Before I say anything more, I should make it clear that I had never been to the famous San Gennaro festival that is running through this weekend in Manhattan’s Little Italy before Wednesday night, and that during our visit, my cellphone was thieved, perhaps leaving an extra special bad taste in my mouth. I’ll also make it clear that we spent three weeks in Italy this summer – though we did not visit Naples or any of southern Italy – and we had an amazing time and feel pretty well-informed about mainstream modern Italian culture. My wife is also a proud third-generation Italian-American from Philadelphia, so I’m also pretty well-versed in East Coast Italian-American culture. So, that said, allow me, if you will, to tell you why I didn’t find the much-heralded San Gennaro festival such a great cultural experience after all.
The sausage and peppers sandwich we ate was good – too much onion, and not enough sausage and peppers, but good bread and basically, very tasty. I’m blaming the lack of peppers and sausage on the generally parsimonius nature of street vendors, but I was pleased to be served by beefy looking Italian-Americans with a characteristic gruffness that I enjoy. This, I thought, is what I came for – something authentically Italian-American – a kind of balls-out, overblown street food-fair where everybody talks with their mouths full and with grease on their chins. I wasn’t expecting anything authentically Italian because I know that wherever immigrants have settled across the world their attempts to recreate aspects of their former lives and homes are reminscent but never exactly alike the old country and I know this from personal experience. However much I think Brooklyn is redolent of certain Victorian neighborhoods in England, it’s always going to be Brooklyn and not Fulham or Highgate. But I was enthused by the food, the sheer number of zeppole and cannoli stands was impressive, and the smell of frying onions and sausage filled the air, even if for $6 I had expected more than one small piece of sausage. The crowds were mightily impressive too – I had expected it to be quiet on a Wednesday evening – but it was busy enough that it made me glad not to have come on a weekend when it would have been horrific with kids dropping ice creams everywhere and swarms of teenagers roving around in intimidating mobs.
But here’s the kicker, and watch out readers who read last week’s post on the Italian strike over pasta, you may find what follows peculiar, or at least at odds with my self-proclaimed admiration for the upkeepers of tradition. You see, what bothered me about San Gennaro, apart from the depressing chintzy sideshows that charged $5/dart and then gave away the world’s most awful teddy bear prizes, was a general feeling of decay that pervaded the festival. Not only were all the people working the stands kind of haggard and down-on-their-luck looking, but Little Italy itself is depressing because it’s a neighborhood with absolutely none of the vibrancy it is famous for. A few red-sauce Italian restaurants and round-bellied people on street corners going “ay, gabagool!” to each other does not make a neighborhood. It’s become a kind of film-set or theme park, with nothing really of substance remaining, and holding a festival for the patron saint of Naples in a neighborhood which is predominantly Chinese is even stranger than there being Ecuadorian food vendors selling mozzarepas and Colombians touting flame-grilled steaks.
Those of you who watched the final series of the Sopranos (and advance apologies to those who haven’t seen it yet for ruining at least one episode) will know that there is an ongoing war between the New Jersey and New York mobs, and that the New York mob are often pictured in their restaurants in Little Italy. There is one very telling scene in which one of the New York mob gets whacked while his companion is left untouched. The companion then starts hurriedly walking away from the scene through crowds of people. The scene closes with this guy looking frantic as a tour bus passes him with the guide saying something like, “to your left is Little Italy. It used to cover 30 blocks but is now little more than one street, three blocks in length, having been swallowed up by neighboring Chinatown.”
The point that scene made to me is one of demographics. Italian immigrants and their descendants are still present in great numbers throughout the north-east, but are being overtaken in their traditional neighborhoods by newer and more numerous groups like the Chinese and various Latino populations. This is exactly what I saw at San Gennaro – the last gasp of a once-great and homogenous group of immigrants – and it was depressing. I have deep respect for people who keep traditions alive but my San Gennaro experience left me with the impression that it was only the tradition that was left and none of the substance, particularly when the woman selling “I love guidos” t-shirts turned out to be Canadian and our sausage and peppers vendor was from New Jersey.
But what do you think? Am I unfairly maligning a strong and proud tradition that has a real future in New York City, or do you think New York’s Italian traditions are dying out? Before you answer you might consider reading this recent article in the New York Times.
CHECK OUT SOME OTHER POSTS RELATED TO THIS ONE:
- San Gennaro Festival, Little Italy, NYC – Ain’t What it Used to Be (Girl’s Version)
- FETTUCCINE FRA’DIAVOLO WITH CRAB AND SHRIMP
- FRITO MISTO DI MARE (FRIED MIXED SEAFOOD AND VEGGIES)
- Striking Over Pasta?
- PERFECT BROCCOLI DI RAPE/RAPINI
- SAUSAGE AND PEPPER SANDWICHES
- In Defence of Sandwiches (White House Subs, Atlantic City)