A History of Mulberry Street
and Little Italy
Frank Sinatra once said, “I lived in a plenty tough neighborhood. When somebody called me a ‘dirty little Guinea’, there was only one thing to do- break his head. When I got older, I realized that you shouldn’t do it that way. I realized that you’ve got to do it through education. Children are not to blame. It is the parents. How can a child know whether his playmate is an Italian, a Jew or Irish, unless the parents have discussed it in the privacy of their homes.” New York City has historically been a magnet for immigrants of various ethnicities. For those who settled in Manhattan, the island was divided into neighborhoods according to ethnicity. Parts of New York City still remain this way today. One of the most famous ethnic neighborhoods in New York is Little Italy. In the heart of Little Italy lies Mulberry Street where Italians have lived for over a century preserving the culture and history of Italy.
Before 1883, New York City did not have a significant number of Italians. Most immigrants came from Western Europe. Mulberry Street and the surrounding blocks were occupied by Irish immigrants. It was once apart of the notorious Five Points Slum which was ridden with crime, gangs, and poverty. Despite all the violence in the slum, the Irish built Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. It was New York City’s first cathedral, and was an important part of Irish immigrant life for decades.1 The Irish then migrated to a different area of New York City due to the changing demographics and influx of immigrants.
During the 1880s though there were new arrivals of immigrants from different places from the previous immigrants. The new-comers were immigrating from Central and Eastern Europe. Italians were apart of this new wave, and they came in great numbers. “As impressive as the Jewish arrivals was the influx of southern Italians, a migration that has been labeled the ‘greatest and most sustained’ population movement from one country to another.”2 The first Italians that came to New York were mostly males who got a job, saved up some money, and then went back to Italy. Those that stayed permanently clung to what was familiar. They lived with other Italian immigrants towards the Lower East Side.
Along with ethnic segregation in New York, there was segregation within the ethnic neighborhoods. “Certain streets of the Fifth Ward were not only Italian but Neapolitan (Mulberry Street), Genoese (Baxter Street), or Sicilian (Elizabeth Street). The resident northern Italian community itself migrated to Eighth or Fifteenth Ward streets west of Broadway.” 3 Neapolitan Italians are from Naples which is in central-southern Italy. Many of the Italian immigrants had relatives in New York who they settled in with for some time. For example, Giovanni Albano left Italy for America in 1901 on the ship, Nord America. He arrived at Ellis Island on January 30, 1902 and lived near Mulberry Street with his cousin. He married Teresa, and they eventually moved near Albany to help build the rail road.4 Living in Little Italy helped immigrants to feel comfortable being away from home and helped them gradually assimilate into the American way of life.
For the Italians that stayed in Little Italy, they lived in crowded tenements. Mulberry Street was lined with slums and laundry hanging between the buildings. In How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis writes about “The Italian in New York”. He states that the Italian “promptly reproduces conditions of destitution and disorder which, set in the frame-work of Mediterranean exuberance, are the delight of the artist, but in a matter-of-fact American community become its danger and reproach”.5 Riis also goes on to say that the Italian “is content to live in a pig-sty and submits to robbery at the hands of the rent-collector without murmur.”6 Tenements were filled with dirt, inadequate sewage, mustiness, and overwhelming amounts of vermin and lice.7 Families struggled to get by every single day in these houses. The Mulberry Bend was notorious for its slums. It was notorious in the old Five Points slum and still was when the neighborhood became Little Italy. Today, the bend is occupied by Columbus Park.
Some of these conditions are evident in pictures of Mulberry Street. The streets are very crowded with people of all ages. There are many children in the streets hanging along their parents. There were many vendors who had carts fulls of vegetables, beans, potatoes, and many other items. Stores filled with fabric rags due to the common occupation of Italians being rag pickers. As rag pickers, Italians would sort out the trash and were allowed to take home some of these items. The stores on the street were run down including the awnings. Mulberry Street had a disheveled look being apart of slum life, but a strong sense of community.
