I needed a cultural informant as soon as possible. “Pasta godfather rigatoni Palermo bene Fellini,” the man thrusting the menu towards me exclaimed, “Pisano Rocky Lamborghini lasagna gratis,” I replied and continued walking with that aimless shuffle that perhaps marked me as a tourist, those lumbering creatures that float about the crowded purposeful city streets with eyes akimbo and mouths as groupers, open and expecting something yummy to drift in at any moment, perhaps something loaded with cheese and bacon.
In the city, there remain a few reliable tourist traps of the Alligator Farm variety. More often than not these are ossified neighborhoods of some former identity, group, or other location that once had all sorts of people of a particular country or industry and today have become places steeped in memories and expensive studio apartments. These former ethnic, religious, or zygotic enclaves now serve as a stage for walking tours, vendors selling that “FuckYou” and the “I Heart NYC” tee shirts and heaps of murky Chinese-made items as souvenirs of New York City. Walking tours knotting up the sidewalk in a clot as persons of various background uncomfortably press close to one another to listen to an unemployed off-off-off Broadway actor points out the building where Vinnie the Snitch bought the farm in 1922 or some other compelling and perhaps embellished story.
These stories and crowds compete with the screaming thumping cell phone chattering clanging pulsing misery madness that is the streets of New York. Above the heads of the tourists, and the many people from other boroughs, street signs proclaim this or that area “little” something or “avenue of the” whatever. Save for a little paint and a few signs, an old business or two not yet priced out by the exorbitant Gotham rents, and a few old guys sitting at a table or on plastic milk crates, this would pass for just about anywhere in the city. Midwood Brooklyn isn’t called Little Canton. Crown Heights isn’t called Little Haiti. Flushing Queens isn’t called Little Shenzhou. Astoria isn’t called Little Hipsters. Williamsburg isn’t called Little Hasidic Jews. Tour buses don’t go there. And yet, Little Italy continues to proclaim itself a unique district despite the many years of change that have swept the face of Gotham the area is a few streets of crowded themed restaurants and green, red, and white paint.
Little Italy (LI) is a collection of streets found below Houston Street in Manhattan and once comprised a high concentration of Italians who perhaps called themselves “Americans” after getting off the boat at Ellis Island and before their children called themselves “Italian-American” and their great-grandchildren called themselves Snookie and The Situation. The buildings are still human-scale multistory yet-to-be-torn down examples of Italianate-Germanic-Greek-Roman tenements built between 1880s and 1910ish. LI is buffeted to the north by Little NOLITA, the west by Little SOHO (AKA Little Starving Super Models), the east by Little Lower East Side (AKA Little Bankers Blowing off Steam on Fridays), and to the south by Not So Little Chinatown. As much of the world, much of New York includes a number of Chinese or what my Hawai’ian-Japanese Grandmother called “Orientals” and Little Italy (LI) is no exception.
To wander the streets of LI one must brook sticky sidewalks and many piles of dried fish and strange exotic vegetables that taste as bad as they look as one looks for the best Italian Ice ever or foot massage or herbal remedy. In these few blocks you can find whatever you remember nonna feeding you on Sundays before she became terminally ill and then was stuck by that car and your parents sold her house in Freeport because, I mean, have you seen what that place has become with all “those people” moving in?
There is good pizza there, however. Not there as in LI, where you can find Expensiveinos known for its thin crust, but a few blocks away, closer to the Duane Reed and next to the vape shop. Really good 2-buck-a-slice pizza tossed by some guy from a country you have never heard of with a name that looks like an arrangement of refrigerator letters a child makes early in the morning while idly waiting for the nanny so Mummy and Da can go off and earn even more money. There is also a place, also just outside of LI where you can get everything you need to make your own fresh pasta. You should do it. Make fresh pasta. It is eggs and water. There, I just gave you the recipe. But, if you want a fixed price lunch on a table held level by a stack of napkins and car coasters, then go right ahead, there are plenty to choose from.
Walking down that one street, you can be assaulted by so many barkers, just like in the Old Days. You can visit the Tenement Museum, an institution known for declaring eminent domain on the buildings around it, tossing out those same immigrants the museum is dedicated to honoring to have, this writer can only assume, a much larger gift shop. At the end of the street, Chinatown resumes. Once a cluster of Italian-Americans, it seems that today you can’t fill a pew in a single church with the residents of that area. And yet, this spot on the map endures and every year for about six to ten months there is a street festival with all manner of Italian specialties, as well as the Sock Man vendor who as magic appears at all street fairs in the city. It is understandable that so many make pilgrimage to the “Old Neighborhood.”
We all yearn for some idea of belonging, some connection to the old days when we lived with those we knew or came from a place we could point to on a map. Sadly, much of each one of these neighborhoods, open air museums, extol only the simplest or most consumer aspects as whatever merchants dig up a select number of ghosts and stereotypes and see if they can beat as much money out of them as they can. The Mafia tours seem attractive; we have all seen The Godfather at least twice. The racist statues depicting the familiar “With Out Papers” gentleman selling Pizza except for the places that proudly exclaim ’NO PIZZA.” At the tables where the tourists lunch each one with a glass of expensive, inexpensive red wine the thought of which makes me gag and acidic re-flux bubbles to the top of my esophagus.
In the old days, the city was a patchwork of different languages, countries, ethnic groups, races, religions, and accents. More than before, people need not live in clusters of compatriots, and there is also today more movement in general as people no longer work at the same jobs, and more than before living from place to place as global nomads. Today, the city is divided not into a patchwork of villages but into a city of those who can afford to live here, those who can afford to live close by, and those who must live very very far away and must then commute for hours from their little room to their tiny desk in the open concept office.
With the exception of Not So Little Chinatown, the swatch of real estate from the Lower East Side to the West Side Highway has become yet another unaffordable collection of residences punctuated by clusters of poverty and multi-generational iniquity in public housing complexes and other “affordable housing” clusters. Little Italy is right on the fulcrum of these two forces as it still is perhaps too close to the spitting, wrenching, boiling squid shops and yet is not quite ready for SOHO primetime. Still, it seems that at some point, this will change, and more little dogs, more fixed gear bikes and more bars where drinks are $15 will arrive and in time make LI not just another stop on the tour bus, but another drop off for an army of Ubers shuffling those lucky job creators from their international desks to their renovated one bedroom. Which I guess is fitting, considering the reputation of the area for one Mafia or another.