Little Italy Olivia Nini

Ethnic Enclave: A place with a high concentration of an ethnic group that is distinct from those in the surrounding area. Typically a neighborhood within a large city.


Located in lower Manhattan, Little Italy is a pocket-neighborhood which has been home to thousands of Italian immigrants for over a century. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, “New Immigration,” was the third and most abundant wave of immigrants from Europe to America. Along with Slavs and Jews, Italians migrated to the United States in search for opportunity starting around 1880. Of this chain migration, Italians were the largest cultural group to make move, ushering a steady flow of three million immigrants between 1900 and 1915. By the year 1920, Italians made up ten percent of all foreign-born Americans.


During the nineteenth century, one of the most prominent events of the time was the rise of the Italian unification movement. Also known as Risorgimento, this was a social and political process which succeeded in uniting the nation. However, by the end of the century, although Italy was unified under one flag, the nation could not be more divided—especially in the rural south. As products of decades of conflict, the country suffered immense poverty, social disarray, and violence. Nevertheless, with all of these factors being catalysts for migration, southern Italians, especially, became drawn to the dream of “L’America.” The United States by this time was thought as of the promised land; the soil of economic opportunity and freedom. Prosperity was calling, and with transatlantic transportation being more affordable, Italians could not resist.

As mentioned previously, Little Italy emerged during the nineteenth-century because Italians abandoned the conflicts of their homeland to come to the world’s most promising nation. Arriving in the New York Harbor, Italians continued into the streets of Manhattan and clustered near modern day Mulberry Street, as seen on the map.


Whether it be 1893 or 2017, migrating to an ethnic enclave has its benefits. When arriving in a new country, the transition will be tough for most people, as the culture will, typically, be very different. However, if the newcomer lives in or near an ethnic enclave it will be easier for them to connect with people similar to his or herself. Hence the process of chain migration. Immigrants will be able to find people who speak the same language, practice the same religion, cook the same foods, wear the same clothes, and so on. Another benefit of living amidst an ethnic enclave is that the immigrant will be surrounded by people who have made the same transition as them. This means they will find and receive guidance more easily, in regards to “fill[ing] out forms, obtain[ing] assistance from public and private agencies, and adapt[ing] to the culture of the receiving country.” (A Cultural Landscape: An Introduction to Human Geography, 236) Another advantage—arguably the most important—is the economic support people in ethnic enclaves receive. This includes loans, affordable housing, and employment opportunities. Without a doubt the benefits of migrating to an ethnic enclave are copious.


Decades ago, as newcomers arrived in Little Italy, they put their best efforts toward replicating their past home in a foreign setting. As a result of memory and experience, immigrants were able to leave their mark on the neighborhood by carrying over cultural signatures such as architecture, cuisine, and fashion. In Little Italy, today, most of the buildings standing are leftovers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—all modeling the epitome of Italian architecture. The buildings tower five to six stories tall, and are crowned with ornate cornices which add to the authentic feel. Apart from the cornices, other distinctive elements include gargoyles, stone and iron detailing, glass storefronts, and elaborate fire escapes. One building in particular which emphasizes the architecture is The Church of the Most Precious Blood. The Roman Catholic parish is the religious center for most locals, as Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion in the enclave. Another distinguishing factor of Little Italy is the cuisine. The neighborhood is home to more than forty authentic restaurants, bakeries and Italian markets, most of which are centered around Mulberry Street; however, others are tucked in the nooks and crannies. Places to eat include Pellegrino’s, Di Palo’s, Ferrara Bakery (one of the area’s oldest still-operating shops), and many more. However, apart from cuisine, Little Italy is known for their stellar jewelry and shoe stores. While most of the retail stores have assimilated to newer and more modern styles, they still market European apparel consistent to Italian styles today. These are just a few examples in which Little Italy differentiates itself from the bustling city of New York.

Elements of Little Italy


Although by the early twentieth century Little Italy was home to thousands of Italian-Americans, today the population is only a sliver of what it was. In 1950, 2,149 people living in Little Italy were Italian-born; however, by the year 2000, that number had shrunk to 44. Little Italy is, with no doubt, dwindling, and for many reasons. One reason is that both SoHo and Chinatown are invading its territory. SoHo is expanding from the west, while Chinatown is growing North. Even in the neighborhood’s center, Chinese advertisements have made their way into the streets as a reminder of Chinatown's looming presence. The second reason for the decline is that immigration from Italy has receded since the 1960s. Because less people are migrating to the enclave, mainly the older generations are left in the neighborhood. Lastly, because some of the families have prospered, they now feel the desire for more space—moving out of the city and into the suburbs. This is a process known as suburbanization.

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Rubenstein, James M. "Ethnicities." The Cultural Landscape: An Introduction to Human Geography. 12th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2015. 236. Print.

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Created with images by fung.leo - "lil`india" • gerard_flynn - "ukrainians" • Dimitry B - "Chinatown" • skeeze - "statue of liberty symbol freedom" • MatthieuGD - "little italy 006" • Oldmermaid - "pasta fettuccine food" • arnold | inuyaki - "Margherita Pizza"

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