Little Italy? What about Big Italy?

by Gary Drake | Feb 20, 2014

I read with fascination the column by Giovanni Morreale here on about his trip to Little Italy, a trip he found was not quite what he was expecting. Things have changed. It’s true. The column also provoked quite a bit of feedback about how sad it is to see these Italian cultural neighborhoods disappearing, whether in New York or elsewhere. But now please permit this American-American living in Sicily to offer some counter-points to my esteemed editor’s well-written and emotional piece.

1) In the Mulberry Street case, the disappearance was a part of the overall homogenizing of the Big Apple. I say what I’m about to say without any editorial comment, you can decide for yourself, but the strategy to bring NYC from the brink of the bankruptcy of the Son of Sam years was to move the poor people out of Manhattan and into the boroughs, leaving Manhattan in the hands of, dare I say, well-heeled and so much less interesting residents. Let’s just say, Greenwich Village, 2014, is no La Boehme! Little Italy was just one of the Manhattan disappearing acts in the last 25 years.

2) The disappearance of Italian neighborhoods in and of itself isn’t bad. Shouldn’t Italians be happy that they don’t have to live in one neighborhood, that they are now a part of the mainstream American fabric? However, if you want to meet Castellammaresi, there’s always the Castellammare Social Club in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, or at least there was….

3) Now this will get me in trouble with some readers but I always laugh when Italians talk about their neighborhoods disappearing. There were some Bensonhurst Italians here one summer going on and on about how the neighborhood has changed, “You wouldn’t recognize the old neighborhood. It’s all Koreans now!” What’s funny is they say this seemingly without the slightest awareness that there was a point in history when someone was saying in whatever language, “You wouldn’t recognize the old neighborhood. It’s all Italians now!”

4) Which brings me to an even more controversial point. Remember, I live in Sicily, and for the life of me I don’t comprehend how (some, not all, of course) Sicilians complain about the immigration situation in Sicily when half-of-Sicily (it seems) were immigrants somewhere at one time or another. Or to put it another way, I’m troubled by the disconnect of, on one hand, hearing some express sadness at the disappearance of their immigrant neighborhoods on foreign soil, and on the other, the complaints about the immigrants in Italy. (To be fair, from my eyewitness accounts, no matter the rhetoric, I constantly see Sicilians digging some coinage out of their pockets to give to those who arrive here in desperate straits, especially those arriving by rafts from North African shores.)

5) Thankfully, I now arrive at my last point, which is good, because I no longer make Top Ten lists. But this one is important. I understand the Italians feeling the way they do about losing their culture in places like Little Italy, but I would think Italians would be more concerned about losing their culture in actual Italy.

McDonaldLet’s start with what I would think my fellow-Sicilians would consider the worst-case scenario: Starbucks is coming to Palermo! My source is, which reports Palermo is on a list with Milan, Rome, Venice and a handful of other Italian cities to open up locations within a year. Add that to the McDonald’s in Piazza Politeama and a Burger King by Teatro Massimo and the Disney Store on Via Maqueda, and, well, why do I have to end this sentence by making a point, I think you understand.

In Palermo and Sicily’s case this is a double-edged sword and I recognize that. On the one hand the local culture takes a hit, but on the other hand it’s painfully obviously that foreign-investment is needed to keep Sicily afloat. At least until The Silvio Bridge opens over the Strait of Messina (joke). So again, I don’t editorialize, but the Americanization of Palermo and environs might see this American moving to one of the hidden small towns in the mountains that others are writing about on this site.

Of course, Sicilians will be the first to patronize these establishments, as evidenced by their flocking to American-style shopping malls, shopping malls being one of the things on my Top Ten Reasons to Leave America list. I know a family here with a ten-year-old girl who excitedly told me her entire class was taking a field trip to Palermo to eat at McDonalds. I said, “You’ve got to be kidding, they are taking you to Palermo to eat at McDonald’s?” Her reply, “No they are taking us to Palermo to see the Botanical Gardens and see a matinee opera at Teatro Massimo. But in-between we get to eat at McDonalds!” Once you lose the kids…..

