A famous photograph of Mulberry Street at the turn of the 20th century shows a neighborhood brimming with life. The street is packed with recent Italian immigrants, young and old. Carts and buggies crowd the streets like cars do today, with merchants selling products out the back. Produce stands are in front of buildings in the same way that outdoor dining patios have extended onto Mulberry today– except there are no tourists around them, just locals.
There is obviously no music in this photograph, but something about it sings. There is a sense of clamor, of something new that has just been created and is overflowing with kinetic energy.
While many of those buildings from 1900 still stand, the Little Italy that made its name over 100 years ago has reclined into museum-like nostalgia. Restaurants, not shops, make up the majority of today’s storefronts, trying with all their might to recreate the robust atmosphere of an older Little Italy for tourists.
Over the decades, shopkeepers have muttered about the community’s slow decline. Now, they’re talking about a new obstacle that has upended the area’s way of life. That threat is COVID-19.
Louis Di Palo, the fifth-generation owner of Di Palo’s Fine Foods– Little Italy’s staple grocery store– has never been more worried about the future. “9/11 … Hurricane Sandy … these were challenges that were incidental compared to World War II,” he said. “I’m realizing [World War II] was not the greatest challenge, it’s this pandemic.”
Adeline Sessa, also a fifth-generation descendant and current vice president at Ferrara’s Bakery and Cafe– which styles itself as “America’s first pasteria and espresso bar”– is equally perturbed. “We’ve gone through 9/11 in my time…this is by far [the biggest challenge]. Nothing compares to this in so many ways, and we don’t even see the light at the end of the tunnel yet.”
Both Di Palo and Sessa’s descendants were part of the first wave of immigrants who came to the United States from Italy. Between 1880 and 1924, more than four million Italians immigrated to the US, the majority of whom settled in New York City. By 1930, one million people of Italian heritage lived in New York, making up 17 percent of its population.
Savino Di Palo, Louis’ great-grandfather, immigrated to New York at the turn of the 20th century to escape the poverty of his homeland of Basilicata, a rural region of Southern Italy surrounded by Calabria to its west and Apuia to its east.
Sessa’s family has been in New York for even longer. Her great grandfather, Enrico Scoppo, and great-great uncle, Antonio Ferrara, emigrated from Campania, the region of the Mezzogiorno (the Italian word for “midday” or “noon” which colloquially refers to Southern Italy) where Naples is located and also directly north of Basilicata, in the 1880s.
Both families settled in Lower Manhattan, in the area– described by 19th- century social reformer and journalist Jacob Riis as “the foul core of New York’s slums”– that eventually established itself as Little Italy.
Times were not easy for new Italian immigrants. They “were often seen as sinister birds of passage that were coming to America for a while and then leaving,” said Robert Snyder, Manhattan Borough Historian. “They were often unfairly despised as criminal when in fact they were digging the subways and laying the foundations for the city’s growth and economic success.”
“[My family] came to Little Italy because it was the only place in New York where people spoke Italian,” said Sessa. This was how her family got jobs. Once they settled in, they could bring more relatives.
Little Italy today, which Sessa now calls “Little Little Italy,” is a fraction of its former self. It has been reduced to a single strip along Mulberry Street with a few stores on Mott Street and their connecting side roads.
“What’s happened in Little Italy over decades and accelerating since the ’70s is it’s lost its italian population,” said Snyder. “If you walk around Mulberry Street today and look at the apartments, there are Italian restaurants and stores on the ground floor, but the people who live upstairs are often Chinese.”
In the first half of the 20th century, however, the neighborhood extended as far as 30 blocks north of Canal Street.
Back then, Little Italy was segregated along regional lines. Italy was a young country that had only recently been unified under one national banner, and Italians from different regions were distrustful of one another. Elizabeth Street was where the Sicilians lived, while Mulberry was home to Neapolitans (Italian immigrants from Naples).
To ground themselves in the New World, immigrants opened family-run businesses, which became centers of social life in the community.
“[Ferrara’s] was a place to hang out even if you couldn’t afford coffee,” said Sessa. It was the only cafe in the area.
