Authentic Little Italy: Che Cos’è?
There are many in the field of Italian American Studies who are not especially sanguine about its future; either as an academic or a more popular cultural enterprise. At meetings of the American Italian Historical Association and the Italian American Writers Association the eyes and smiles of old-timers widen whenever a new young voice is heard. As everyone knows, scholars and authors of all ethnicities require intellectual progeny. To die unquoted or unread is the fate of those in a special section reserved for intellectuals in Dante’s First Circle of the Inferno.
On the brightest side, I had the recent pleasure, and indeed honor, of helping to launch a new journal with my “Authentic Little Italy: Che Cos’e? A Photo Essay” (presented here in brief) in The Harvard College Journal of Italian American History and Culture. The Journal was created by Editors in Chief- Justin Rossi and Sabino Ciorciari, under the guidance of their Faculty Advisor- Elvira DiFabio, Director of Undergraduate Studies in Romance Languages at Harvard.
The Harvard Italian American Association started this project in November, 2006 to be distributed on campus as well as to Italian American leaders, scholars, academic programs, and organizations. Its goal is to promote the highest level of scholarship and provide a forum and resource for those with a passion for all levels of Italian American culture. HIAA’s
Is there an “authentic” Little Italy, and if there is, what does it look like? On the first part of the question, I take the negative position. The second part of the question though is a bit more complex. In cities across the
During a trip to
Despite the fact that more than sixteen million claim to be Italian American today and that Italian American stereotypes are common, a many scholars maintain that Italians Americans are not a “real” ethnic group at all. Rudolph Vecoli strongly disagrees and argues that Italian American are not “just like” any other White Folks. In American society today being an Italian American, or being identified as such, has significant effects on one’s life chances which are different from others, even other White Ethnic groups. For better as well as for worse, that which stands for Italian Americans and Italian America is Little Italy. For some Italian Americans, it is also the place where they periodically seek authenticity and a return to “Their roots.” One often reads in local newspapers about Italian Americans who return to the “old neighborhood” from the suburbs to shop, touch base with remaining old friends, or to attend a religious or cultural festival. In most cases the neighborhood they or their offspring are returning to is not what they left behind. Some “Italian” neighborhoods are virtually empty of those with Italian roots. In other cases remaining Italian Americans are surrounded by restaurants and shops more designed for tourists than for them. Little
Most of these Little Italies are examples of what I have termed “Ethnic Theme Parks” which are preserved as spectacles for the appreciation of tourists. I must caution the reader however that I have selected for this essay some images which are the most glaringly, in my opinion, non-representative of Italians in
I have been observing and photographing the changing urban landscape of
Wooster Street, New Haven, 2003.
As most other Little Italies, the Wooster Street version in
Al Capone at the Italian Market on Arthur Avenue, The
Umberto’s Clam House Replica on Arthur Avenue, The Bronx, 2006
As other Little Italies in
Al Fresco Eating on Mulberry Street, Manhattan, 2007.
San Gennaro among Wooden Indians in a Cigar Store Window,
The most venerated, perhaps venerable , and certainly the most visited of all of America’s Little Italies continues to be on Mulberry Street which is squeezed on three sides by a growing Chinatown and on the other side by gentrifying NoLito (North of Little Italy). The barely religious Neopolitan feast of San Gennaro still takes place here but most of the year it is simply a collection of more or less “Italian” eating places and emporia.
Frank Rizzo Mural
The ethnic composition of
Al Pacino as Don Michael Corleone, The Godfather III, 1990,
Gift shop in The Hill,
When I visited “The Hill” in 2002 I knew that the area was settled in the early 1900s by Italian immigrants and that some of its residents carry on traditions in this neighborhood which is a short distance from a rather unimpressive downtown. I also knew that baseball personalities Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola had once lived there. Having visited similar sites, I was not surprised to find fire hydrants painted in the Italian tricolore and gift shops which sold products like those displayed in the photo above.
At the late 19th century the space near Fisherman’s Wharf was known as “
Note: Some of my photo galleries on Little Italies in The Bronx, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Haven can be found at: www.brooklynsoc.org on the right had side of the page.
Rudolph J. Vecoli, “Are Italian Americans Just White Folks?,” in Jerome Krase and Frank Sorrentino (eds), The Review of Italian American Studies.