Although, for my money, and again I expect to get into trouble for this, the worst-case scenario for me (the American-American living in Sicily) is when the Sicilian-Americans return to Sicily in the summer and complain about my Castellammare and how it’s a third-world country compared to America. Please! First of all, who’s comparing Sicily to America anyway? You can’t compare them, they are completely different. And besides, if Castellammare del goflo was just like America, why would I have moved here???  But the comparisons can be heard all summer long. In fact the number one phrase in Castellammare del golfo over the summer is not “Buongiorno” or “Prego.” Nope, the number one phrase is “In America……!” “In America, the streets are so much wider!” “In America, the stores don’t close for lunch!” “In America, we don’t keep our kids out so late!” As if any one of those things needed to be said. Although, with the Sicilians’ Americanized-love for SUVs maybe the Americanization of small town streets is next. You get the picture, and I won’t even bring up for now the American militarization of our Sicilian island. And I only write of the Americanization. I didn’t even mention the Europeanization. Remember the lira?

All of this is not to say what is right or wrong for the future of Italy. I just wanted to say to those who bemoan to varying degrees the loss of their culture on foreign lands, I propose that if losing their culture is of a major concern to them they might be better off worrying less about losing Little Italy and worry more about losing Big Italy. If people want to experience Italy, tell them come to Italy. The real Italy. Before it’s too late.

Gary Drake
Gary Drake
Gary Drake is American freelance writer who lives year-round in Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily. Gary has lived in several big American cites and spent time in Milan before settling in Sicily. He is the author of "Silent Bell" "Digital Lives" "Daily News of Sicily" and "Conversation With A Settler". Gary's pastimes include, among many things, Palermo soccer, baseball, Dylan, Sicilian history, philosophy, and discussing the meaning of life with the wise sages that gather at the coffee shops of Castellammare del golfo.

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  1. Hey Gary,
    not sure I follow your first point. I was just surprised that few yards away from the WORLD TRADE CENTER, I say it again, THE WORLD… TRADE.. CENTER… there is a growing Chinese ghetto where people can’t speak English. That was simply amazing. It was equally sad to see Little Italy devoured by China Town. Sorry!

    Indeed I take pride in noticing that “Italians” are now covering Exec & C-Level positions …

    And yes, we are definitely on the same boat… puzzled listening some Sicilian coming back to Sicily and starting comparing… the place where he comes from .. with “Third world Sicily”.. Hmmmmm

    I also totally understand your points and concerns upon immigration, McDonald etc

    I’m having my dose of “civilized/modern/globalized/industrialized/…” world and hope I can build a stable life in my 3rd World Sicily soon…

  2. Giovanni,

    I feel your pain!

    Regarding the Chinese ghetto, there may also be pockets of poverty in the eastern most streets of the Lower East Side (Alphabet City because the streets are Avenue A, Avenue B) and maybe other neighborhoods.

    But my point is that there was a concerted effort to tear down old apartment buildings in Manhattan and build brand new luxury skyrises, which may or many not still be continuing. It may not have had the direct goal of getting rid of poor people, but what other end could it have? At the time, in an interview on Newsradio88, Mayor Giuliani said something to the effect, We’re doing the poor a favor, they can’t afford Manahattan, and they will lead better lives in the boroughs. If there’s a Chinese ghetto, please note that nearby neighborhoods SOHO; NOHO, Tribeca, etc, were all lowcost tenements as recently as the 70s, but now house the rich and famous. Chinatown running over Little Italy may just be the result of poor people moving from one neighborhood to the other until Donald Trump gets around to developing where they are!

    Also, I haven’t myself been in Manhattan since 2008, which was the year of the greatest economic collapse since The Great Depression, which may or may not have ended. So it’s not hard to imagine that the revitalization came to a grinding halt then, and you are visiting six years after. How 25 years of rivitalization now mixes with a six-year depression/recession may be what you witnessed. No doubt, it’s all very complicated.

  3. What they call ‘gentrifrication’. Look at SF’s Mission district full of hi-tech richies and London’s Dickensian Canary Wharf full of investment bankers. It’s more of the things that ‘were but aren’t any more’ that bring on the nostalgia.

  4. P.S. I shall be praying to santa Rosalia that Starbucks goes bankrupt during its first week of business in Palermo!

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