Thursday, February 24, 2011


As the New York Times reports that Little Italy is getting littler by the year, as Chinatown and "Nolita" encroach, and the number of Italian-American residents dwindles, take a look back at the way it was with Martin Scorsese's 1974 documentary film Italianamerican--in five parts on Youtube.

all images screenshots from the film

It's not only a wonderful record of an Italian-American couple (Scorsese's parents), it also provides a glimpse of Little Italy in the 1970s.

In shots mostly appearing in part two, Little Italy is a neighborhood where the streets are full of life. Fruit and vegetable peddlers sell their wares on the sidewalks where children play a game of sliding, belly-first, on sheets of cardboard. Barber poles spin and old men sit outside in chairs and on boxes to watch the human parade go by.

Catherine and Charles Scorsese tell stories about growing up in the neighborhood--about tough mothers who scrubbed the floors without complaint and fathers who worked in scaffolding, about stealing fruit from pushcarts and being a Shabbos goy.

In the beginning of part three, Catherine Scorsese talks about what happened when the Italians first came to the neighborhood, when it was still Irish territory, and the cultures clashed. She says, in defense of the Irish, "It's just like everything else, you know, they were here first. Naturally, it's just like kids when they find something, and they find it and they have it, and then somebody comes along and wants it and they say, 'No, I found it first.' Right? ... But then, they sort of, everybody got together and they made one happy family. That's all."

I can't help but think about today's territory clash in Little Italy, between the Italian-Americans and the Nolitans. In all the reporting, I haven't heard one Nolitan express the empathy and understanding that Mrs. Scorsese did in the quote above.


ShatteredMonocle said...

But the food, it's just so greasy!

Filmatix said...

Delete: vibrant community full of commerce, tradition, delicious, affordable food, and character.

Insert: Sterile, money-porn boutiques, artisanal everything, and a bunch of clueless narcissists.

One almost hopes China takes over the U.S. so that at least Chinatown might be saved.

Caleo said...

Jeremiah, you're on a run. 1st Mean Streets and now italianamerican. I love both films and just watched italianamerican 2 months ago. It reminds me of my grandparents and growing up in the 70's. The simplicity and warmth of the kitchen and living room, where life unfolds.
I agree with Filmatix and the comparison. I actually don't mind Chinatown swallowing Little Italy.
At least it's another genuine ethnic community replacing the old one.
But Chinatown is under threat as well, so we'll see what happens.

Anonymous said...

"Delete: vibrant community full of commerce, tradition, delicious, affordable food, and character."

Delicious, Affordable food? Have you been down there? It is at minimum $12 for a dish of cold pasta bought from restaurant depot and sauce. commerce? What, the fake purses and shirts that say hot guido mom? Tradition? Of whom? The eastern europeans who pretend to be italian and work there and don't live in nyc?

The only character remains in the residents of Little Italy who vastly oppose the disgusting street festivals.

Claribel said...

The Villager article that you linked to, written by Victor J. Papa, is a great one. I hope it gets printed out and distributed all over the neighborhood.

There was one manager of a swimwear store who was quoted on DNAinfo as saying "Obviously we came to this neighborhood knowing it was here," she said of the festival. "It's not our place to say whether it should or should not stop at Kenmare." Wish there were more like her.

Anonymous said...

Everything, EVERYTHING in NYC changes and it always has. I spent a lot of time mourning the changes and then i realized, you can't stop it. It's the nature of this city, it's why we live here and it's what makes it vibrant and inspiring. As someone who has lived on Mulberry street for 10 years, I've seen a lot of change, but mostly the elderly italians who used to live here have passed away and their children and grandchildren didn't live here. I can say with authority that San Gennaro has very little cultural attachment to Little Italy anymore. Its filled with the same vendors and scumbags as any other street fair they set up in the city- most of them not even from NYC. It's pointless to carry on a tradition that no longer has a specific value to it. Holding onto a past that no longer exists is futile.
NYC is a city of commerce, and landlords are really the ones who control the demographics of an area. All this change is attributable at the root to vast increases in rent prices where the longterm tenants are forced out and money moves in.

Grade "A" Fancy said...

"Italianamerican" will also be on TCM on Wednesday the 16th (7pm), followed by "Weddings and Babies," which is shot in Greenwich Village and Little Italy-- with visits to the Feast -- in the late 1950's.

(Also appearing is the Sunnyside/Woodside graveyard district.)

Anonymous said...

as someone who has lived in the city for 50+ years, i'd have to say it's been a long time since the feast and the neighborhood has been vibrant and/or ethnic. i do miss the bingo-playing grandmas, and their shopping carts.

if you remember on of the best lines in mean streets was: "i hate that feast with a passion."

Anonymous said...

Have lived here for decades and have always hated it with a passion. But it is, even in present form, part of the neighborhood and I'll defend it against boutique owners who don't want their clothes to smell of grease. (But note also the context of the Mean Streets remark: San Gennaro is Neapolitan and Elizabeth Street Sicilian: not long after Gennaro there was a small neighborhood feast for San Gandolfo, who is now relegated to a table at San Gennaro's.) The city does change all the time, but what is different now is the lack of continuity and the obliteration of the economic diversity (both of residents and types of businesses) that always gave the city its character and vitality.