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.