“My father used to say to me, ‘What are you complaining about? You go home at eight o’clock–your grandparents were here til 11:30 every night. You come in at nine o’clock or 8:30–they were here at six in the morning,’” Di Palo told me.
“I would turn to my father and say, ‘Dad, you’re right … they were here til eleven-thirty at night; Grandpa Louis was down in the basement with all his buddies with the little wine bar drinking wine and my grandmother was upstairs sitting down and she had all her comares sitting in the store talking about everything.’ Social life took place in the workplace.”
Even though they had fun and fostered a strong sense of family and community, life was incredibly difficult. Over the course of 30 years from the advent of World War I, the US faced two world wars, the Spanish Flu, and the decade-long Great Depression. For Italian immigrants who moved to New York in search of success and opportunity they could not find in their homeland, life was even tougher because they were poor, had no connections to wealthy Americans, and often could barely speak English.
The Spanish Flu “hit poor areas very hard,” said Di Palo. While his family was luckily spared from experiencing any immediate deaths as a result of the 1918 pandemic, they were tormented with stereotypes about being dirty and spreading diseases, which led to discrimination.
Before the New Deal, the economic woes Di Palo and Sessa’s families experienced were compounded by the fact the United States government offered little to no economic relief to those in poverty. Any support they received was from the goodwill of family and friends.
Di Palo said that his grandmother, Concetta, was known around the neighborhood for giving bread and other food basics to those in need. The amount of thanks she received were seemingly endless.
“My grandmother never smiled,” said Di Palo. Behind the stern immigrant mask, however, was a deep empathy for the plight of her neighbors.
Today, there are more economic resources in place to respond to challenges small businesses face from COVID-19. On March 27 of this year, the federal government instituted the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to provide small businesses with low interest loans to help them survive the pandemic. Both Di Palo’s and Ferrara’s participated in it.
Still, however, challenges abound more than ever. Sessa pointed to gentrification in New York, which has led to exponentially higher rent prices than ever before, as a major problem for establishments like Ferrara’s. “It’s like a nightmare you can’t wake up from,” she said. The fear for her has shifted from contracting the virus to the economic hardship COVID-19 has brought about.
“We’re doing anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of our normal retail business and 10 percent of our wholesale business,” said Di Palo. He is also worried about vendors he works with–ones that are experiencing immense economic hardship or have closed entirely–that may not be able to pay him back if they owe him money.
However, even through the difficulties, Di Palo and Sessa refuse to give up.
“We are continuing the tradition of Italian dairy,” said Di Palo. “Is it worth the sacrifice? … We are caretakers of the business … we are obligated to pass it on to the next generation.” Consciously or not, the values his descendants prized so dearly– family, tradition, community, empathy– are all visible in his outlook on running Di Palo’s.
In the early days of Italian immigration to New York, the work they did was precarious and businesses were highly susceptible to failure. Those who wanted to survive and run a successful business were forced to find innovative new ways to turn a profit. During the coronavirus pandemic, Di Palo’s and Ferrara’s have gone back to their roots, and have instituted new practices they hope will be successful for them.
“I’ve closed the store for in-store shopping since the pandemic became really crazy in the month of April,” said Di Palo. “I haven’t opened it up for people to come in the store since that period of time.”
What he has been doing instead is a curbside pickup service: prospective shoppers call the store and place an order; the staff then pick the items for them. Waiting in line outside the store, the customers are handed the bag of groceries soon after they place the call and pay outside. This way, contact is limited and employees have less of a chance of contracting the coronavirus from those who might otherwise bring the virus into Di Palo’s.
“We’ve been working with a very small staff, which is primarily our family,” said Di Palo. Family, central to the collective survival of the first wave of poor Italian immigrants around the beginning of the 20th century, has maintained its importance.
The operators Ferrara’s, in order to make enough money to pay off their expenses, have started a new program where they now ship and wholesale savory items in addition to their famous sweets.
“You have to reinvent yourself to stay alive,” said Sessa.
If any motto should be added to the large sign hanging at the intersection Mulberry and Canal that reads “Welcome to Little Italy,” Sessa’s quote would be as prescient historically and today as any other.
Correction, March 3, 2021: The original version of this post misquoted an Italian expression used by Louis Di Palo.