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Can Any Part of Little Italy Be Saved? Columbia Planning Students Hear One Local Perspective

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Victor Papa arrived clutching a cup of coffee from Veselka and came bearing gifts from the Doughnut Plant. The grizzled veteran of the Lower East Side gentrification wars brought something else to an urban planning lecture at Columbia University a few weeks ago: some strong opinions about the future of Little Italy. At least a few of the students gathered to discuss the fading ethnic enclaves of Lower Manhattan were more than a little skeptical.

Papa is one of several familiar downtown figures invited this semester to appear before Professor Douglas Woodward’s graduate course on the development and decline of ethnic areas such as the Lower East Side, Chinatown and Little Italy. Woodward, formerly an urban designer with the NYC Department of City Planning, is a senior adviser to Edison Properties. He’s taught at Columbia for many years. Papa is president of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council and only last year stepped down as head of Immigrant Social Services, another local organization.


Little Italy, of course, lost much of its authenticity years ago. A 2011 New York Times article noted that U.S. Census takers couldn’t find a single neighborhood resident born in Italy, driving home what was already painfully obvious. First the neighborhood was squeezed by Chinatown, then by Soho and the latest made-up micro neighborhood known as Nolita. Restaurant closures have become routine, as new owners snap up buildings and hike commercial rents to $20,000 or more for even modest spaces.

While the decline has been happening since the 1960s, Papa believes the economic hardship that reverberated throughout downtown Manhattan following the September 11th attacks dealt Little Italy a devastating blow. “Landlords,” Papa told the planning students, “have no affinity for what Little Italy represents.”

In 2009, Papa was a driving force behind the designation of Chinatown and Little Italy as a joint historic district. The idea had been to give the side-by-side neighborhoods some extra marketing muscle. During the lecture, Papa described Little Italy as “the greatest brand in New York.” He said the city is not doing all it can to promote the neighborhood as an important historic destination. There’s an opportunity, Papa suggested, to build up Little Italy not just as a dining neighborhood but as a cultural and educational center paying tribute to the Italian immigrant experience. If approached in the right way, he said, a measure of authenticity could be reintroduced to the area.

During a question and answer period, one student remarked, “I guess I’m not following your logic that tourism will protect authenticity.” What he seemed to be doing, she said, “is asking people to engage with Little Italy as tourists. There seems to be a certain resistance to capitalism on one hand and then asking for tourist dollars on the other.” Another student raised the question, “Aren’t you asking to move backward?”

No one expects Little Italy to come roaring back as an enclave in which a large Italian population lives and works. When Papa talks about “authenticity,” he means protecting some part of the neighborhood’s character and flavor — ensuring that it’s not completely swallowed up by luxury boutiques, high end restaurants and multi-million dollar condos. He says a vibrant museum, similar to the Tenement Museum, is needed to help tell the stories of Italian immigration to New York. “There should be a master plan,” he argued, “and it should include an educational aspect.”

Summing up, Professor Woodward asked, “Is it even possible to have an ethnic enclave in New York City today?” Ethnic communities have obviously grown significantly in other boroughs. But are they sustainable from one generation to the next? And are there strategies the city should employ to keep ethnic enclaves strong even as development occurs? Those are questions his students are pursuing. There’s not much evidence, at least within the Lower East Side’s ethnic enclaves, that city planners are doing the same.


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  1. This comment is from Clayton Patterson:

    The changing landscape of Downtown has been a topic which I have written about, talked about, including information in documentaries, and, lover the years, it has been difficult to get people interested., Now that the city has been mostly gentrified maybe now people are becoming interested.

    The LES and Little Italy followed the same path. I see this starting when Reagan became president. There was a tsunami of Taiwan and Hong Kong money that crossed Canal Street and property started to flip. John Zaccaor, Geraldine Ferraro’s husband, sold off Little Italy, and Mr. Yee sold off the LES. Sheldon Silver pushed and started the LES BID which Sion Misrahi ran. Misrahi moved from clothing to real-estate. Silver’s idea about starting the BID was to save small businesses. Never happened. We lost just about all of the small businesses to bars and expensive restaurants (hmm the BID save small…).

    The coops on Grand street were being sued to ethnically diversify and Silver and associates were able to privatize the properties which greatly increased their value. Privatizing the coops gave owners each a bag of gold….. and on and on to Bloomberg and Silver with the SPURA development on Delancey and Essex. Throw NYU expansion into the mix– which has been supported by Chin and political cronies and all the development money and on and on..

    A short history— and on and on and on.. Money and power and the elimination of small businesses and low income housing. It seems a little late to start thinking about saving Little Italy. So little left to save. And why??? would Papa ask Columbia Urban Development studies students for help to try and save the day. Isn’t the dean of Columbia UD studies the mother of the wife of Economakas the Greek shipping company heir who kicked out 15 long term tenants out of 45-47 e 3rd street to turn the property into a single family mansion? Is it any wonder that the students had disagreements with the Papa very late to the game idea? Wasn’t Mr. Papa previously Executive Director of the Lower East Side Catholic Area Conference? Many of the downtown Catholic churches have been sold off. And Woodward City Planning and Edison Properties… hmmm. Edison Properties on Ludlow is where the recent luxury Ludlow apartments and brand new hotel are located.

  2. I’d trade my unrented ground floor space for a little italy senior center named after John Basilone for relief on real estate taxes which are not covered by total residential rents. I would love it if it was renovated to look as pretty and thematic as Mulberry Street. Our building is on Mott Street and is a pretty Italianate facade but the ground floor exterior needs a makeover.

  3. I think that what remains of Little Italy on Mulberry Street is much stronger than Chinatown. Those storekeepers and owners are really committed as evident from how they stand on the street to converse with customers and are watchful about the condition of the street. Even on Chrystie Street, an Italian business owner personally picks up litter with his hands and fills multiple bags as a result. That’s inspiring.

  4. It looks a little formal unlike that Lady Gaga bubble gum looking music video Uh Huh and it doesn’t pull you in like that old timey souvenir store with the large window displays on one corner. I like how Ferrara’s has that gelato cart outside and how Cha Cha’s had their gelato counter right at the booth – those exteriors make it easy to walk into them and while selling something chilled, their decor doesn’t emit this perspiration on tiles impression that some places have (Five Guys).

  5. Who is Mr Yee? And what is he referring to? The real businesses are the Chinese ones – the fake businesses – what my brother calls Archer Retail – just fronts in a pretty cartoon – that has nothing to do with the reality of where customers are spending money. But there’s a lot of unsuccessful retail in Flushing which feels created to pull the Chinese off of Manhattan. The real estate taxes – deaf ears – come on, there is no interest in building another Chung Pak for the elderly. The BID ….

    I think something very controversial about what would help Chinese retail in the area which I will keep to myself. I feel like Chinatown and Little Italy got played and the landlords were scapegoated but nobody cares because the culprits are part of the network in power.

    I personally don’t care what happens to the Associations which hold some real estate. We still have the shares and other documentation from my biological grandfather’s participation in the Eng Association which is funny since he wasn’t really an Eng – just kidnapped in Guangxi and sold to an Eng without a male heir.

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