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The Italian Community in New York City

Billy Kounatsos and Casey Mesick


     Years ago, people would descend upon Manhattan's Lower East Side to visit Little Italy, the foremost center of Italians in New York City. Good restaurants and good conversations (conducted in Italian, of course) characterized the area. Musical artists such as Billy Joel would sing about Little Italy in his song "Big Man on Mulberry Street." However, in the past two decades, there has been a severe decrease in the number of Italians who live in that community. Today, in what used to be a mostly Italian area, you would be lucky to find more than a couple restaurants and a few souvenir shops. Additionally, the Italian language is seen only on restaurant menus. This paper aims to answer two questions. First, what caused such a drastic decrease in Italian language, culture, and overall population in Little Italy? Secondly, is this trend occurring in other surrounding Italian communities? The first section in this paper begins to answer these questions by discussing general characteristics in Little Italy and compare them to those attributes found in Morris Park, an Italian section of the Bronx.

Neighborhood & General Population

     Little Italy was formed during the final decades of the nineteenth century when many immigrants began to settle in the United States. At its peak, the neighborhood covered a seventeen-block area and had an Italian population of about 40,000. Today, the Italian population has dwindled to approximately 5,000 and spans only two blocks on Mulberry Street, sandwiched between Kenmare Street to the north and Grand Street to the south. The majority of this tiny area is lined with small restaurants, bakeries, and walk-up apartments.

     However, on these two blocks, Chinese groceries and souvenir shops can be found; in fact, it is the ever-expanding Chinese population that has greatly (if not entirely) caused Little Italy to diminish so greatly. Chinatown, which used to border Little Italy to the south, has been rapidly spreading northwards, pushing the Italians out of the area that had been theirs for decades. Nowadays, Chinese is the primary language other than English in this area; the Italian language is no longer heard on the streets with any consistency. In fact, one of the only people heard speaking Italian was a restaurant owner who was enticing pedestrians to eat at his restaurant by calling to them, "Bella bambina, manga!" After being asked when he learned to speak Italian, he responded in a Brooklyn accent, "I don't speak Italian. Not at all. But us Italians have to give the illusion of being alive and well." This sentiment perfectly epitomizes the demise of Italian language, population, and culture.

     The largest church in this area, Old St. Patrick's Cathedral, located one block south of Houston Street between Mott and Mulberry Streets, does not even offer mass in Italian. However, there are masses conducted in Spanish and Chinese. When asked specifically about Italian language services, the informant made it clear none were offered and that there are now only a handful of elderly Italian members in the congregation, "Ya know, the ones from Mulberry Street." Her comment is telling, as it indicates that Italian population of the area is automatically confined to solely Mulberry Street. She also made it apparent that even these people did not need services offered in Italian since they all spoke English.

     A similar situation can be seen in the hospital. A patient representative at Beth Israel Medical Center confirmed that the hospitals offers translation services, medical literature and a Patient's Bill of Rights in several languages. When asked what languages, she replied, "Oh, Spanish and Chinese for sure. What language you lookin' for?" When she was told we were interested in Italian, she paused, hesitated and replied, "Oh, I don't think we offer Italian. There doesn't seem to be much of a need…" Here then, again, it is apparent that the Italian language is dying and does not influence government services such as the local public hospitals.

     However, if you take a New York City bus to Morris Park, located in the central part of the Bronx, you will find streets lined with brownstone houses, impeccable vegetable gardens, paths bordered by trimmed rosebushes, restaurants, clothing stores, bakeries, hair salons, and groceries, all of which are family-owned. Men play poker, children jump rope and women talk on the sidewalks. What delineates the activities from those of other neighborhoods is that all talk is conducted in Italian. On the surface, it appears to be a culturally and linguistically rich Italian neighborhood, especially when compared with the dying area of Little Italy.

     The most centrally located church in the Morris Park area is St. Claire's, attached to a private Catholic academy discussed below. However, unlike St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, this church does offer masses and services in Italian on a regular basis. Apparently there is still a large enough portion of the population that speaks Italian in this neighborhood to warrant this.

     Similarly, the local hospital, Jacobi Medical Center, offers translation services in Italian. If given notice, translators can be brought in easily from an agency. They have a service called the AT&T Language Line available to patients as well. When asked if they have medical literature in other languages (including Italian), the patient representative confirmed that they did and that, although the hospital does not have a Patient's Bill of Rights written in languages other than English, translators could easily be called. She also made it clear that many employees are bilingual, not only in Italian, but also other languages including Spanish.

