Little Italy is a neighborhood of old timers. People who grew up on Mulberry Street and got cannolis from Ferrara Bakery as a weekend treat. The shops that are still open are family businesses run by people who’ve lived in the neighborhood their entire lives. And the San Genarro Festival is one of the biggest events of the year for them.
“It’s one of the longest running institutions in New York,” claims Alex Tisi, one of the owners of Il Piccolo Bufalo and the Mulberry Street Bar. San Genarro has been running consecutively almost every year since 1926 when it began. Tisi also claims to be “one of the oldest continuous residents in Little Italy” having lived there for seventy years.
The Feast of San Genarro started in New York after Neapolitan immigrants brought the tradition over from Italy. The legends of the New York festival exact origins are muddled, given that all the stories have been passed down through hearsay. But what we know is that the Italian immigrants decorated their balconies every September 19 in celebration of Saint Genarro, who saved Naples by stopping Vesuvius from erupting. At some point “the merchants got together and had a block party for all the residents of the street, free of charge,” says Tisi. “And then they started charging when they realized ‘Well, look at all these people showing up. Some of them don’t even live here, so why are we feeding them?’” The festival grew from one day, to an eleven-day celebration every year for anyone in New York.
Ferrara bakery has been a staple of the festival since the beginning. Current owner Ernest Lepore grew up in the neighborhood and has watched it change over his lifetime. “This neighborhood is a neighborhood in flux,” he said, discussing how many of the Italians who lived there during his childhood have moved out of the neighborhood. “When I was a boy, these were cobblestone streets and a lot of machine shops – it was vacant property.” He describes the neighborhood now as being chic with a new kind of funk coming in.
Lepore reminisced about being a child at the San Genarro festival and cheating at carnival games with his siblings. They would go to the water spraying games and “one of us was the distraction and one of us stayed focused,” he said. The child distracting would shoot all the other players with water, so the concentrating child could win the game – that way they always won a prize.
Reflective of 9/11
Other business owners recalled happy memories of growing up at the festival. People especially miss the grease pole, a 35-foot pole covered in grease that teams of people (mostly men) would climb dressed as women. Whomever made it to the top won a prize. However, the city stopped allowing the grease pole several years ago because “it turned out to be a minor insurance nightmare” said Tisi.
But this year has changed because of COVID-19. Last year was the second time the festival has ever been cancelled. The first time was 9/11 when the feast was set to begin the next day. That broke the festival’s consecutive streak of over 70 years. The organizers this year are reflective of the effect of 9/11 on the neighborhood.
“This area was very impacted by 9/11,” says John Fratta, one of the organizers. “It’s the 20th anniversary so we had to do something.” The theme of the festival this year is First Responders. There will be events honoring firefighters, police officers, and all those who helped during 9/11.
With health and safety being at the forefront of everyone’s minds, there are mixed feelings about hosting a large festival. While not being required, organizers are asking attendees to wear a mask and bring proof of vaccination.
“If you’re a little apprehensive about coming down to the neighborhood,” Lepore said, “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday are the light days, and you’ll enjoy the feast without bumping into 50% of us.” He says that he sees people on the street trying, with many attendees at the festival wearing masks.
“Little Italy is Down”
Those coming to the event seem confident about their safety. “We’re vaccinated, we’re outside, we feel good,” said A.J. and Swirve, two attendees as they finished each other’s sentences. Both wore masks pulled down below their mouths.
Though health is a concern, COVID-19 hindered the neighborhood by closing local restaurants and stores. “A handful of restaurants closed last year, but I’m still here,” says Willy Dominguez, the owner of De La Venezia, who moved to the neighborhood thirty years ago. “Everybody needs some business. Little Italy is down.”
The past few months have seen a resurgence of business in the area, but with some establishments permanently closed and the threat of the Delta variant hanging overhead, Little Italy’s future remains unclear. The area depends on business from tourists, who have been slow to return to New York. “Little Italy has been suffering,” says Tisi who also described the past year in the neighborhood as “depressing”.
Those attending the San Genarro festival seem eager to bring Little Italy back to life. “We got tired of being locked up and being at home doing nothing, so it’s good to get back to the routine,” said Priscilla, a New York native who comes to the festival every year. Jenny Lam, another attendee who wore a mask, said “I was really sad last year when they didn’t have it. And I feel like now since the San Genarro being back it feels like the city is back and running and alive again.” Others shared similar sentiments, as well as their excitement to grab a cannoli and some meatballs.
The San Genarro Festival is central for Little Italy and for Italian-Americans all over the city. “Even if you knew that you were going to set up and go through the expense and the trouble and it was going to rain eleven days” said Tisi, “you would probably still do it.”