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San Gennaro Festival Being Pushed Out of NoLIta by Community Board

By DNAinfo Staff on January 25, 2011 11:23am  | Updated on January 26, 2011 6:32am

By Jordan Heller

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

NOLITA — NoLita residents and merchants seeking to rid their neighborhood of the annual San Gennaro Feast scored a victory last week when Community Board 2 penned a letter to the city's permit office urging them to cut off the 85-year-old festival at Kenmare Street, the de facto border between Little Italy and NoLita.

Members of Community Board 2 voted Friday to approve the permit for this year's San Gennaro festival from Sept. 15 - Sept. 25, but added that the board "strongly urges SAPO (the mayor's Street Activity Permit Office) to consider cutting back the size of San Gennaro by stopping the street fair at Kenmare Street so as not to disturb the emerging business community in NOLITA who expressed significant concerns about lost profits and disruption caused by the festival."

San Gennaro vendors in front of
San Gennaro vendors in front of "bag," a high-end handbag boutique on Mulberry Street, above Kenmare.
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Flickr/Ed Yourdon

The letter added that critics of the festival lobbied the board with a string of complaints, citing "the loud carnival like atmosphere causing constant disruption, the lack of a religious or cultural focus, and public intoxication."

And CB2 warned that festival critics have no plans to stop their fight anytime soon, saying opponents "will continue to negotiate further reductions of scale and duration for subsequent years."

Kim Martin, a neighborhood resident for more than 10 years who is in favor of a truncated San Gennaro Festival, said that Nolita boutiques suffer during the San Gennaro festival because street vendors block their entrances, fill their haute-couture shops with the smell of fried food, and drive off high-fashion consumers with large and rowdy crowds.

One merchant estimated that her shop loses 70 percent of its September business during the festival.

Proponents of the feast argue that the 85-year-old gathering is a time-honored tradition, and add that newcomers to the neighborhood knew it existed when they moved in. In addition, supporters say the more than a million people who visit Mulberry Street during San Gennaro should be a boon to the shops above Kenmare street.

Robert Marshall, a San Gennaro boardmember who's been in the neighborhood for 45 years, said that festival organizers fear the Community Board 2 vote could be the beginning of the end.

"We make concessions every year. If we give them Kenmare, what will they want next year?" Marshall said.

"It's been a tradition for 86 years and we'd like to continue the tradition as it is," he added. "They want to turn Mulberry Street into Madison Avenue — it's a war on our culture."

John Fratta, 58, president of the Little Italy Restoration Association and a San Gennaro boardmember who said his great grandfather founded the festival in 1926, called opposition to the feast "bigotry."

Fratta recounted a visit he made to a handbag designer north of Kenmare. When he suggested they could profit off of San Gennaro and the multitudes of people the festival attracts to the neighborhood, Fratta said he was told, "those aren't our clientele."

"That's bigotry," Fratta concluded.

But Martin, who spoke at Thursday's CB2 meeting, said NoLita business owners are just being realistic.

"The people coming to San Gennaro for canolis and fried sausages are not looking for a $100 handbag or a pair of one-of-a-kind $400 trainers," Martin said.

The Community Board 2 letter to the city is not binding, and the Mayor's Street Activities Permitting Office will have to make the final decision on where to allow the San Gennaro Festival to set up.

The Street Activities Permitting Office did not return a call for comment.

Sam Hurwitz, 57, a neighborhood activist who's lived on Mulberry Street since 1978, is in favor of limiting the feast below Kenmare Street, if not eliminating it altogether.

"Look, I'm a big fan of authenticity and old New York, but the feast as it is today doesn't represent either of those things," Hurwitz said. "It's a holdover from a once-vibrant neighborhood that ceased to exist decades ago."