Little Italy's new generation is not Italian

Asians and Dominicans call famous New York neighborhood home

October 13, 2002|By Josh Getlin | Josh Getlin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK - After 40 years, Lunella Russo has seen it all on Mulberry Street: boisterous festivals, booming real estate values, blood-curdling mob violence, both real and cinematic.

But as the longtime restaurant owner scans the crowd for prospective customers this year, she sounds a melancholy note: "Once this place was home to so many Italians, and you knew it was a real Italian neighborhood. But no more. Little Italy is not at all what it was."

Nowadays, most of the people who live in the historic community just north of Canal Street are Asian and Dominican. The cramped tenement apartments that line the streets and were made famous in scenes from The Godfather are home to a dwindling number of aging Italian-Americans.

There's increasingly little that's truly Italian in New York's Little Italy, and the same is true for once-thriving ethnic enclaves in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco and Newark, N.J. As young Italian-Americans moved to new homes in the suburbs, the old neighborhoods shrunk and, like Mulberry Street, became ethnic theme parks.

Some bemoan this trend, yet the differences between then and now may be academic to many. "We come down here every year and have a ball," said Frank Marinello, wolfing down a sausage and pepper sandwich and eyeing the plate of sugar-coated zeppole in his wife's hands. Marinello's family moved out of Little Italy years ago, scattering to Long Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

Years after most of those of Italian descent moved out, Mulberry Street and its environs are best known for candlelight religious processions, cannoli-eating contests and Frank Sinatra wannabes crooning in cafes.

The legacy of organized crime also is a lure, but even that is changing. Although thousands of tourists still flock to Umberto's Clam House, the site of a bloody gangland killing in 1972, the original is long gone and the current restaurant stands next to a Chinese laundry. John Gotti's Ravenite Social Club, the Gambino family's famed hangout, has become a hair salon.

`Transformation'

"What you see in New York and other Italian-American neighborhoods is the transformation of a once real place into a museum, a monument to an ethnic group," said Jerome Krase, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College who has studied the fate of Little Italys across the country. "And these places offer a stereotypical view of what Italians are like. It's like play-acting on a grand scale, a re-enactment of something that has vanished."

New York's Little Italy once was a hugely overcrowded tenement slum. Originally settled by German and Irish immigrants, the area was inundated with new arrivals from Southern Italy after U.S. immigration quotas were lifted in 1883. The often squalid neighborhood, where three and four families crammed into small apartments, was singled out for criticism by Jacob Riis in his trailblazing expose, How the Other Half Lives.

Gradually, however, Italian- Americans found steady work building the city's subways and bridges; others became police and firefighters. They prospered and re-created an Old World atmosphere on Mulberry, Mott, Grand and Elizabeth streets, filling them with restaurants, theaters, churches and clothing shops.

At one point, Little Italy boasted the largest Italian population of any urban center outside of Italy. Yet the numbers began diminishing when Italian-Americans - like the Germans and Irish before them - grew weary of the neighborhood's narrow streets and notoriously cramped living conditions.

In recent years, the area's population has shrunk to about 5,000 people of Italian ancestry, while other ethnic groups have grown considerably, Krase said. Overall, however, this country's Italian-American population has grown to 15.9 million, according to the 2000 census.

`One day you leave'

"You're raising a family, you got kids, so what are you going do?" said Russo, recalling her family's eventual move to the suburbs. "You love a place like Mulberry Street, but you need room. And so one day you leave."

As Italians left Little Italy, the population of nearby Chinatown began exploding. What began as a trickle of new stores on Mulberry Street became a torrent in 1968, when U.S. restrictions were eased for Chinese immigrants. Suddenly, Italian shopkeepers were sharing sidewalks with Asian restaurants and vegetable stands. More important, Chinese businessmen began acquiring many of the older tenement buildings once owned by Italians.

"It's like the whole place changed before your eyes," said Johnny Cappello, a food vendor who was born on Mott Street but moved to a larger home in Brooklyn. "I feel so connected to this area. I can show you where my grandparents lived. But it's such a different world now."

Josh Getlin is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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