Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mean Streets 2011

With all the recent agita about the San Gennaro Feast, with the pressure from the new Nolitans to shorten it, to stop it, to turn it into an "artisanal" festival like the Hester Street Fair (basil popsicles! pesto cupcakes!), a reader spotted this T-shirt by the Built by Wendy boutique in "Nolita."

The shirt design recalls Scorsese's 1973 film Mean Streets and shows De Niro and Keitel in front of a Little Italy and San Gennaro backdrop. Behind them is the sign for the Built by Wendy boutique, which did not exist in 1973, and the revolver-shaped sign of perhaps the Jovino gun shop, which did exist, for over 80 years, pretty much where the boutique is now.

Underneath is a quote from Mean Streets: "I hate this feast with a passion." It sells for $45.

The quote is from the scene where Johnny Boy and Charlie are driving through quiet streets and Johnny Boy says, "Ah, feels good, huh, Charl'? Streets are empty. Nice. Minchia, thank God, I mean, with that feast on, ya can't even move in your own neighborhood now. I hate that feast with a passion."

screenshots from Mean Streets

I keep hearing this quote from people who want to talk about how residents of Little Italy have hated the feast for as long as recorded history, as evidenced by Mean Streets.

Hey, minchia, nobody said everybody always loves the feast. As for Johnny Boy, he hated a lot of things. He probably would've hated the Nolitan boutiques, too.

Besides, having Robert De Niro, in the character of Johnny Boy Civello, utter these words written by Martin Scorsese about the Feast of San Gennaro is kind of like saying, "I hate my mother." He can say it--that's his mother--but don't anybody else dare say it.

Context is everything.

Taking context into account, the quote in the film symbolizes more than mere annoyance at being inconvenienced.

Writes Vincent LoBrutto in his Scorsese biography, to Johnny Boy the feast "is an invasion of privacy.... The eyes of the world are on Little Italy during its run and this is a community that functions in secrecy."

Author Robert Casillo, in Gangster Priest, says that Johnny Boy's passionate hatred of the feast "displays an aggressive ill will antithetical to the Passion of Christ and the deeds of the martyr" Saint Gennaro.

If Johnny Boy is for darkness, the feast is for light. Ultimately, says Casillo, it is a light that cannot totally banish the darkness: "rituals and festivals commemorate and simulate sacrificial violence so as to inoculate society against it. The festival fails to do so, and violence erupts" among the young men of Mean Streets.

The light of the feast permeates Mean Streets. With its music, it spills into every alley and shadow it can reach. It fills the nearby apartments, a background thrum to the arguments inside the bedrooms, kitchens, and hallways of the tenements above. It shines on the windows where people lean out to see. But its reach has limits.

As Scorsese's camera flies up and up, high above the sparkling archways, we see the expanse of urban darkness that surrounds the feast. The lights are like the solitary brightness of a campfire in the wilderness where the dark expands ever outward, giving cover to nature's red tooth and claw.

Today those streets are still mean, but instead of violence, they are laced with pettiness.


xoxoxo said...

Yes, yes, yes. I hate snide $45 t-shirts with a passion and although not a huge fan of zeppole love that the Feast of San Gennaro is still a tradition.

Plus, without the feast, how could DeNiro's Vito Corleone ever become The Godfather?

Marco Romano said...

Great post weaving "Mean Streets", the light and dark, the Feast and boutique-landia.

Susan May Tell said...

Wow! Terrific post!

EV Grieve said...

I'm really in the mood to watch 'Mean Streets' again now.

Anonymous said...

Cut the support for San Gennaro. It is not a cultural event anymore. I fully support displays of tradition but what tradition is there in hiring carnies from out of town to set up booths of undercooked meat and deep fried fat?

None of the people pushing for the festival live in the city but they all own properties there and rent them out to fake purse salesmen and comically bad "Italian restaurants" staffed by people pretending to be Italian. Their one stake is that they own the buildings on Mulberry street and want that continued income source at any cost.

The comical bit about this support is the residents of "NoLiTa" and Little Italy actually support keeping the neighborhood and buildings the way they are.

Don't think these San Gennaro board members wouldn't sell their properties out if they were made a good offer.

I hate to admit it but the transplants and yuppies of that area seem to have more respect for the neighborhood.

