Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Feast of San Gennaro.


I regret that I haven't been posting much in recent weeks, but I assure any concerned readers that in this case no news is good news. I'm having an enjoyable semester so far, all is well at Ciszek Hall, and the weather is much better than it was this time last year. In the coming weeks, I hope to post more frequent updates on goings on hereabouts.

As a start, I'd like to say something about the Feast of San Gennaro currently happening in the Little Italy section of Manhattan. Now celebrating its eightieth year, the San Gennaro Feast has evolved from a one-day religious festival honoring the patron saint of Naples (whose actual feast day is September 19th) to a massive street fair that lasts nearly two weeks and draws over one million people anually - many of whom, I suspect, are neither Italian nor Catholic. I also have a hunch that the San Gennaro Feast has gotten bigger and more commercialized as Little Italy has gotten smaller and less authentically Italian.

Writer Bill Tonelli had some interesting things to say about this topic in a 2004 New York Magazine article entitled "Arrivederci, Little Italy." In one paragraph, Tonelli neatly encapsulates Little Italy's transformation from a vibrant ethnic enclave (which had an Italian population of about 10,000 in 1910) to a virtual Potemkin village:
Once, Little Italy was like an insular Neapolitan village re-created on these shores, with its own language, customs, and financial and cultural institutions. Today, Little Italy is a veneer - 50 or so restaurants and caf├ęs catering to tourists, covering a dense neighborhood of tenements shared by recent Chinese immigrants, young Americans who can't afford Soho, and a few remaining real live Italians. At the turn of the twentieth century, more than 90 percent of the Fourteenth Ward's inhabitants were Italian by birth or blood. In 2000, the three U.S. Census tracts that constitute Little Italy were home to 1,211 residents claiming Italian ancestry - 8.25 percent of the total, roughly the same as the proportion of Italians in the entire city. (By contrast, 81 percent of Chinatown below Grand Street is Chinese.)
Elsewhere in the article, Tonelli discusses the strategies that have been used to maintain the "veneer" of Little Italy in the form of "an open-air theme park of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European immigration to the Lower East Side." In short, tourism has helped keep Little Italy alive as its Italian population has dwindled.

Efforts to draw visitors to the area that once comprised Little Italy - especially during the San Gennaro Feast - have been a source of some conflict in a changed (and changing) neighborhood. Parts of the Mulberry Street corridor have become increasingly gentrified at the same time that the Feast has physically expanded to cover the full length of Mulberry between Houston and Canal Streets. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, a few of Mulberry Street's new residents object to the noise and traffic that the San Gennaro Feast annually draws to their area. Earlier this year, some community activists urged that street permits be denied for what one Feast opponent called "a terrible burden for the neighborhood." In the midst of the controversy, the pastor of Little Italy's Most Precious Blood Church - the parish traditionally associated with the Feast - offered a memorable variation on the old "you knew what you were getting into when you moved here" argument: "I cannot understand for the life of me how people who are non-Italian want to move into an Italian neighborhood, knowing that Italians live here - and they're noisy people. By nature!" How the voluble priest handled the inevitable response - that most attendees of the Feast don't live in the neighborhood - remains unrecorded.

I caught some of the San Gennaro Feast last night, on my way to dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant with one of my fellow scholastics. My companion and I avoided most of Mulberry Street on account of the heavy foot traffic there, but we did manage to duck into Most Precious Blood Church, which was open late to accommodate Feast-goers. On the way out of the church, I picked up a copy of the parish bulletin, which featured an interesting apologia for the Feast of San Gennaro. Here is much of the text, quoted verbatim:
A few months ago, there was much talk in the Mulberry Street area, mostly in the upper sections of Mulberry Street closer to Prince and Spring Streets, that some of the people there wanted to close the feast down this year due mainly to the unruly crowds that it attracts, drunkards, [and] dirty habits that people bring with them from the outer boroughs as well as the surrounding states, perhaps, and many other reasons that are for the most part concocted and totally illusionary. They brought these to the attention of the Community Board.

Very fortunately, the powers that be got wind of what was going on and before you knew it, many of the board members of the Figli S. Gennaro as well as parishioners got together and were able to silence those voices, many of which just recently moved into the area and tried to impose their views on our community about what we could or could not do.

When many of these businesses opened up in that area [i.e., the upper section of Mulberry Street], we did not see any of our people go down to tell them that we did not like them in our area; that we thought their wares were much too expensive to be even shown in the windows in our area, that their prices were much too steep for our area. We just let them in and if they could pay the steep rents, then God bless them, let them be!!! But they should not come down and tell anyone else how they should live, or what they may or may not do.
Later on, the text in the bulletin contends that "[f]or the most part, the people visiting here are very respectful people, well behaved, and well-mannered. They certainly do nothing to antagonize anyone." I have no reason to doubt this, though my experience has been that even the most well-behaved people can still create a lot of noise and congestion when gathered in sufficient numbers. The harsh words that the Most Precious Blood bulletin directs at gentrifying newcomers (not to mention people from "the outer boroughs" and "surrounding states") are both angry and poignant; one can read in them a great sadness at the loss of an old sense of neighborhood identity now memorialized (for better or worse) by the San Gennaro Feast.

The conflict between old residents upset about demographic change and the effects of gentrification and new arrivals who fail to appreciate the attitudes and traditions of old-timers is not unique to Little Italy. One can find evidence of similar conflicts in erstwhile ethnic enclaves across the United States and beyond. There's no easy way to resolve the tensions between old and new that surface during events like the San Gennaro Feast. Nonetheless, my hope is that the old and new residents of Little Italy (and analogous neighborhoods elsewhere) can somehow rise above their differences and find ways to live together in harmony. This year, that will be my prayer to San Gennaro. AMDG.

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