Eat or Flee

The unknown war surrounding Little Italy’s San Gennaro Festival

Two days after the Feast of San Gennaro, the streets of Little Italy have pretty much returned to their normal, tranquil state. It’s as if the entire neighborhood has just awakened from a dream. All that remains of the festival are the white chalk lines on the sidewalk, used to measure the length of vendor stalls, and a vacuum truck around the corner, pumping out sewage from the manholes.

An elderly gentleman stands in front of La Mela restaurant, gazing across the street, where a small band of tourists are snapping with their cameras, trying to capture the row of quaint apartments and colorful street signs that were once the heart of a thriving Italian community. He had wispy white hair, a protruding nose, and a black fedora. Behind his spectacles, his pale blue eyes are restless.

The man’s real name is Frank Aquilino, but nobody calls him that. To friends and customers alike, he is Butch the Hat, ex-movie star and neighborhood fixture. Butch was born on Mott Street in 1946, and still lives in that same apartment today. At the height of his career, he appeared in several movies alongside celebrities such as Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken. And while he might have quit the big screens, nowadays, he is still famous for his ability to tell a good story.

Butch always keeps a few anecdotes handy in his back pocket. So as we sat down at an empty table in the old-style Italian eatery, he offers me coffee, and begins to tell me about Little Italy’s shady past. Back in the ’60s, if you want to be somebody on these streets, you needed to follow a certain dress code, he says. For instance, he always wears the brim of his fedora up, because “only the low level gangsters and real bad guys wore their brims down”. Your pants couldn’t be too short or too long, and there was a strict two-color protocol. You could either match brown with green, or burgundy with grey. If you wore a striped suit, you would have to wear a solid tie. These rules may seem perplexing from an outsider’s viewpoint, but they were how you cultivated your reputation.

But apparently, not anymore.

Over the past seventy years, Butch has witnessed the dissolution of the mafia and the lifting of the ban on gambling — major events that he says shaped the neighborhood’s character. As the culture became more Americanized, people also gradually moved out to other less condensed areas. “The younger generation didn’t want to be controlled. They wanted to be free,” said Butch. “And after all, having your own house is part of the American dream.”

Today, Little Italy is but a shadow of its former self. The 2010 census found that only five percent of the residents in Little Italy identified themselves as Italian-American, and none of them were born in Italy. Many of Butch’s old acquaintances have either passed away or relocated to places like New Jersey and Staten Island, while a couple of twenty-something hipsters had moved into the tiny apartment behind the restaurant, for which they are paying $3400 a month. And as the cultural ambience in the neighborhood evolved, a new discord has also risen to the surface, one that concerns one of Little Italy’s most longstanding traditions — The Feast of San Gennaro.

Every year, during the month of September, an eleven-day festival is carried out in Little Italy to honor the patron saint of Naples — Saint Januarius, also known as San Gennaro. Throughout this period, from eleven thirty in the morning, to eleven o’clock at night, more than two hundred vendors occupy the area between Canal and Houston Street, turning it into a giant outdoor concourse full of Italian cuisine, pastries and games.

Last month, during the Feast’s 90th anniversary, the shops on Mulberry Street were all spangled with the colors red, green and white. Tinsel hung between lampposts and Italian flags adorned every stand and corner. Tourists jostled one another on their way, their mouths stuffed with cannoli, meatballs and deep-fried oreos, while bands took turns performing on the makeshift stage. The air was filled with the pungent smell of sizzling sausages

Sarah Spinosa sat on her walker on the corner between Grand and Mott on Sunday afternoon, four days after the feast began, where she likes to observe the crowd. Though her legs don’t allow her to engage in the festivities as she used to, she says that she still relishes the occasion.

Spinosa is a native of Mott Street, and has been around almost as long as the San Gennaro Feast itself. According to her, the feast has always been like this — full of food, entertainment and exuberance. “There even used to be dancing on the streets,” she says. I have to strain my ears to hear her over the din, but she says that the noise has never troubled her, not even at nighttime. “I imagine it bothers the new people,” she says. “But you get used to it. It’s only for 11 days a year.” She tells me that she hopes the festival will go on for another hundred years.

Spinosa’s fondness for the San Gennaro is not unusual. To the old-timers of Little Italy and many Italian-Americans throughout the country, the feast is an important part of their cultural heritage. And even though it has lost some of its religious overtone over the past years and become more ethnically diverse, people still take great pleasure in celebrating this time of the year, mainly by getting together and eating sumptuous food.

But the problem is, not everyone in this changing neighborhood today wants the nearly 100- year-old tradition to continue.

