For a year I lived, technically, in Manhattan's Little Italy. But outside my door, I bought produce and fish (and did not buy frogs) at the open-air bazaar of Chinese vendors along my street. I'd sometimes wander for blocks through Qigong massage parlors and herbalist shops, and past storefronts lined with lacquered ducks and baskets upon baskets of tiny dried shrimp.
Tourists following their color-coded maps to Little Italy are justifiably confused, and roam the streets until they can pin down someone who doesn't look quite as befuddled as they are. Their question, which I heard a lot, was a good one: "Where is Little Italy?"
Not far away, in six square blocks straddling Mulberry Street, they would find the lingering handful of century-old bakeries and espresso bars they were looking for, tucked quietly into a row of newer, less distinguished trattorias and t-shirt shops that Mulberry is arguably better known for today. But beyond this short, proud Italian mall, the former immigrant ghetto has all but given way to airy boutiques, which have taken up the empty shells of old Italian haunts like so many hermit crabs, and a widening Chinatown.
Local blogs have cheekily renamed this vibrant (if identity-confused) swath "Little Chitaly" to better describe an area that has for half a century been only a little bit Little Italy and a lot more Chinatown.
In the style of sexed-up, broker-fueled neighborhood names like SoHo and TriBeCa, local blogs have cheekily renamed this vibrant (if identity-confused) swath "Little Chitaly" to better describe an area that has for half a century been only a little bit Little Italy and a lot more Chinatown. It's the Brangelina of New York City neighborhoods, and both sides are realizing that together they have more staying power than either would on its own.
What old blood remains of Little Italy has embraced the new reputation—a smart and significant reversal from earlier efforts to claim the area as singularly Italian. This year, they partnered with Chinese community leaders to lobby for a new joint Chinatown-Little Italy Historic District, which will both protect the area's architectural character and usher in a new era of neighborhood cross-promotion.
At one event, the 2nd annual Marco Polo Day this October 16th, Grand Street (just north of the former dividing line between the two communities) was temporarily christened "Silk Road," and Chinese and Italian families enjoyed traditional foods, local entertainment, and joyful proclamations. Later this year, the 4th annual Christmastime "East Meets West" parade will march up Mulberry Street with a red, white, and green Italian float at the fore, then reverse course as it heads back down Mott Street into Chinatown so that a Chinese dragon leads the way.
The partnership is the first of its kind for the historically multiethnic Lower East Side, which has usually seen fairly complete demographic shifts over time. New York food writer Jeffrey Steingarten has said, "Change has always been the essence of the Lower East Side, and each new wave can barely cover up the last before the next wave crashes into it." Before the Italians, there were the Irish, and before them the Germans, who each held court for a generation or so, leaving few traces as they traded up for the comforts of outer boroughs and beyond. So how has Little Italy hung on to its visible presence, however small?