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Politics

LITTLER ITALY

Originally appeared in The New Republic on February 2, 1998
By Vincent Cannato

NYC Little Italy

Di Palo's has been making fresh mozzarella on the corner of Grand and Mott streets in Manhattan's Little Italy since 1925. Today. Louis Di Palo, his brother Sal, and sister Marie are the third generation of Di Palos to run the family business. The family maintains the cramped but cozy store with Old World charm. Huge wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese grace the counter; meats and cheeses dangle from the ceiling. The Di Palos regularly give customers seminars on how to distinguish among olive oils from the various Italian regions.

But step outside of Di Palo's, and the Old World feel gives way to the bustle of Chinatown. On the three corners opposite Di Palo's stand a Chinese meat market, a Chinese fruit and vegetable stand, and a Chinese supermarket. Walking toward the legendary Ferrara's pastry store down the block, Louis Di Palo says he is sad about the changes in Little Italy - but not bitter. "Nothing lasts forever" here. he says. In thefaces of Asian immigrants, he sees the same drive and energy that Italian immigrants once brought to the city.

For years, there has been a truce here between the last Italian holdouts and the more recent Chinese immigrants. Italian businessmen and residents. working through the Little Italy Restoration Association, have long tried to fend off Chinese-American incursions by putting unofficial boundaries around Little Italy. But it's a losing battle. During the early '70s, LIRA defined Little Italy as a roughly 24-square-block neighborhood. Today, the two blocks of Mulberry Street north of Canal Street remain the last bastion of Little Italy, with some scattered Italian restaurants and stores further north on Mulberry and along the side streets.

Chinese-owned businesses are tolerated on Mulberry only if they cater to the tourists and sell Little Italy souvenirs, and only if they do not use Chinese lettering on their signs. At Kathleen Beauty Salon on Mulberry Street, slashes purposefully cut through each of the five Chinese letters on the store's red awning testify to this unwritten code. (Nothing else on the awning or building is disturbed - the letters have recently been covered over.) Yet, the futility of such an approach is apparent one block away on Mott Street, home to a bustling Chinese sidewalk market where exotic fish, fruits, and vegetables are sold. Steam from sweatshops employing the neighborhood's Chinese women billows from the buildings.

So is Little Italy finished? Demographics would suggest that it is. Between .1982 and 1994, 132,000 legal Chinese immigrants settled in New York City, in contrast to just 7,500 Italians. Roughly one-third of the Chinese immigrants settled in lower Manhattan, while others headed for the city's newer Chinatowns in Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Gentrification is also taking a toll. Eighty years ago, the tenements lining Elizabeth, one block east of Mott, housed the teeming masses of the Italian ghetto. Today, the street is home not only to the occasional Italian butcher shop, with its ancient scales and cases, but to antique stores, an art supply store, a trendy bar like the M&R, even a computer store. Two Italian-Americans have opened a new restaurant on upper Mott Street - it serves upscale Japanese food. Across from John Gotti's old hangout, the Ravenite Social Club, there is a Mexican restaurant and bar.

Only a few Italians, mostly elderly, still live in the tenements. Most local business owners live in the outer boroughs or the suburbs. (Louis Di Palo lives in Brooklyn.) The owner of an Italian deli commutes to work every day from his home in New Jersey; the workers in his suburb's Chinese restaurant do a reverse commute from their tenement homes a few blocks from the deli. On weekends, suburban Italian-Americans return for a taste of the old neighborhood or at least what's left of it.

But Little Italy has one thing going for it - one thing that might save it from the fate of Yorkville, the once-thriving German enclave five miles to the north in the East 80s, which has all but completely lost its original ethnic character. Unlike German ethnicity, Italian ethnicity sells. Health-conscious diners prefer pasta to schnitzel and dumplings. Italian-American groups used to protest movies like The Godfather, but the interest in Italian-American culture they spawned may save Little Italy - or at least a highly commercialized version of it.

If not, though, mourners of Little Italy can take some comfort: the enclave is fading because the descendants of earlier immigrants are escaping the confines of the ethnic ghetto and entering the American mainstream. Though the bustling neighborhoods of today's Asian, Hispanic. and Caribbean immigrants are essential to the revitalization of American cities, the success of the American experiment depends upon these neighborhoods eventually going the way of Manhattan's Little Italy.

In the meantime. Louis Di Palo plans to remain where he is. "I'm here as long as the people still come," he says. And the people are still coming. Di Palo says stores like his have become fashionable: "What's old is new." He looks at his store not just as a way to make a living. but as a way to honor his ancestors and keep alive the contributions Italian-Americans have made. And for a little while longer, a bit of old Little Italy still survives in the heart of the new Chinatown.

VINCENT CANNATO is the author of a book about former New York mayor John Lindsay.

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