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San Gennaro Supporters Fight for 85-Year Tradition

By Patrick Hedlund | February 1, 2011 2:15pm

By Patrick Hedlund

DNAinfo News Editor

LITTLE ITALY — Supporters of the annual San Gennaro Feast vowed to "fight back" at an emotionally charged neighborhood meeting, after the local community board recently asked the city to cut the 85-year-old street festival short.

Dozens of furious Little Italy residents and stakeholders packed a meeting of the Northern Little Italy Neighborhood Association (NLINA) Monday to push back against efforts to halt the summer event at Kenmare Street, the de-facto border between Little Italy and NoLIta. They blasted the board's position as "prejudiced" and said they would resist any attempts to curtail the longtime event.

"We are here to make it very clear … we will not cut the length of the feast and we will not cut the time of the feast," said John Fratta, 58, president of the Little Italy Restoration Association and a San Gennaro board member, who noted his great-grandfather founded the festival in 1926.

The recommendation by Community Board 2 to rein in the 10-day event along Mulberry Street came after local merchants complained of the rowdy atmosphere and loss of business created by the September spectacle.

NLINA, which caught flak for only devoting a small portion of its meeting to San Gennaro, decided not to take a position on the issue, further enraging those who saw the attempted downsizing of the feast as the work of "disrespectful" neighborhood newcomers.

"They want to wear our clothes and eat our food, but they don't want our culture," said downtown district leader Jean Grillo, who represents a sliver of Little Italy. "I think it's a red herring. I think the merchants are responding to a lousy economy."

NoLIta clothiers have claimed that San Gennaro eats into their bottom line — reducing business by up to 70 percent, one merchant said — because their stores were less accessible during the event and the smell of fried food permeated the area.

But neighborhood natives shot back that these new arrivals should have understood what they were getting into when moving to Little Italy.

"If you buy a place in Kew Gardens and all of a sudden planes are flying over your head, do you shut down LaGuardia Airport?" said Ralph Tramontana, 41, president of the Little Italy Merchants Association and the owner of Café Sambuca on Mulberry Street.

"They can't afford the rents — they have a two- to five-year lifespan," he said of the area's boutique shops. "You're going to kill an 85-year-old institution for a store that's going to close in two years?"

Others said the idea of NoLIta as its own distinct neighborhood was an imaginary concept.

"NoLIta does not exist — it's called Little Italy," said Danny Fratta, a Mulberry Street resident. "NoLIta is make-believe."

Some charged that outright "bigotry" was at the root of merchants' problems with San Gennaro.

"They have to understand that Italian immigrants built this city," said Louis Fontana, 30, another Mulberry Street resident. "They have no right to judge us, to stereotype this neighborhood."

Community Board 2 district manager Bob Gormley explained that the board's attempt to respond to the changing dynamic of the neighborhood led to the resolution requesting that the festival end at Kenmare Street.

"It's a very different area when you go north of Kenmare, and the neighborhood is changing," he said, acknowledging that San Gennaro does a lot of good for the community but also presents numerous problems, especially noise.

"Little Italy, it looks very different today than it did 50 years ago. That's the reality on the ground.”

While noting the feast's 85-year history is "not insignificant," Gormley added the participants haven't always heeded requests to tone it down.

"They're track record has not always been as good as it could be," he said. "They're not always as good as they can be about self policing."

But Tramontana said that the feast is known around the world — even replicated at places like Disney World — and that support for San Gennaro has begun to pour in from across the globe, including from state officials across Italy.

Proponents added that New York prides itself on multiculturalism, and that recent tenants in the area would do well to adopt some of its traditions rather than thumb their noses at them.

"Incorporate yourself with the neighborhood — don't alienate yourself," said John Tudda, 62, a Mulberry Street resident. "Respect their traditions and their values. This is not just an extension of their dorm rooms."

Some did admit that Italian influence over the neighborhood's northern section has dwindled over time, but that it still bears the Italian imprint — from famous restaurants and churches to apartments built exclusively for Italian immigrants.

"They way they were accepted into this neighborhood, they have to accept the history," said Carmine Aquilino, 29, a lifelong Spring Street resident and San Gennaro pastry stand worker, who did admit some faults with the feast, like questionable carnival games and drunken behavior.

Aquilino used the example of bordering Chinatown — where he volunteered each year to help with Chinese New Year festivities — to show how different cultures can coexist.

"I don't think the boutique owners did their research," he said.

Doreen D'Onofrio, 54, a fifth-generation Little Italy resident, called those that complain "trust-fund babies" who were "not even New Yorkers."

"They want it to be the Upper East Side," she said. "We're just trying to say, don't come here and try to take away something that's been."

Others simply felt their new neighbors should scram.

"If they don't like it, they can leave," said Tony Napoli, 57, who owns the restaurants Café Napoli and Giovanni's. "The people that move in from Montana can go back to the f-----g mountains and ride their horses."