     Based on this small body of evidence, it appears that these communities are located on opposite ends of a language maintenance spectrum. In Little Italy, Italian is not heard on the streets, not used in church services, nor is it readily available in hospitals. However, in Morris Park, Italian is heard regularly, signs written in Italian are abundant, churches offer mass in Italian, and the hospitals can easily and quickly cater to an Italian monolingual. However, to look closer at the particulars of the linguistic situation of these areas, an analysis of languages spoken in local elementary schools is provided in the following section.

Bilingual Schools? P.S. 130 and St. Claire's Academy

     The DeSoto School (P.S. 130 in Manhattan) is the public elementary school attended by children living in the Little Italy area. The school is extremely large (five floors), clean, bright, and new. In other words, it is not a typical New York City public school. However, the most surprising thing about walking into this school is not its condition, but rather the student body: nearly all of the students are Chinese. Indeed, statistically this is nearly the case. According to the school's "report card" (statistical analysis of the students, faculty, test scores, etc.), 92.5% of the students are of Asian descent. The white population constitutes 3% of the total, although further breakdown of ethnic background was not reported.

     In an interview, Assistant Principal Howard Epstein estimated that approximately 85% of the students at PS 130 came from bilingual (Chinese-English) or monolingual Chinese households. As a result, many students are enrolled in the English Language Learners (E.L.L.) program at the school, which begins at the pre-Kindergarten level and is completed by fourth grade, when most students achieve fluency. Approximately 22.4% of students were E.L.L. in 2000, down from 24.6% in 1999 and 31.8% in 1998. In the past, the E.L.L. program offered translation services in Chinese to English and Spanish to English, but the Spanish speaking population has so greatly decreased that the latter is no longer needed, Epstein reports.

     When asked if there were any Italian speakers in The DeSoto School, Epstein responded with a laugh. Apparently there were only 4 students whom he could recall with an Italian last name in his school and he was certain that none of them spoke Italian. When he was a teacher there in the 1960's, at least 50% of the student body was Italian. However, even then there was not an E.L.L. program that taught English to Italian speakers because those students were either monolingual English speakers or bilinguals already fluent in English by the time they attended elementary school. This evidence seems to suggest that there were no real monolingual Italians in the area even forty years ago, for if there were, the children would need English instruction.

     Epstein also said that a real change in the student body, and the entire Little Italy community, occurred towards the end of the 1960's, after the Immigration Act of 1965 was passed. This legislation allowed people of all ethnicities to enter the United States regardless of their ancestry. Prior to this, there was a quota that limited the number of immigrants from each ethnic group who could move to this country. As a result of this new law, Chinese and other peoples of Asian descent came in greater and greater numbers, currently representing half of the total number of immigrants : in Chinatown alone, the Chinese population alone has reached 80,000. This immense influx was reflected in the area schools and thus P.S. 130 became almost completely populated by Chinese students. Now, even the private schools, referred to by Epstein as "Chinese Catholic Schools," teach mostly Chinese students.

     While Epstein makes it abundantly clear that P.S. 130 is bilingual, the second language is not Italian, nor was it ever Italian in the past. Another school that teaches Italian students is St. Claire's Academy, located in the Bronx on the corner of Morris Park and Paulding Avenues. It is a private Catholic school and has an enrollment of 592 students ranging in age from 5 years old to 13. Although the school no longer offers and English as a Second Language Program, the representative we spoke to made it abundantly clear that most of the children in the school are of Italian descent and do speak Italian. However, nowadays more and more children from this area are learning English before they reach grade school, making ESL programs unnecessary. However, this was not always the case. Older members of the community tell a different story. Individual experiences growing up, attending these schools and using the ESL programs are presented in the following section in order to provide a human perspective on growing up Italian.

Case Studies

     In the Morris Park area, there were several opportunities to interview members of the community. Their stories are presented here.

Case 1: Franceso (Frank)

     Francesco was born in Yorktown Heights, New York in the early 1970's and moved to Morris Park when he was four years old. His parents were both monolingual Italian speakers, so he consequently learned how to speak English in elementary school. He asserts that he reached fluency by the time he was ten, but achieving this level of mastery was difficult since he could not practice speaking or listening to English at home (due to his family's monolingualism). Similarly, all of his peers spoke Italian at home and on the playground. From his observations, most children still speak Italian to each other a good deal of the time, although children are generally raised in bilingual households now and are already fluent in English by the time they reach elementary school.

Case 2: Giusseppe (Joey)

     Giusseppe, an older man with white hair and a thick mustache, owns a small restaurant called Gran Caffé on Morris Park Avenue. At the time of the interview, he was playing poker with his five friends, all of whom were speaking Italian. His English was slow and broken; he never truly learned the language as he did not receive any formal schooling and his family, friends and coworkers were (and continue to be) Italian monolinguals.

