The Living Ghosts of Little Italy

Anna Russo lives in Little Italy, and pays $83 a month in rent for her one-bedroom apartment.

The window looks down on Mulberry Street, the heart of Little Italy. Today, tourists gawk and walk between Italian restaurants spilling onto the sidewalk – but it wasn’t always that way.

“We used to play games in the street,” says Russo, who’s lived in Little Italy for all of her 80 years, and in her rent-controlled apartment for 50. “There was no traffic. It wasn’t like this.”

The transformation may have taken decades, but this lower Manhattan neighborhood’s slow hemorrhage of natives has taken its toll. As many of the area’s descendents have left for calmer places – like Russo’s daughter, a science teacher in Long Island – Little Italy seems to have abandoned much of its Italian heritage, leaving a few deeply-rooted locals with little to hold onto.

“No more Italian people – they’re gone,” says Russo. “We’re the Last of the Mohicans.”

Russo isn’t imagining the change. The neighborhood’s Italian population peaked at about 10,000 people in 1910, and has been vanishing at a much faster rate in the last few years – the number of people identifying themselves as Italian fell by 50 percent between 1990 and 2000.

Joseph Scelsa, president of the Italian American Museum, says there’s a simple reason the neighborhood’s Italians have disappeared – they’ve integrated into American society. “We’re everywhere,” Scelsa says. “We’ve been culturally assimilated.”

Originally, Scelsa says, Italians began settling in Little Italy because it was close to where ships from Europe unloaded their passengers – slightly more than half a mile from the East River. As families would immigrate to the neighborhood, relatives coming over would move to the same area as well.

“Unfortunately, we’ve integrated a little too well,” he says, and it’s Italian-American history that’s paying the price – including Little Italy.

“It’s a mere shadow of its former self,” he says of the neighborhood. “But there’s still plenty of Italian-Americans around.”

One of them is Salvadore Lunetto, 82, who moved here after World War II to be with his wife. Like many locals his age, he’s retired, and as he puts it, “retirement is very boring.” One of the things he looks forward to, however, is his daily jaunts to the DeSalvia Playground Park, where kids play on jungle gyms while the elderly sun themselves on benches.

“What was Little Italy’s now Little Chinatown,” says Lunetto, in reference to the massive influx of Asian immigrants in recent years. (In the three census tracts that make up Little Italy, almost 8,500 people identified themselves as Asian in the 2000 census – compared to about 5,000 that considered themselves Caucasian.)

Newcomer Petrea Davis agrees with that assessment. “It’s pretty [much] Chinatown if you ask me,” the 29-year-old says of the area surrounding her Mott Street apartment between Broome and Grand Streets – well within the 30-block zone traditionally defined as Little Italy.

Davis, who manages a shoe boutique at the corner of Mulberry and Spring Streets, moved into her apartment 10 months ago. Since then, she says she’s met plenty of people from the neighborhood – but the only Italians she meets are old-timers.

“I think all that’s left of the culture is the old people,” Davis says. “I love seeing them around. There’s nothing cuter than a little old Italian lady.”

Still, not all the area natives are old. Virginia Spota lives on Broome Street, across from the building she was born in 56 years ago. A former teacher at the neighborhood’s Old St. Patrick’s Catholic school and third-generation inhabitant of the area, she says her family has lived there since 1886 – and she can’t stand the way things have changed.

“It was better before,” Spota says. “We all knew each other – who the hell knows all these people?” she adds, gesturing to the tourists walking past on the street.

Some of the newer residents have their share of complaints with the older inhabitants, too. Stephanie Pappas owns Eva, a boutique along Mulberry Street that sells women’s apparel. Her biggest complaint stems from the Feast of San Gennaro festival, an annual street fair along Mulberry Street that draws over 1 million visitors.

“It’s just really dirty and it keeps people out of our neighborhood,” says Pappas. “It’s noisy and disgusting.”

Even the restaurants – one of the neighborhood’s few remaining ties to its heritage – don’t get as much business from the natives as they used to. Jimmy Valentino, 44, is the manager of the Italian Food Center on the corner of Grand and Mulberry Streets. “[The natives] are starting to disappear,” he says, “[but] we still get some of them.”

Russo, for one, says she still fights the tourists to go out to eat in the area. “The owners know us,” she smiles.

But none of the area’s natives seem to want to leave.

 “Everything we want is here,” says Russo, gesturing to the grocery store behind her. “And we’re on rent control,” she laughs. “That’s why we’re still here.”

“We couldn’t afford living here [without rent control],” Spota says. Apartments like hers in her building, she says, go for $3,000 a month these days. She says she pays about $750 a month for her 2-bedroom apartment – a hefty sum, considering the apartment has been in her husband’s family since 1940.

Still, rent control isn’t just for the lifetime residents. Davis says her one-bedroom is stabilized at $1300 a month.  But in another sign of the changing times, Davis has her apartment not through years of occupancy.

Rather, she found it through Craigslist.

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2 thoughts on “The Living Ghosts of Little Italy

  1. I’m Sal’s daughter Rita who left the neighborhood in 1971 to marry a Texan. Virginia Spota (nee Maida) will always be considered my best friend. In the day, Little Italy was teeming with kids. Noisy vendors hawked their goods in pushcarts. We played stickball, roller-skated, and the creative ones, such as Virginia and I, would hold our own Miss America pageants. It was a chilhood that, in a word, was unique. A childhood that I wouldn’t trade for anything in this world. The buildings are still there; the empty factories that eventually became pricey lofts. But the energy has changed with the proverbial passing of the guard. I have often wondered if the newcomers of the last twenty years or so, are buying into those energies, the ghosts of Little Italy. I am sad that my neighborhood has changed. But the spirit of it will stay with me forever.

  2. OMG! I attended St Patrick’s School and was friends with Rita! Mom is Rita (DelPrete) Szurkus and her BFF was Franny and husband Charlie!
    Those were the days when you could walk the streets amongst your many neighborhood friends. Remember playing on the front stoop and sidewalks and having so much fun. Ms. Briggs at the park was our (monitor) friend while we had knock-hockey tournaments and skated in the park! The sprinklers was so much fun to run underneath and all around the pool area!
    Yes, those were memories made in beautiful, lower east-side NYC and wonderful Little Italy.
    Memories that will always warm my heart.

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