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State Designates Chinatown, Little Italy One Historic District

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By Margaret Zamos-Monteith

“This is the most harmonious community that ever existed in New York,” declared Victor Papa, President of Two Bridges Neighborhood Council.  Along with the Little Italy Merchant’s Association and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, Two Bridges announced yesterday Chinatown and Little Italy’s addition to the State Register, as one unified Historic District.

The boundaries of the new region extend from Lafayette to the Bowery and from East Houston to Worth Street.  National designation is expected by December.  The NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation approved the designation in an effort to recognize the unique contributions of Italian and Chinese immigrants to the city as well as to provide financial stimulus to an area still feeling the economic impact of September 11.  “These two communities have been besieged since 9/11 and have not yet recovered,” Papa said.

The district itself is not landmarked and there are no additional building or height restrictions to adhere to, but the organizations expect the
new status will help guide future planning. It will also, they believe, attract attention and hopefully contribute to an economic turnaround in the form of new tourism and educational programs.  There are already two museums in the neighborhood highlighting the duel ethnicities: the Italian American Museum and the recently opened Museum of Chinese in America.

The shared designation also honors the unique fact that while there are other Chinatowns and Little Italys around the world, there is no other integrated neighborhood like Chinatown and Little Italy in New York.

In honor of the consolidation of Chinatown and Little Italy as one official historic district, Two Bridges is planning a celebration on October 18th to honor the ultimate symbol of Chinese and Italian multiculturalism: Marco Polo Day.  As Victor Papa pointed out, “Italians don’t know Marco Polo is Chinese; Chinese don’t know Marco Polo is Italian.  He was so integrated into Chinese culture that the Kublai Khan used him as an emissary.  He then went back to Italy to spread what he knew.”  Governor Paterson will read a proclamation and the streets will be temporarily renamed “Silk Way” for the day, a title meant to emphasize a cultural relationship that dates back over 700 years.

Remarkably, this shared history found a modern manifestation on the Lower East Side of Manhattan as Italian and Chinese immigrants began settling along Mott and Mulberry Streets in the mid 19th Century.  The two groups lived blocks apart and have enjoyed a harmonious relationship over the years. “Though their cultures differ, they have always respected one another,” said Ralph Tramontana, President of the Little Italy Merchant’s Association.

Marco Polo Day will include special speakers and cultural events to represent the two societies and their intertwined relationships. The Chinatown Little Italy Historic District is supported by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the Museum of the Chinese in America, the Immigrant Social Services Organization, the Sons of Italy, the Little Italy Merchants Association, the Little Italy Restoration Association, the Italian-American Museum, The Medici Foundation, as well as local community members and property owners.

Margaret Zamos-Monteith is The Lo-Down’s senior writer. She is a fiction writer who lives and works in NYC.  Check out her blog  www.forlackofwood.blogspot.com
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