     Giusseppe remembers a time when he could speak Italian at work and home and be able to communicate perfectly because everyone in the area spoke Italian. Now, according to him, things are changing-English-speaking blacks are moving into the neighborhood, as are Albanians, making it more difficult to communicate solely in Italian. This comment is an interesting one and will be discussed in greater detail in the conclusion, after the remaining case studies are presented.

Case 3: Mr. P.

     Mr. P. owns Patricia's, a small, intimate Italian eatery that is consistently crowded. He was born in Morris Park and learned Italian and Albanian simultaneously; like Francesco, he learned English in school. His experiences were similar to those of the others in the area: that Italian used to be all you needed to get along, but lately English has become increasingly necessary to conduct business and converse with children and grand children.

Case 4: Ruth Buglione

     Ruth Buglione, a bilingual Italian and English speaker, is 74 years old and moved to Morris Park as a newlywed in 1946. She raised both of her daughters in the neighborhood, sent them to a private Catholic school, and accompanied them to church every Sunday. She recalls that at the time, all church masses were conducted in Latin and the sermons in Italian. Additionally, there were numerous clubs that were dedicated solely to teaching children and adolescents the Italian language, culture, and cuisine, similar to the Hebrew Schools that permeate primarily Jewish sections of New York. Within the past decade or so, however, she laments that these clubs have disappeared. When asked for her thoughts on why this has happened recently, she averted her eyes, sighed, shrugged her shoulders and asked if I want more coffee.

     This reaction at first caused confusion, but on deeper reflection made sense when combined with other comments, such as the one made by Giusseppe above. It is to these that we now turn to answer our original questions; what caused the demise of Italian language and culture in Little Italy, and is this trend occurring in other Italian communities?

Conclusion: The Decline of Italian Culture & Language

     It is clear that Little Italy is disappearing slowly and will soon find itself on the edge of oblivion. The causes appear to be The Immigration Act of 1965 that led to great the expansion of Chinatown into such Little Italy streets as Mulberry, Kenmare, Grand, Mott, Hester, and Baxter. It is clear that Italian speakers in Little Italy are rapidly becoming the minority. Very few speakers were observed speaking Italian, and those who were appeared to be over the age of 50, indicating that perhaps Italian was spoken more prevalently years ago. However, it presently seems that Chinese is the primary language in the area that once was Little Italy with English following as the second most common. This is evidenced by the awnings on Mulberry Street that are written in English or contain Chinese symbols.

     Superficially, Italian seems alive and well in the Bronx. Most signs and fliers were in Italian as were several local newspapers and coupon booklets. Posters announced local Italian events and fairs. People regularly spoke Italian; as the case studies indicate, this was the only language that they could speak. This was not heard in Little Italy, except of course for the restaurant owner, the "fake" Italian.

     However flourishing Italian seemed to be in this area, there were several comments made by community members that hinted at a slow and insidious decline of Italian in the area. First, Giusseppe's and Mr. P's admittance that one could no longer communicate with everyone solely in Italian points to the fact that perhaps Italian speakers are on the decline. Giusseppe mentioned that Albanians were becoming increasingly common and Mr. P., an Albanian himself, revealed that his ethnic group was becoming larger and more prominent in the area. As an observer in the community, a strong African-American presence was noted, indicating that perhaps they too were moving into the neighborhood with more consistency.

     However, the most striking clue came from Ruth with her comment about the disappearance of the cultural clubs. What happened to these organizations that were at one time so prominent? The logical answer would seem to be that there was just no longer a demand for them because the population is not as densely Italian as it was a decade or two ago. No real answer could be found to this problem, although further research might result in a more definitive conclusion. Ruth's comment was also made with considerable sadness and when asked to hypothesize the reasons for this, she became visibly upset and changed the subject. Not wanting to create an uncomfortable situation, no further prying was done, but based on the context and the circumstance, it is my interpretation that perhaps Ruth is aware of a slight decline in the culture in which she lived her life and raised her children.

     It should be noted that these conclusions about a possible decline in Italian in Morris Park are not based on empirical evidence, but rather are extrapolations of comments made and points observed. However, it is definitively clear that Italian has nearly disappeared in Little Italy, giving way to the ever-expanding Chinese population. As Ruth Buglione would certainly attest, it is indeed sad to watch the decline of a rich culture that has been a part of America's past for decades. Yet, based on empirical evidence, observations and personally opinions, this seems to be the case in Little Italy and, in a less advanced stage, Morris Park.

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