, the 11-day long cultural event that was said to have attracted one million attendees during its 89th staging last September.

“Little Italy can never disappear because of the traditions and cultures that are engrained into the neighborhood. Festivals like San Gennaro keep the tradition alive by annually celebrating and embracing their culture throughout the community with not only Italian-Americans but also everyone who loves and appreciates their culture’s contributions,” she said.

“Also, the authentic restaurants in this neighborhood will also be a key spot in the city for people to visit and keep Little Italy alive. Many Italian-Americans continue to foster their culture through religious gatherings in traditional churches like St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral and Most Precious Blood Church on Mulberry Street. No matter what, Little Italy will be always Little Italy under my watch.”

Polsinelli also questioned notions that long-time tenants are being pushed out, saying that the closings are a function of a competitive market.

“Are there too many restaurants on the same block? I don’t think it’s a function of the rent over a function of what to use in that space. If you walk down Mulberry Street, you’ll see that there’s one restaurant after another, after another. It’s a tourist destination, but there are better quality restaurants,” she said.

She also raised doubts that restaurants are being pushed out due to high rent, saying that many restaurant operators in the neighborhood owned their buildings. “Whoever is saying that is probably not saying the whole story,” she said.  “If you look at a lot of these owners, they bought the buildings then they put their restaurants in it. Then when the market got very strong, they sold their building.”

Aside from the restaurants and shops that persist within its increasingly ambiguous borders, the exodus of Italian Americans from the area has already been completed.

The first wave of Italian immigrants arrived in the notorious Five Points slums in the 1840s. However, the mass arrivals of Italian migrants to the city started in 1880, with the new residents settling on Pell, Baxter and Worth Streets. By the 1900s, Italian immigrants were arriving in the United States at a rate of 200,000 a year.

A census survey from 2010 found that no resident of the area was born in Italy. This completed the slow descent of Italian-born residents in the area. In the 2000 survey, the enclave only had 44 residents born in Italy.

Paulovich said that the migration of Italians to the suburbs is now irreversible, saying that the neighborhood’s holdouts may be the last remnants of a once thriving immigrant community. “Those who still reside in the area are restaurant or shop owners who have been living and working in the same place for generations,” she said.

“The area is now a tourist destination and does not appeal to Italians as it once did when it was truly a ‘Little Italy.’ Italian Americans will never return to Little Italy.”

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