Neighborhoods Across the Country Get Littler By The Year
But There Is A Bright Spot As San Diego’s Community Continues To Build
During the 1950s, it wasn’t unusual to spot baseball great Joe DiMaggio strolling through San Francisco’s Little Italy with a blushing Marilyn Monroe on his arm. Chicago’s Little Italy on West Taylor Street is home to the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, which moved from Elmwood Park, Ill., in 1988. And in New York, Alleva Dairy has been around since 1892 and advertises itself as the nation’s oldest Italian cheese store, where the distinct aroma of imported cheeses, salami and sausages hits your nose before you even open the door. Of course, it’s located in Little Italy, right off the famed Mulberry Street.
The Little Italy neighborhoods of the United States are brimming with stories of romance, nostalgia and, of course, a bit of machismo, but they’re not what they used to be. The neighborhoods that were once vibrant with Italian-American residents, restaurants and businesses are now a shell of their rich history as other ethnicities move in, says Marco Li Mandri, the president of New City America, Inc.
The private San Diego-based firm boasts expertise in business improvement districts and neighborhood revitalization. It also helped boost San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood when the Little Italy Association was founded in 1996. Li Mandri also acts as chief executive administrator at the organization.
As a lifelong San Diegan born in Little Italy, Li Mandri’s interest is personal. He grew up when the neighborhood was still thriving, during the 1960s, because the entire international tuna industry was based out of San Diego.
“(Italian immigrants) came to San Diego for the fishing industry,” says Li Mandri, and they had been doing so since the beginning of the early 20th century. They were primarily from southern Italy, he continues, and similar to other Little Italy communities across the country, they were looking for better opportunities.
When the bulk of the fishing industry had moved to other parts of the world in the early 1970s, Li Mandri says, San Diego’s Little Italy went into decline. He extensively studied Little Italy (neighborhoods) across the country and recognized a pattern.
“Little Italy in Chicago went into decline because the tenements could not accommodate the larger families. The Italian immigrants were able to save money, so they moved out of the Italian neighborhoods to other parts of the city and suburbs,” he explains. “That also happened in New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and San Francisco.”
According to Li Mandri, the handful of Little Italy neighborhoods left across the country aren’t as community oriented and business focused as they should be. When he started working with the business owners in San Diego’s Little Italy, in the early 1990s, he helped them establish Little Italy Association so that they would have a funding base. In 20 years, they went from 13 restaurants to 50, and from an annual budget of $60,000 to $3 million.
The bulk of the money from the organization goes into developing public spaces. For example, they’re building the 10,000-square-foot Piazza Famiglia in the town square set to open in the spring. Inspired by traditional piazzas of Italy, the pedestrian corridor will be used for markets, performances and special events.
Li Mandri stresses that without financial stability and the dedication of the Little Italy Association, his organization would not have been able to pull off improvements to the neighborhood. He’s also earmarked a budget for marketing. “We run all aspects of (our) Little Italy like a business,” he says.
Their success has helped long-time restaurants like Filippi’s Pizza Grotto—which has been around for more than 65 years—stay in business. And it’s also help attract newcomers like Brian Malarkey, who opened the massive New American concept Herb & Wood in mid-2016.
“When we started out 20 years ago, only 10 percent of San Diego county knew about Little Italy; now it’s 10 percent who don’t know about us,” says Li Mandri. “That’s how much we’ve become a significant part of San Diego.”
A weekly farmers’ market called “Mercato,” which attracts 8,000 to 10,000 people a week, as well as “Festa!,” an Italian pride festival happening the day before Columbus Day, are additional ways to attract people to the area. In fact, similar festivals happen throughout the country in Little Italy neighborhoods, showcasing the rich heritage, culture and food. In Chicago, there is “Festa Italiana.” New York boasts the 11-day “Feast of San Gennaro.” And the biggest event in Pittsburgh is “Bloomfield Little Italy Days.”
“(Our festival) is the most profitable event of the year,” beams Sal Richetti of Sal Richetti Events, which has produced the annual “Bloomfield Little Italy Days” in Pittsburgh since 2012. “But at the end of the day it’s a street party, and it’s a great way to show off that there are a lot of successful Italian restaurants in Pittsburgh.”