Posted on 06 October 2009.
Flags and decorations overhung this year’s Feast of San Gennaro festival (Photo: Andrew Tobin)
By ANDREW TOBIN
John Labou stood idly at the southernmost end of the Little Italy neighborhood of Manhattan, and surveyed the scene. It was the last day of this year’s Feast of San Gennaro festival, and thousands of visitors filled the streets. However, very few people were stopping at his booth on the northwest corner of Canal and Mulberry Streets.
For the last 82 years, Labou’s family has sold Italian nuts, candy and paraphernalia at the event. Since Labou inherited the business a few years ago, his profits have decline annually, and this year he lost money for the first time.
“I’m contemplating not being here next year,” he said.
Many other longtime vendors are in similar situations. They have noticed that as Little Italy and the Feast of San Gennaro have become less defined by Italian culture, demand for their traditional Italian products has diminished.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hundreds of thousands of Italians immigrated to New York. Most of them settled in southeastern Manhattan, forming Little Italy.
Labou’s grandparents emigrated from Naples as part of this movement, helping to form the Neapolitan section of the neighborhood. On Sept. 19, 1926, they and three other families on their block publicly celebrated the first Feast of San Gennaro in the United States. They opened food stands outside of their coffee shops, strung lights from the buildings, and erected a small chapel containing a statue of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples, in the street.
The event quickly grew within the Neapolitan community, and eventually expanded into an 11-day celebration of Italian-American identity all over Little Italy. Over the last several decades, the festival has increasingly become a reflection of the entire city.
Mort Berkowitz, the owner of an event planning company, has produced the Feast of San Gennaro since former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani wrested it from what was deemed organized crime control in 1996. He said: “The festival is designed to maintain the heritage of Italians in American. It gives people the opportunity to come back and reconnect with their roots.”
To this end, Berkowitz ensured that this year’s street fair took place under green, white and red decorations, and a lot of Italian and American flags. Italian ballads emanated from the main stage near the southwest corner of Mott and Grand Streets, and from speakers throughout the event. All other types of music were prohibited.
In addition to the numerous Italian restaurants that characterize the neighborhood, the streets were crowded with hundreds of Italian food vendors, mostly selling Italian sausages.
However, in some areas gyros, shish kebabs and piña coladas predominated. There were also fair games, rides and even a small freak show, featuring the “Alive Angel Snake Girl.”
Dr. Joseph V. Scesla, the founder and director of the Italian American Museum on the southwest corner of Grand and Mulberry Streets, said that the proliferation of these businesses reflected larger demographic trends.
Tourists and faithful paid tribute to an icon of San Gennaro (Photo: Andrew Tobin)
Over the last several decades, the community and the borders of Little Italy have diminished. The immigrants that founded the neighborhood have died, and most of their descendants have moved away.
“At this point, there are less than a thousand Italians living in the area,” he said.
Other groups have replaced the dwindling Italian-American population, and the surrounding neighborhoods have appropriated Little Italy’s peripheral blocks.
As Berkowitz put it: “The Chinese came from the south, and the Yuppies came from the north. So Little Italy has become Very Little Italy.” He said that he has tried to preserve the historic character of the Feast of San Gennaro, but that there are no longer enough Italian booths to fill the streets.
In the absence of a local community, the event is mostly operated for and visited by tourists from in and around the city. Berkowitz estimated that one million people visited this year, down from the yearly average of one and a half million, and he said the economy was a factor. Even the Italian-Americans that are involved with the event are largely from other parts of the city.
Joe Rizzo and his wife, Linda Molinari, are from Queens. They both grew up in Italian households, and trace their lineage back to Little Italy. It had been several years since they attended the festival, but this year they took the subway into Manhattan for the last day.
They enjoyed the experience, but were disappointed by the cultural changes they saw. Rizzo said: “This neighborhood used to be rock solid Italian. It was a lot more meaningful to visit back then.”
Molinari agreed, saying, “I didn’t come down here to get a shish kebab.”
On the other hand, they both felt that the changing nature of Little Italy was part of an inevitable process. Rizzo said, “People keep coming to American for opportunity, just like our ancestors.”
Jerry Scivetti grew up in Little Italy and later moved to Queens, but he’s still an active member of the Church of the Most Precious Blood, which conducts a celebratory Mass and parades a statue of San Gennaro through the streets of Little Italy every Sept. 19.
“You don’t have to be Italian,” he said. “Everyone can come here and enjoy our traditions.”
Steps have recently been taken to ensure that Little Italy retains some of its Italian heritage. This September the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council announced the addition of Chinatown and Little Italy to the State Register as one unified Historic District. And last October, the Italian American Museum opened, aiming to educate Americans about the history of Italians in the U.S.
Scesla said, “Little Italy is getting smaller and smaller, less and less Italian, and we need to observe something here.”