Feast of San Gennaro
Red, white, and green banners strung up for the Feast of San Gennaro.

As Bill Tonelli of New York Magazine wrote in 2004, “Once, Little Italy was like an insular Neapolitan village recreated on these shores, with its own language, customs, and financial and cultural institutions.” Though never housing the largest Italian-American community in New York City — with this title held by East Harlem — Little Italy in Manhattan served as one of the primary homes for Italian immigrants new to New York during the 20th century. Little Italy would also became a hot spot for organized crime, with several of the city’s biggest operators using the neighborhood for their headquarters. During the height of their power, reigning mafia families often fought for control over the area’s businesses, with owners being forced to pay a protection fee to the mob for their shops to remain untouched.

However, in recent years, the neighborhood has begun to shrink, losing both residents and territory to other areas of the city. Even so, what remains of the neighborhood continues to be a haven for Italian-American culture and cuisine, offering much to discover. Read to learn more about what makes Little Italy such a fascinating and integral part of New York City’s history.

1. Little Italy is no longer a majority Italian neighborhood

Little Italy circa. 1982. Starting in the late 1960s, Chinatown's traditional border along Canal Street began inching into Little Italy's territory. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (Gerd Eichmann).
Little Italy circa. 1982. Starting in the late 1960s, Chinatown’s traditional border along Canal Street began inching into Little Italy’s territory. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (Gerd Eichmann).

During the early 1900s, Little Italy was a vibrant Italian-American community stretching across a 30-block section of the Lower East Side. The neighborhood served as a haven for Italian culture and cuisine, while also distinctly partitioned along regional loyalties. Sicilians could primarily be found on Elizabeth Street, Northern Italians on Bleecker Street, and the Genovese on Baxter Street. In the late 1930s, Little Italy was 98 percent Italian.

However, this all began to change after World War II, when many of the area’s families moved away to the other boroughs in search of more space and the area’s demographics began to shift. By 2000, only 1,211 residents claimed to have Italian ancestry, making up just 8.25 percent of the community — a sharp contrast to the population of nearby Chinatown, where 81 percent of residents were of Chinese descent. This trend only continued further, with a 2010 U.S. Community Survey showing that none of the neighborhood’s current residents were born in Italy and only five percent were Italian-American. Moreover, since the late 1960s, when immigration from China was reinstated, Chinatown’s traditional border along Canal Street slowly inched into Little Italy’s territory, leaving it with just three blocks sequestered around Mulberry Street.