If you want to see a real Italian festival, go to the ones in Bay Ridge.

Caleo said...

Excellent post Mr. Moss. Mean Streets is one of my all time favorite films, and I love the way you compare and contrast with todays situation.
As an Italian American I can honestly say I stay away from the feast completely if I can. I've been twice and that was more than enough for a lifetime. That being said I still think that it represents a link to Old New York. At this point I see the Italian roots of the Feast as almost incidental.
If the organizers want to preserve it and garner sympathy for their fight I think the Feast should shrink a bit in size and length, and they should resurrect and reemphasize the Italian heart and soul of the festival.
In the end, even if longtime residents hate the feast, they should realize appeasing the new residents who want to control "Nolita" is going to encourage the further destruction of another slice of old New York. There is a way to tame the chaos of the feast and still retain the spirit of the original neighborhood.

Crazy Eddie said...


Nobody could say it better, nice middle ground to take, I totally agree.

However, this Nolita crowd is a bunch of mooks.

Jeremiah Moss said...

agreed, Caleo. these changes need to come from within the feast organizers, not from outside pressures. sadly, it's quite possible the feast will end completely as the neighborhood continues to upscale.

so many of the quotes from boutique owners are classist and repulsive. can positive change occur in that atmosphere?

i hope the feast organizers can do what's necessary to stay around another 100 years.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

Maybe Bob and Marty could weigh in on this issue...

JakeGould said...

The core of Jeremiah’s argument is simply stated in this statement:
‘Besides, having Robert De Niro, in the character of Johnny Boy Civello, utter these words written by Martin Scorsese about the Feast of San Gennaro is kind of like saying, "I hate my mother." He can say it--that's his mother--but don't anybody else dare say it.’

BINGO! This is akin to when I was growing up in Brooklyn and my parents rent controlled building was being turned into a “co-op.” If I wasn’t there to run interference and let the “management” know that I was there, they would have tried to push them out onto the street.

Need another analogy? It’s like when you go to a restaurant, are slowly trying to finish a meal and have some stuff left and the waiter rushes to try and get the plate away from you. You have to fight some schmuck who wants to push you out so he can get another table free while the food you are still eating is there on the plate!

San Gennaro is dying. But it’s not dead. Don’t ban the feast. Respect it and scale it down.

City Of Strangers said...

While I agree with some of the above comments - I haven't been to San Gennaro for years - 45$ for a freakin' t-shirt about says it all.


Bowery Boy said...

Like many who live in the area, I've always had a love/hate relationship with the Feast. And I think both sides have valid disagreement that they are welcome to debate in an honest forum. But, to put a gun on this t-shirt really crosses the line for me. Unfortunately, we all get that. It's such a teaparty offense that does nothing to sway me to their side. Quite the contrary, acutally. sad.

fiflaru said...

I wouldn't really want to make a point using a quote from Johnny Boy. They guy was a psycho.

I used to attend the festival in the 1960s and on. By that time it was not a "real" cultural festival. It was tatty and rude. Besides, most of the Italians had moved to the Bronx and didn't want to remember living in ratholes in Little Italy. But it is a remnant of what NY is about. It is historic in the same way the Saint Patrick's Parade or Chinese New Year firecrackers is historic. The festival is part of the fabric of the city. For that reason, it should stay. The little boutiques will be a blip in the grand scheme of things.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant. I haven't been to the festa for years, but when I did, my favorite time to go was on a weekday right after it opened for the night, before the crowds. Everyone was very loose and friendly and I could move freely.

Anonymous said...

Laywer for Robert Denero is Calling as we speak......

Crazy Eddie said...

Denero ?

" I heard things."

Anonymous said...

sorry De Niro

Crazy Eddie said...

Nessun problema,Anonymous

Davide-NYC said...

Chinese New Year : One Day
Saint Patricks Day: One Day

San Gennaro: It Never Ends.

Anonymous said...

Whassa mook?

mingusal said...

A wonderful old movie, to be sure. But I'm not sure what any of this has to do with two weeks of still-warm vomit on my front stoop every morning.

Unknown said...

wow $45 seriously? that's way too much. Plus u should make a shirt where Johnny Boy says "I'm a big shot!" now that I would buy.... for a reasonable price.