The Present/Future of Little Italies

(Professor Jerome Krase,Sociology Department, Brooklyn College, CUNY)

( http://www.cestim.org/07emigarzione.htm#ellis )

In my study of urban neighborhoods I have tried to maintain the edge of my own sociological imagination; "...a quality of mind that seems most dramatically to promise an understanding of the intimate realities of ourselves in connection with larger social realities." (Mills, 1959:15). Little Italy is a product and source of both social and cultural capital. Although ordinary people in the neighborhood are ultimately at the mercy of distant structural forces, in their naivete they continue to create and modify local spaces allocated to them, and inevitably become part of the urban landscape. Thusly people and spaces become symbols. They come to represent themselves and thereby lose their autonomy. The enclave comes to symbolize its imagined inhabitants and stands for them independent of their residence in it. Localized reproductions of cultural spaces can also be easily commodified. For example, The expropriated cultural capital of the Italian American vernacular such as resistance to diversity and cultural insularity, perhaps even intolerance, becomes a sales point in real estate parlance as a quaint "safe" neighborhood, with "old world charm", and romantically symbolizing the "way its used to be".

No model or stereotype can ever adequately represent the multiple realities of Italian, or any other, ethnic-America. There is too much in the way of permutations of generations, continuity, and change. But, I hope I show in the following photographs, how Little Italy speaks to the idea of Italian America and how Visual Sociology helps us to understand both its structural and cultural realities. If I may suggest; the idealized ethnic urban spaces, both "Representations of Spaces" as well as "Spaces of Representation", can be summarized as follows: Oblivion, Ruination, Ethnic Theme Parks, Immigration Museums, and Anthropological Gardens.

Semiotically speaking, my models of Little Italies are as follows:
1. Oblivion
Oblivion means "the state of being forgotten." Every day thousands of trucks and cars drive through spaces which once contained vital and vibrant Italian American neighborhoods; communities of homes and businesses which were destroyed in their prime to make way for "improvements". Razing neighborhoods and tearing wide gashes in the fabric of local Italian American life was a common pattern in major cities. For the most part, this "Urban Renewal" merely enabled other, more geographically mobile city residents to flee more quickly to the suburbs.

2. Ruins
The rubble of ancient Rome or Pompeii is no match for that of the stores, businesses, and homes in Italian American neighborhoods abandoned in anticipation of "renewal", cleared of misnamed "slums", and still awaiting new uses. In most cases, these "liminal" zones of "in betweenness" had already taken their first step toward oblivion. Italian American ruins contain crumbling traces of vernacular architecture, faded signs which once announced active commerce and business, and fig trees growing in the wilds where little else other than various forms of low-income public housing were constructed to replace Italian villages.

3. Ethnic Theme Parks
Despite displacement of most of the "natives" the most famous of American Little Italies are preserved as spectacles for the appreciation of tourists, and the streetscapes which are used by film crews shooting "locations" for Mafia movies. Manhattan's Mulberry Street, and the world famous Feast of San Gennaro takes place in an Asian neighborhood decorated with "Italian" store fronts, street furniture, and outdoor cafes where restaurateurs recruit "swarthy" waiters from Latino communities. A few ethnically sympathetic vendors might attempt to recreate Italian markets, but many are more likely unashamedly hawk "Kiss Me I'm Italian Buttons", ethnically offensive bumper stickers, miniature Italian flags, and almost anything else in red, white and green.

Most Theme Parks contain (4.) Assimilation Museums and (5.) Anthropologcal Gardens. Assimilation Museums are places for the preservation and display of inanimate objects whereas Anthropological Gardens (Human Zoos) are places where the subjects of curiosity are maintained in their live state. In Assimilation Museums we find Memorabilia Exhibits, Archives, and Galleries run by groups devoted to the "Preservation of OUR Ethnic Heritage", ubiquitous monuments to Christopher Columbus, homes of the famous, such as mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and the even the more infamous, like Al Capone.

Athropological Gardens are usually criss-crossed by Naples Streets and Columbus Avenues. There one can observe "Local Italians" at memorial bocce courts, senior citizen centers, and social clubs. Video journalists use them as repositories for on-camera interviews about organized crime. Those left behind are the keepers of the tradition who can tell you how it was in the "good old days" in the old neighborhoods.