New York City has long been defined by the wide array of ingredients and seasonings thrown into its cultural pot. Though the flavor of the Big Apple has changed and evolved constantly over the years, at the city’s center are the deep-rooted ethnic neighborhoods that make New York the diverse place it’s always been. And of those neighborhoods, Little Italy has always held a special place in the city’s history.
A Little History
The neighborhood just north of Chinatown that became known as Little Italy— loosely bordered by Houston Street to the north, the Bowery on the east, Canal Street to the south, and Lafayette on the west—was formed in the late 1800s when Italians from all over the old country first settled in Manhattan. The area quickly became home for thousands of new immigrants.
Mulberry Street (named for the mulberry trees that once speckled Mulberry Bend) became a prime destination for those arriving in New York City from Naples. The 1860s brought a much larger group of Neapolitan professionals—largely those who could afford the costly travel and risky relocation. By the 1880s, Sicilian farmers, peasants, skilled and unskilled laborers were also en route. New arrivals from Calabria found their way to Mott Street, and those from Bari were led to Broome Street.
By the 1890s, these “little colonies” as they were called by those who established their communities there, formed what Italian Americans now consider “the original footprint.” By 1910, an estimated 545,000 Italian immigrants lived in the whole of New York City. By 1920, nearly 200,000 of those immigrants lived in Little Italy, and the neighborhood had expanded its boundaries to stretch from Broadway to Bleecker to Bowery.
Today, that footprint has shrunk, going only as far south as modern day Worth Street and as far north as Canal Street. William Medici, of The Medici Foundation in Manhattan, a group working to preserve and honor Italian American history and the distinctive nature of Little Italy, estimates that today only about 1,500 Italian-American descendants live in the neighborhood.