“I hate it,” says Errik Engso, the owner of ENGSO, a small, high-end boutique located on Mulberry Street, barely one block away from where Spinosa lives. Engso is in his mid-forties, tall and bald, with lake-green eyes and numerous leather bracelets wrapped around his wrists. Though born and raised on a small island in the middle of the Baltic Sea, he moved to New York in 1997 to further his career as a fashion designer. When I stepped into his shop, I was immediately surrounded by soft ethereal music and the mild scent of leather. Bags and belts of all shapes and sizes hang from the walls, and an assortment of accessories lay in a glass casing by the counter. Engso himself is bent over a small spindle-legged table by the window, carefully adding the final touches to his latest handiwork. He tells me that most of the products in the shop are hand-crafted, and can sell for as much as $1500.

According to Engso, the trash and clamor generated by the San Gennaro drives all his regulars away and causes him to lose $3600 in profit. “People sell junk,” he says. “My customers have no reason to come by.” And on the few occasions when tourists do come into the shop, the soles of their shoes are covered with filth from the feast, which stinks up the merchandise. This year, he even had his first ever “zero day,” during which not a single sale was made. “It’s fatal,” he says.

Engso is not the only person who complains about the situation. Many businesses experience a drop in sales during the San Gennaro, and some, like The Tea Shoppe on Mulberry, even close up entirely for the festival. Sherry Yang, who works there, says that she’s spent forty years in the neighborhood, and has completely no problem with the Italians celebrating their religious festival. “After all, we hold our own festival in Chinatown too.” All she asks is for the organizers to not block people’s access by putting vendor stands in front of their storefronts. “They should at least ask us first,” she says. “They have no regards to local businesses who are paying premium rent to be here.”

However, John Fratta, a board member of the nonprofit organization that runs the feast — Figli di San Gennaro, isn’t exactly sympathetic. Quite the contrary, in fact, Fratta says that business owners who can’t make money off the one million tourists who attend the feast every year “need to have their heads examined.” Another member, Michael Vera, says that even though the feast may not be important to the local community anymore, it is still important to the Italian-American community. “This is America. People should have done their homework before moving into a neighborhood.”

Disputes like this prove just how much things have changed since 1926, when the feast first arrived in New York City. Back then, it was just a one-day block party, where people congregated to pay tribute San Gennaro. According to Butch the Hat, the event became more commercialized as the city began imposing more regulations on street activities. For example, the ban on booze sales. During the ’50s and ’60s, “people were more devoted to each other,” says Butch. “The church was more involved, and more locals attended. Even the food was better.” He remembers how he and his friends used to stay up until three or four in the morning, drinking booze out on the streets, wolfing down potato croquettes and rice balls. “You can’t do that anymore.”

But even though it may have lost some of its original flair, the feast today still manages to retain some of its religious elements. On the last Saturday of the celebrations, the statue of San Gennaro is carried from its home in the Shrine Church of the Most Precious Blood and paraded through the streets of Little Italy. During the procession, many local businesses give a little donation, for to do so is considered good luck. Tourists from all over the world also visit the shrine. Some put dollar bills at San Gennaro’s feet as offering, while others take a stroll in the small churchyard and listen to the old Italian residents reminisce about their history.

For the Italian eateries in the neighborhood, this is the best time of the year. During the feast, a large portion of Mulberry street is taken up by outdoor dining booths, which are teeming with customers. Colorful marquees hang overhead, and waiters in sleek black vests and bow ties move adeptly through the crowded aisles, their hands laden with plates of pasta. But this is not an opportunity reserved exclusively for restaurants. Any local business can capitalize on the occasion by renting a space in front of their stores. For the 2016 feast, an eleven-day booth can cost anything from $1750 to $3500, depending on the location and how big a spot you require. But some shop owners, like Engso, turns his nose up at the idea of peddling his wares on the streets. “I don’t want to show support for this festival,” he says.

One reason Engso refuses to bend is because, to him, this not only an issue about money, but also a clash between two distinct modes of lifestyle. During the past 16 years on this block, he has witnessed its transformation from an extension of Little Italy into a chic and “shoppable area”, as more boutiques moved in and empty lots were converted into luxury condos. He says he feels that the San Gennaro Feast is out of sync with this upward trend. While he tries to “build up quality” at his shop, the feast regularly “drags it down.”

“They should stay back there,” he says, jabbing a finger towards the corner of Mulberry and Broome. “Little Italy ends on Broome Street. This is NoLIta.”

