By Patrick Hedlund
DNAinfo News Editor
LITTLE ITALY — In the wake of a verbal battle between supporters of the San Gennaro Fest and NoLIta shop owners concerned about the event's impact on business, festival backers are planning a "unity rally" Saturday.
But some in the neighborhood see the Mulberry Street march — which is expected to draw up to 1,000 people — as a way for backers of the 85-year-old event to rub their successful bid to keep it intact in the faces of boutique owners who opposed it.
The rally, which will start on Canal Street and culminate at the corner of Prince Street, originated as a protest against a resolution approved by the local community board to cut the festival short.
But instead of canceling the event after the full festival was approved, organizers decided to simply change the theme and move forward with the rally — confusing some who don't see the point.
"I don't know what to make of it," said Kim Martin, a 15-year NoLIta resident and community activist who's been working with shop owners regarding their concerns. "I'm very wary, and I don't want people to feel like it's a subtle form of intimidation."
Indeed, some of the boutique owners who came out against San Gennaro — claiming the festival brings trash and strong cooking odors to the area, as well as blocking access to their shops — refused to comment on the situation, citing veiled threats and nasty calls they've received for speaking up.
But rally organizer John Fratta, whose great-grandfather helped found the Feast of San Gennaro in 1926, said Saturday's event will not be "in your face" but instead serve as a platform for those seeking to defend Little Italy's traditions.
"If you don't like parades, you don't like the feast, you're in the wrong place," he said, noting that the rally will conclude at the corner of Prince and Mulberry streets, "because there really are no businesses up there."
"If that bothers people," he added, "I can't help them."
However, one outspoken San Gennaro critic claimed the rally is being used more as a subtle scare tactic against storeowners.
"This entire event is intended solely to intimidate the boutique owners north of Kenmare Street, it was organized for that purpose, and they can call it whatever they want, and pretend to be making peace, but they are a bunch of bullying loudmouths," said 30-year Little Italy resident Sam Hurwitt in an email.
"They are also completely irrelevant to a neighborhood that they fled many years ago, at which point it became something else — Chinatown and NoLIta — with a tiny remnant of 'Little Italy,' a Potemkin village façade that exists solely to pull in gullible tourists."
A link to a letter Hurwitt sent to local paper The Villager decrying the rally drew dozens of angry comments on the Facebook page "Little Italy and San Gennaro UNDER ATTACK," with some labeling him a "racist," and a "goon."
Others even posted what they believed to be his home address on the 3,661-member page, adding they should "start targeting these people one at a time[…]"
Martin said that using language like that and posting threatening remarks in a public forum defeats the purpose of rally organizers' claims that they have, in fact, been the victims of bigotry.
"It's a bit hypocritical," she said. "I consider the dialogue and language on Facebook very vitriolic and hypocritical, and it doesn't benefit the community, which is the objective. It doesn't help us all move forward. It uses the same thing it opposes."
For his part, Fratta has sought to curtail some of the angry comments by encouraging people to take the high road.
"There's always going to be someone on either side that's going to say something stupid or do something stupid, and we're making sure that doesn't happen," he said, noting that about a dozen police officers and security guards will attend the rally to keep order.
But Fratta still didn't let boutique owners off the hook for saying they didn't want San Gennaro festival-goers' "greasy sausage fingers" touching their clothes.
"The people that passed on their ridiculous remarks and they're bigoted remarks, they should apologize," he said.
"Once they realize that they did use these buzzwords that (upset) people, they really do owe the Italian-American community an apology."
Boutique employee Jenny Karen, who manages the Variazoni clothing store on Mulberry Street, said that any celebration of Italian pride should be held in the most obvious place — Italy.
"Why should they bother people here? I don't think it's a good idea at all, not for the businesses, just in general," she said. "There's no Italians also. Who works here? Spanish people. If they were Italian, they'd go back to Italy — it's a good life there."
The rally will begin at 1 p.m. at the corner of Mulberry and Canal streets.