Place a group of nostalgic Italians anywhere in the world and a Little Italy is sure to spring up around them. It is perhaps in the US, however, where Italian immigrants have made their most indelible mark. Many American cities have neighbourhoods with a strong Italian heritage, the most sizeable of which can be found in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, San Diego and, of course, New York. New York City boasts the most famous Little Italy in the country, although more than one such neighbourhood exists in the city. The best-known is that centred on Mulberry Street in Lower Manhattan, so close to Chinatown that it is almost in symbiosis with it. In fact, right from the very first arrivals in the 19th century, Italian immigrants were taking up residence all over town. While the largest community used to be in East Harlem, it dispersed in the 1930s as Puerto Rican immigrants moved in.
A new HOME
Today, Manhattan’s Little Italy is a tourist attraction, a folkloric example of how Italians were perceived when they first arrived in America. While nothing here seems quite authentic, you can still find quality Italian foods here such as prosciutto meats, Italian bread or taralli crackers. These neighbourhoods testify to the resilience of those who made them, men and women who recreated a home away from home for themselves and their families. Many Italians arrived with little education, without a word of English, or with thick accents. Forced to live in tiny apartments in cramped tenement buildings, and working long hours, they still found time to turn their neighbourhood into a community, a distinctive and diverse homage to the Italian culture and spirit.
A BETTER LIFE
To find out more about New York’s Italian-Americans, Speak Up met with Stefano Morello, teaching fellow at Queens College, City University of New York. Morello’s great-grandmother Salvatrice Nigido was a Sicilian seamstress who left her five-year-old daughter (Morello’s grandmother) in Militello in Val di Catania (Sicily) to join her brother in New York in 1913. As Morello explains, Italian immigrants like his great-grandmother, who died just years after reaching America, arrived there with hopes of a better life.
Stefano Morello (Italian accent):There had been a big Italian diaspora happening towards America. The urban areas of the United States were exploding in terms of productivity, industries were developing in the cities, and there were just a lot of job opportunities, many of which were not ideal in terms of workers’ rights, but compared to the opportunities that Italian immigrants didn’t have in their home countries, that was a big improvement. To give you a sense of how many Italians came to the United States in the that era, we’re talking about two million just between 1900 and 1910.
For early Italian immigrants life was hard. They resided in crowded buildings with insufficient ventilation and little natural light. But as the decades passed, their lives improved.
Stefano Morello: Starting in the 1930s, as Italian-Americans are moving up the social ladder, they start to pursuing [pursue] their dream of home owning, which was what many of these immigrants were used to in their native land. Many of them, including my family, where rural workers or peasants or seamstresses. So as they made their way up the social ladder in New York, they were able to pursue their dream of owning a home.
Subsequent generations of Italian-Americans were increasingly adventurous, taking up residence in other parts of the city and country, and assimilating into the wider American culture, as Morello explains.
Stefano Morello: We see the biggest dispersion of Italian-Americans in the 1950s. And that’s not just typical of Italian-Americans, it’s typical of many ethnic communities. There was a lot of political pressure, starting even in the early 1900s, where you have on the one hand, the reformers are interested in creating better living conditions for the Italian immigrants and for the immigrants in American cities in general, even though with a paternalistic sort of approach. But on the other hand we also have nativists, as they were called, who pushed for assimilation by dispersion. Which is to say, they believed that as long as the immigrant community stayed together, as long as immigrants clung onto their ethnic neighborhoods, they would have a harder time assimilating into Anglo-Saxon standards of living. So there is a push to disperse Little Italy into the suburbs, because if immigrants are scattered far apart from one another, they will more easily become like their fellow-Americans or fellow-German immigrants who have also assimilated to American Society.
PAST AND FUTURE
While assimilation allowed Italian culture to make its mark on America, much of the authenticity of Little Italy neighbourhoods was lost. Morello talks more about that.
Stefano Morello: I came across this expression which is somewhat popular among third-generation Italians, which is “What the first generation wants to forget the second generation wants to remember.” And that is to say that very often because there was a strong push for assimilation, the first generation immigrants tried to shield their children from learning about Italian culture, and from learning about their origins and their past and their culture. So when I go to Little Italy I’m often reminded of a possible scenario which is maybe a question to think about is: What would Little Italy look like today had there not been such a strong push to assimilation? What kind of cultural richness would there be?
Thousands of streets across America actually taste of Italy, with their multiplicity of pizza parlours and ethnic restaurants. But the streets are also Italian in another sense: one of Italian-Americans’ most popular cultural contributions has been their annual festivals (or feasts or fairs or celebrations), with colourful street parties. Throughout the US, wherever there’s a Little Italy district or an Italian neighbourhood, there are annual festive celebrations with Italian music and food and elaborate displays of devotion to patron saints. In fact, more than three hundred Italian feasts are celebrated in the US. The best-known is the eleven-day Feast of San Gennaro in September in New York, but the largest is Festa Italiana, held in Milwaukee every summer.