These words point out the fact that, as the Italian population of Little Italy dwindled, its borders with adjacent neighborhoods have become blurred. At its peak in the 1910s, the neighborhood covered fifty square blocks, and had ten thousand residents of Italian ancestry. Now it barely covers three, and the Italian-American population has spread across the Tri-State Area. Chinatown booms to the South, creeping toward Mulberry Street, while NoLIta (North of Little Italy), once regarded as a part of Little Italy, emerged and rebranded itself as a neighborhood with distinctly different characteristics.

At the same time, the street vendors at the San Gennaro have also become more diverse. Forty years ago, nearly all of them were Italian-Americans. But today, you see a large number of Asians in the crowd. Sausages and peppers are not the only things you will find there, either. This year, stands were selling everything from chips on sticks to kitchenware and miniature statues of Buddha. A juice stand on Hester was also playing the viral K-pop song, Gangnam Style, letting its catchy beat resound through the streets.

These facts would seem to place the cultural integrity of the San Gennaro in doubt, but Larry Gagliardotto, the manager of the Mulberry Street Bar, say that the feast is actually what keeps the Italian- American community going these days. During the festival, Italian-Americans from all over the country return to join in the revelry. Gagliardotto tells me that he knows families who have moved to Philadelphia, Baltimore and New Jersey, but who return to visit every year. “You see three generations, sometimes four,” he said. “Great-grandfathers, grandfathers and fathers and their kids. It helps keep generations together.”

However, there are also some natives, like Butch the Hat, who’ve stopped participating in the festivities. He says that after the feast was reduced to a street fair, he just didn’t want to be a part of it anymore.

As for new residents, some of them actually arrange their vacations according to the dates of the feast. Jaylin Ramer, who has lived in the neighborhood for the past two years, says she tries to go out of town whenever the San Gennaro occurs, and wonders aloud how other people stand the festival. “The smell from the restaurants is so gross.” She says that she has already called 311 multiple times to complain. Apart from the stench, she is also bothered by the noise made by the cleaning squad, which comes in every night after the feast has ended. “I can hear the sound of their trucks beeping at three in the morning.”

Ramer co-owns a shop on Mulberry street which sells cowboy hats and boots. The gap beneath her glass front door is now sealed shut, but she recalls one time a few years ago, when smoke from the sausage stands outside seeped in through the cracks and filled the entire shop. “It was horrible.” And according to her experience, even when feast-goers do walk in, they don’t buy any stuff. “People only come for the sausages,” she says, sitting down on the brown velvet sofa and stroking her Chihuahua. “It’s not about shopping anymore.”

This isn’t the first time the San Gennaro Feast was slammed by its neighbors. In 2011, a group of shop owners, tired of the feast disrupting their business, tried to curb the festivities. They brought their complaints to the community board, and proposed that the feast be cut off at Kenmare street. One boutique owner who testified at the meeting said that “the average price of our goods is $100 and made in America” while the average price of San Gennaro goods is “$5 and made outside this country.” But for supporters of the feast, this act was seen as a direct assault on their traditional culture. Before long, Italian-Americans from all over the country were bombarding the mayor’s office with letters petitioning for the feast. There was even a Facebook group created to counter these accusations — — Little Italy and San Gennaro Under Attack. In the end, the supporting side won the battle. Mayor Bloomberg decided to dismiss the resolution passed by the community board and allow the feast to continue intact.

Victor J. Papa, president of Two Bridges Neighborhood Council and longtime Lower East side housing advocate, says he is not worried about the future of the San Gennaro Feast, despite the controversies that have arisen. As long as the Shrine Church of of the Most Precious Blood is still around, he says, the feast will always go on, even if Little Italy itself has gone. “I think they lack an understanding of what New York City is like,” he says in response to the critics. “Do they expect us to change the neighborhood to fit their gentrified appearance? Personally, I find that quite funny.”

What concerns him more is the growing number of people today who are oblivious to the culture of their surroundings. For instance, he has seen millennials who dwell on Mulberry walking straight past the Italian restaurants and old buildings everyday without taking in their significance. “It’s one of the ironies of this city,” he says.

But if anyone in Little Italy is unperturbed by these changes, it’s Butch the Hat. Butch and I take a stroll through the neighborhood, and he occasionally stops in his tracks to point out the places where social clubs and factories used to stand, but is now replaced by snack bars and gift shops. Once upon a time, there was even a prison around the corner on Broome Street. “Time changes things, what can you do?” he says, but without an air of discouragement. Butch calls himself “free”, “unattached”, “a true liberal”. He says that he is different from the rest of the older residents around here. No matter what stayed and what went, he would always find a way to fit in. “This is my neighborhood. I’m not going anywhere.”