Originally Italian immigrants were coming from northern areas of Italy. As the years went by, immigrants came from the southern areas of Italy. “Beginning in the 1880’s, however, the bulk of Italian immigrants arrived from southern Italy and from Sicily. Unskilled and illiterate peasants for the most part, they were regarded with disdain by northern Italians. Among the Sicilian newcomers were members of the dreaded Mafia, which had a long history of preying on helpless and ignorant peasants. They began terrorizing New York’s transplanted Italians.”8 On Mulberry Street was the headquarters of the padrone. The padrone was “the head of the neighborhood”. When Italians arrived in New York, they went to the padrone for a job. He controlled many things in the neighborhood and was occasionally involved in murders. Riis states that “it was left to the genius of the padrone to develop the full resources of the mine that has become the exclusive preserve of the Italian immigrant.”9 The padrone realized the high profit that could be made from rag picking. Rag pickers made a little over a dollar a day, and the city would pay several thousand dollars a year to the contractors. These men were also linked to murder, just like the mafia. Riis also stated in How the Other Half Lives that the Italians put up with this type of crime. It was a way of life for the Italians living in America.
By 1906, Little Italy was a distinguished neighborhood and it was known for its feasts of food. In an article by the New York Times titled, “All Eyes on Mulberry Street”, the writer describes the up coming spaghetti-eating contest that takes place on Mulberry Street. The Mulberry Bend Athletic Association purchased over sixteen hundred miles of standard-gauge spaghetti.10 Residents of New York from various ethnicities enter in the spaghetti eating contest such as the Chinese and the Germans. This event on Mulberry Street drew the Italian community together along with the rest of the New York City.
Another event that brings New York City together on Mulberry Street is the San Gennaro festival. “The feast is an annual celebration of the Patron Saint of Naples. The first feast in New York City took place on September 19, 1926 when newly arrived immigrants from Naples settled along Mulberry Street and the Little Italy section of New York City and decided to continue the tradition they had followed in Italy to celebrate the day in 205 A.D. when Saint Gennaro was martyred for the faith.”11 The feast lasts eleven days and includes a religious procession with the Statue of San Gennaro and ends with a celebratory mass at the National Shrine of San Gennaro, the Most Precious Blood Church on Mulberry Street.12
As the years have gone by, the San Gennaro festival has been met with conflict by Little Italy’s neighbor, China Town. “Without warning, the sounds of Chinese music boomed above the red, white and green floats, momentarily drowning out the Italian brass bands and causing not a few surprised looks among bystanders.” This happened on the fourth day of the feast, when both neighborhoods were having festivals at the same time.13 New Chinese immigrants from Shanghai, Taiwan, and Northern China were arriving in America due to the immigration quotas being lifted at the time.14 China Town became a hot spot for investment and business. These new Chinese immigrants came with new money and were buying tons of real estate. The New York Times article states that the Chinese owned 70 percent of the buildings in Little Italy and China Town. In an interview with Irving Raber and the New York Times, Raber stated that “he believes that at least half of the buildings in the core of Little Italy, along Mott and Elizabeth Streets, are owned by the Chinese, but Mulberry Street itself, the heart of Little Italy, ‘is still Italian.’ ”15
As Little Italy was getting smaller and smaller due to the Chinese buying real estate, many of the Italian Americans living in Little Italy became upset. According to the New York Times, the Chinese would buy factory buildings, evict the tenants, and then replace it as a garment factory for Chinese workers. A site on Bowery and Canal was bought for half-a-million dollars and was turned into a restaurant and movie theatre. The residents of the neighborhood were becoming concerned and the Italians petitioned the City Planning Commission. “The Chinese sat along one wall, the Italians along the opposite wall. He said the Chinese were ‘upset and kept asking, ‘do you want to build a Great Wall and keep us out?’ and the Italians were saying, ‘No, we want to see investment and improvement in the neighborhood.”16 As a result of this, many Chinese properties bought on Mulberry Street were sold back to the Italian Americans.
