A Very Little Italy: Manhattan’s Famous District Gets a Trimming Down

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There’s worrying news for fans of authentic Italian culture. The famous downtown district of Little Italy is in danger of disappearing, and with it the secrets of pizza, pasta and paninis.

Sixty years ago, nearly half the population living in Little Italy identified themselves as Italian-American (American citizens of Italian descent). About one in five of Little Italy’s 10,000 residents had been born in Italy in 1950, and many others were second or third-generation Italians.

Within 50 years, the Italian-American population of the area has plummeted to just 6%, and only 44 of the area’s residents had been born in Italy. This number now stands at zero: not one inhabitant of the two-dozen-square-block area of downtown Manhattan was born in Italy, and what’s more, only 5% of the 8,600 residents would call themselves Italian-Americans.

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So what went wrong?

Well, with Chinatown pushing up from the south and SoHo expanding from the west, Little Italy is having to fight for space, with its once pizzeria-lined streets now displaying Chinese language signs for reflexology spas and the Lunar New Year. Add to this the newly introduced NoLIta (North of Little Italy) and NoHo chipping away at Little Italy’s patch and the picture becomes clearer.

The area now faces official amalgamation in to Chinatown: last year the National Park Service designated the two areas as one historical district, with no geographic distinction between the two. What’s more, the City Planning Commission is expected to approve the creation of a Chinatown Business¬† Improvement District which would encompass all but two square blocks of the once 50 square block Italian hub.

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“It’s really all Chinatown now,” said the owner of Little Italy real estate company, and he seems to be right, even the gangsters have gone, with their old headquarters on Mulberry Street now a shoe and bag boutique. The Gambino crime family, and their eccentric boss Vincent Gigante (who avoided prosecution by feigning mental illness and wandering the streets in a bathrobe and slippers) were once infamous in the area but have long since disappeared from the cafes and bars of Little Italy.

Whilst most would welcome news of lower crime, the lack of old-school gangsters highlights the changing nature of this famous enclave, with its once strong Italian heritage being slowly eroded. Mulberry and Grand Street remain the last bastions for Italophiles, but even they may not last long. Soon Little Italy could be, well, just Little. (via New York Times)