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NoLIta Boutiques Fear San Gennaro Fest's 'Greasy Fingers'

By DNAinfo Staff on January 4, 2011 7:40am  | Updated on January 4, 2011 8:48am

By Jordan Heller

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

NOLITA — A feud over this year's San Gennaro Feast permit is pitting Nolita newcomers disgusted by rowdy festival-goers against life-long Little Italy residents who say their 85-year-old tradition deserves respect.

Community Board 2 is scheduled to review the street permit application for September's San Gennaro Feast this Thursday, setting the stage for the latest incarnation of the 10-day street fair with rides, food vendors and the annual parade of the San Gennaro statue that draws massive crowds to the area.

But opinions of the festival reveal a fault line in the middle of Mulberry Street — with supporters from the Little Italy portion of the street, south of Broome, facing off against opponents from the Nolita section, north of Broome.

Ralph Tramontana, 41, the owner of Cafe Sambuca at 105 Mulberry St., south of Broome Street, spoke for many of his longtime Little Italy neighbors when he called the boutique and bistro owners north of Broome Street who turn their noses up at the San Gennaro Feast a bunch of "Johnny-Come-Lately's" who have no right to complain.

"When you come into an area, you mold yourself into that area — you don't try and change it," said Tramontana, who believes that Little Italy extends all the way north to East Houston Street. 

But the manager of White Saffron, a fashion boutique at 232 Mulberry St. north of Broome, voiced concerns expressed by many upscale newcomers who feel that the San Gennaro festival doesn't suit their style.

"We close down for San Gennaro," said Ying, White Saffron's manager, who declined to give her last name. "You don't want people coming in with greasy sausage fingers. And it always seems to clash with Fashion Week — a busy time of year for us."

Ying calculated that her shop loses 70 percent of its September business due to the festival, and agreed with other shopowners in the Nolita section who want to be compensated for lost revenues due to the festival.

Lisa Brooks, 32, the owner of Damsel in Distress, a fashion boutique at 236 Mulberry St., said she closes shop and removes all of her merchandise during San Gennaro because she doesn't want her clothes to smell of fried food.

Another concern among Nolita shopkeepers is that the stalls block access to their storefronts, forcing pedestrians to walk in the center of the street.

"Because we're behind the stalls, we don't get any business," said Ben, the manager of Ruby's eatery at 219 Mulberry St., who declined to give his last name.

In addition, some critics of the festival say they don't feel it even celebrates Italian heritage anymore.

"It's become very commercial," said Sam Bazy, the owner of the fashion boutique, Back, at 230 Mulberry St., north of Broome Street. Bazy cited apparently unrelated vendors who set up shop on the north end of Mulberry and sell plastic trinkets and fried Mexican food.

But San Gennaro's defenders and organizers say critics should find a way to profit off of the hordes of people who come to the area every September instead of shunning them.

Nolita, Mulberry Street, north of Broome.
Nolita, Mulberry Street, north of Broome.
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DNAinfo/Jordan Heller

Les Schecter, a spokesman for the San Gennaro Feast, said the boutique and bistro owners above Broome Street are invited to participate in the festival.

"If you're a business person and you know there's going to be close to a million people coming to your area, you can figure out a way to make it appealing for some of those people to come into your stores," said Schecter.

Schecter also said that the Feast brings a lot of revenue to the city. In addition to permit monies, Schecter said the city collects 20 percent of the rents paid on stalls.

"Whatever monies are left over, the San Gennaro organization donates to local charities," said Schecter. "Since 1996 they've donated $2 million to local charities that deal with the poor and needy.

"Besides," added Schecter, "this has been going on for well over 80 years. If they were good business people, they'd have known what they were getting into."

Danny Romero, 33, the manager of Grotta Azzurra at 177 Mulberry St., said that most of the people complaining are new to the area.

Ciro Silvestri, 37, manager of Caffe Napoli, concurred.

"This is tradition," he said. "They have to respect the people who've been here forever."

The Annual Feast of San Gennaro is scheduled to run from Sept. 15 to Sept. 25 on Mulberry St. between Canal and E. Houston streets. Community Board 2 will review the street permit application this Thursday, Jan. 6 at 6:30 p.m. at 101 Sixth Ave. on the 22nd floor.

Little Italy continues to change as trendy boutiques and restaurants slowly creep south from NoLita. Kevin Jaszek, 27, is opening up a bar food spot on Mulberry.
Little Italy continues to change as trendy boutiques and restaurants slowly creep south from NoLita. Kevin Jaszek, 27, is opening up a bar food spot on Mulberry.
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DNAinfo/Ben Fractenberg