The culture of Italy remains the same though on Mulberry Street despite all the change New York City has gone through. The architecture is still the same style as it was in the nineteenth century, and new buildings are not allowed to be taller than the old buildings. Mulberry Street is lined with exquisite Italian restaurants that have been in business for over one hundred years. An example is Lunella’s on Mulberry Street which is family owned and operated since 1878. In an interview with the New York Times, Mr. Luna refused to sell his property to the Chinese; he wanted to sell it to someone he knew. ‘We Italians don’t want to sell anymore to the Chinese. We want to keep it Little Italy.’”17 Since the Chinese have been met with resistance, the Italians have preserved their culture along Mulberry Street. There are tons of Italian restaurants, cafes, and trattorias that line Mulberry Street with outdoor seating and excellent food and service. The area tends to attract many daily tourists and keeps the economy going. During the summer, Mulberry Street usually shuts down. Vendors are outside with their home made gelato and desserts, just like the immigrants would sell their goods in the carts.
Today, various organizations have developed to preserve the ethnic and cultural identities. According to their website, the Little Italy Neighbors Association, commonly referred to LINA, helps promote “the neighborhood's quality of life while preserving its multicultural identity and historical character. Our goal is to ensure that the community is consulted regarding neighborhood developments and allowed the appropriate opportunity to affect their course.”18 Some of their concerns are the Mulberry Street Pedestrian Mall which began in 1998. The street closes down and poses both positives and negatives for the neighborhood. It brings in money, but there are many traffic problems because Mulberry Street is the main street of vehicular traffic in Little Italy. Various permits are involved for the pedestrian mall, and LINA helps to make this process more efficient. LINA also strives to make public officials aware of the issues that face the community. They are dedicated to maintaining Little Italy despite all the changes New York City goes through.
Mulberry Street has gone through many changes over the centuries, but the Italians have kept it apart of their culture in Little Italy for over a century. Today, it still remains the Heart of Little Italy despite the growing population of China Town, which some say is “swallowing up Little Italy”. Organizations such as LINA, the San Gennaro Festival, the Mulberry Street Pedestrian Mall, and members of the community help to defend the neighborhood to retain its cultural identity. Mulberry Street is still lined with the tenements which were once crowded with poor immigrants who struggled to get by every day. Mulberry Street is part of an authentic neighborhood with a lot of pride and a big heart. It shows how the Italian immigrants have progressed throughout their history in New York City. Mulberry Street is truly the heart of Little Italy.
Map of Little Italy provided by New York Escape.
“All Eyes on Mulberry Street.” New York Times, 18 Nov. 1906.
Cummings, Judith. “Parade of San Gennaro Meets and Mixes with Chinese Fete.”
New York Times, 17 Sept. 1973.
Ellis, Edward Robb. The Epic of New York City: A Narrative History. New York, NY:
Carroll and Graf Pubishers, 1996.
“Feast of San Gennaro.” n.d. http://www.sangennaro.org/ (accessed Dec. 11, 2009).
Ferretti, Fred. “Chinatown Leaps the ’Wall’ And Moves Into Little Italy.”
New York Times, 13 July 1980.
Hays, Constance L. “A Changing Little Italy Says No to a Hotel.” New York Times, 5 May 1990.
Homberger, Eric. The Historical Atlas of New York City. New York, NY: Holt Paperbacks, 2005.
“Italiamerica: Italian American Culture and Immigration.”
n.d. http://www.italiamerica.org/ (accessed Dec. 11, 2009).
Lankevich, George J. New York City: A Short History. New York, NY:
New York University Press, 2002.
“Little Italy Neighbors Association (LINA).” n.d. http://www.thing.net/~lina/index.html
(accessed Dec. 11, 2009).
“New York Architecture: St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral.” n.d.
http://www.nyc-architecture.com/SOH/SOH038.htm (accessed Dec. 11, 2009).
“New York Escape: The Hotel Alternative.” n.d.
http://www.newyorkescape.net/neighborhood/little_italy...(accessed Dec. 11, 2009).
Riis, Jacob A. How the Other Half Lives. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1890.