Recently, the Nolitan attack against the San Gennaro Feast kicked into high gear. As DNAInfo reported, "NoLita residents and merchants seeking to rid their neighborhood of the annual San Gennaro Feast scored a victory last week when Community Board 2 penned a letter to the city's permit office urging them to cut off the 85-year-old festival at Kenmare Street, the de facto border between Little Italy and NoLita."
Nolita, of course, did not exist until it was invented, carved from the body of Little Italy by the Gods of Real Estate in 1996. Coincidentally (?), that same year, Giuliani took "the spirit out of the festival" with a City Hall crackdown ostensibly aimed at organized crime. The die was cast.
Nolita didn't become a powerful lobbying force until the past few years, when its massing troops set out to destroy whatever remained of vanishing Little Italy. Just look at what they did to Elizabeth Street--the forces of upscale retail are fierce. Said one new shop manager about the feast, "You don't want people coming in with greasy sausage fingers. And it always seems to clash with Fashion Week--a busy time of year for us."
It may be inconvenient for the new boutiques, but the Feast has been going strong in this neighborhood a little bit longer than Nolita--since 1926. Of course, many of the newest New Yorkers have a short memory for these things. Martin Scorsese recounted this story from a trip to DiPalo's Food Shop, "Last time I was there, [Mr. DiPalo] told me some student who had just moved to the area came in and asked him, ‘What made you open an Italian cheese shop in a Chinese neighborhood?'"
The main arguments against the Feast ignore history. The opposition says, in sum, "It has lately become too commercial. It's gotten too big and too crowded. It's no longer authentic because it includes foods and products that aren't even Italian. It goes on for too many days." All of that may be true, but none of it is new.
For decades the Feast has been commercial, and has included foods and products of many non-Italian ethnicities, including a mix of tradition and the contemporary.
The New Yorker magazine in 1957 described what was then a six-day feast as "a scene of colossal, assured, offhand pandemonium." It was a cacophony of "zeppolo, hot pepperoni, pizza, Pepsi-Cola, sausage-and-eggplant sandwiches, lemon ice, cat-faced balloons, Confederate campaign hats, Japanese parasols, wedding dolls, chances on stuffed bunnies, chances on a Chevrolet, chances on dyed goldfish."
New Yorker, 1952
The feast is too long, say the new neighbors, but it's always been long. In the 1950s it lasted for 6 days, and by the early 1970s it stretched over two weeks. That bigness used to be a source of pride for the city. Said New York Magazine in 1972, "In Naples, where it originated, the feast only lasts four days. But, like everything else, it's bigger in New York and goes on for almost two weeks. Which leaves no excuse for missing it."
And it's always been crowded, enough to induce a crushing feeling. A 1974 New York Magazine called it "no place for the fainthearted," due to the massive crowding. "Taken in the right spirit, however, it can be the city's most rewarding contact sport."
1984's Guide to Fairs and Festivals in the United States describes this "two-week festival" as a sprawling, jammed, commercial, diverse event: "More than 300 stands line Mulberry and adjoining streets. These stands sell all kinds of Neapolitan foods, pastries, and drinks. Over the years, other ethnic foods have been added, but the annual event that attracts the astounding number of over 2 million people remains a Neapolitan folklore event."
To hear the opposition tell it, the Feast was a quaint, quiet, purely religious, two-day celebration until just a few years ago. Not so.
Close up, Josh Gosfield, New Yorker, 9/20/93
So when did the city's opinion about the Feast begin to change for the worse?
Calvin Trillin wrote a lovely piece for the New Yorker in 1981 in which he outlines everything that irritates him about the San Gennaro Feast (it's crowded, there are too many "rubes" from out of town, it includes the same stands and the same food as other New York street fairs, and it keeps pushing farther uptown), but then he goes on to say that he cannot resist attending it. He goes every year, admitting to himself "I rather enjoy pushing my way down Mulberry" at this special time.
Maybe people have always been irritated by the feast--but they still enjoyed it. (Except for, by the mid-1990s, book editors, movie people, and Chinese restaurateurs, according to this 1995 Opinion piece in the Times.)
Robert Grossman, 2000
The emotional tide against the Feast really turned when the whole city turned, just a decade ago. We see a glimmer of it beginning in a multi-panel comic strip in the New Yorker for September 25, 2000. Among several delightful pro-Feast panels, artist Robert Grossman includes one panel of "minority opinions from neighborhood people." The panel shows a man who avoids the feast, along with an ice-cream eating, dachsund-walking young woman who simply doesn't like it.
This opinion is no longer the minority.
2007 sign at Feast booth: "Be Nice!"
"Nolita" was spawned in 1996, but it was in the mid-2000s, once its streets had been completely changed into upscale shopping malls and the luxury condos were securely in place, that it came into full bloom. And that's when the new, socioeconomically powerful neighbors turned on an already Giuliani-weakened San Gennaro.
The anti-Feast attacks began to really heat up in 2007, when neighbors persuaded Community Board 2 to deny the Feast a permit. At that time, the Medici Foundation of Italian-Americans tried to fight back against the Nolita label, knowing that it meant death. As they wrote, "our ancestor’s neighborhood deserves the recognition and the honor by having their 'historic neighborhood' not be unjustly relabeled as NoLita for the economic gain by various city capitalists."
Said a Community Board 2 member in 2007, "No one likes San Gennaro who lives here." As the Observer observed at the time, "The cultural enrichment provided by this perpetual al fresco experience may be lost on newcomers to the ever-changing neighborhood, where glitzy new luxury apartments are under construction... Still, it’s hard to imagine that the newly transplanted hushers and sanitation hawks could sway officials into yanking the street permits."
Give them time.
NY Post, 2011
One San Gennaro boardmember and long-time resident sees the current move to cut back the Feast as the beginning of the end. As he says, the Nolitans "want to turn Mulberry Street into Madison Avenue—it's a war on our culture."
Little Italy and its big feast will lose that war. The flood has come. Wrote the Post today, "Little Italy is starting to look a lot like the Meatpacking District in its early days... 'In my view the Meatpacking District is kind of on its last legs,' says Mulberry Project partner Nick Boccio. 'The populace is migrating in this direction.'"
And how do members and supporters of that populace feel about the Feast? Some choice comments from Curbed readers:
"All other countried have festivals in NYC that go for ONE instead of the 2 weeks of filth and stench that the residentas of Nolita have to put up with."
"Little Italy is a tourist trap with no real Italians living there. They should move the festival to Bay Ridge or Bensonhurst."
"While I'm not totally against, San G, I think letting them take over a city street for 10 days is absurd. Give them a weekend to have their party."