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Chinatown and Little Italy Historic District

New York, New York


[photo]
Chinatown and Little Italy Historic District
Photograph by Kerri Culhane
Courtesy of the New York State Historic Preservation Office

Chinatown and  Little Italy Historic District in New York, New York, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on February 12, 2010, due to its national significance stemming from its association with United States immigration from 1800-1965. Roughly bounded by Baxter Street, Center Street, Cleveland Place and Lafayette Street to the west, Jersey Street and East Hudson to the north; Elizabeth Street to the east and Worth Street to the south, the neighborhood retains a majority of mid-19th through early 20th century buildings, usually constructed with brick buildings four bays wide and three to seven stories in height—while tenement buildings predominate, modified examples of Federal and Greek Revival townhouses; late 19th century and early 20th century factories and loft buildings, churches, schools and other types can be found. The Chinatown and Little Italy neighborhoods in Manhattan were forged in a dynamic period in American history, from the mid 19th to the early 20th century; a time when waves of immigrants from all corners of the world came to New York seeking opportunity.  New York City and, in particular, the neighborhood of Chinatown and Little Italy, and the Lower east Side, are significant within the history of immigration because the scale of the phenomenon as it occurred there far outweighed that in any other city in the United States.

[photo]
Chinatown and Little Italy Historic District
Photograph by Kerri Culhane
Courtesy of the New York State Historic Preservation Office


History: When the United States and China started diplomatic relations in 1868, Chinese were legally allowed to immigrant to the United States.  Many went to California seeking gold, and many reached New York by way of the west, where they had been employed as coolies working on the transcontinental railroad or miners. During the 1870s the Chinese began to concentrate settlement around Mott Street south of Canal Street.  Many Chinese left wives to come to America, hoping to get rich and return later. As the Chinese quarter started growing, it was populated almost exclusively by men between 20 and 50 years of age. These men formed Chinatown’s bachelor societies. In the face of oppressive racism, the Chinese could rely on no-one but themselves.  Mutual aid societies, the system of tongs and fongs, and native place and family associations brought from China became the important lifeline for the Chinese in America.   The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 halted the population growth in Chinatown, and it was estimated that Chinese men outnumbered Chinese women by 200:1.   In the first decades of Chinatown, Chinese men who married in New York often married Irish women.

Actor Chu Fong opened the Chinese Opera House in 1892-3, where traditional Chinese operas were held until 1905. Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the first President of modern China and Chinese Nationalist leader, delivered a speech to the residents of Chinatown from here in 1911. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) purchased the building at 16 Mott Street, and this was considered the city hall of Chinatown.  The organization meditates in disputes, acts as middlemen in business transactions; and advocates for the rights of Chinese and Chinese-Americans.  The CCBA is allied with the Chinese Nationalist government in Taiwan and flies the Nationalist Flag above its headquarters at 62 Mott Street. By the 1890s Mott and Pell streets became lined with Chinese restaurants, which became popular with new Yorkers. The “joss house”, an American name for incense filled shrines where Taoist beliefs are practiced, were a fixture in Chinatown, with a prominent one, open to the public, at 20 Mott Street.

By the 1920s the Chinese population of New York was to sustain a food industry, with Chinese farmers on Long island growing Chinese vegetables, such as bitter melons, long beans, and mustard greens and trucking the produce into Chinatown daily. In 1930, 4,075 Chinese were counted in new York-303 fewer than in 1900.


[photo]
Chinatown and Little Italy Historic District
Photograph by Kerri Culhane
Courtesy of the New York State Historic Preservation Office

In the early 1950s, an urban renewal project, called the China Village Plan, threatened to gut Chinatown’s historic core, replacing the businesses and residences with a large-scale housing project. Community advocates fought the plan, which would have destroyed the local Chinatown economy, and the plan was abandoned. In 1965 the Immigration and Nationality Act abolished the Immigration Act of 1924, and since 1968 170,000 immigrants from the eastern hemisphere were allowed to immigrate annually. Post-1967 a new wave of Chinese immigrants began to settle in Chinatown. The influx of Mandarin and Fujianese speakers helped Chinatown expand its boundaries from the historic seven-block area around Mott and Mulberry Streets to an estimated 55-block area from the East River to City Hall and from St. James Place to well-north of Canal Street, eradicating the traditional “dividing line” between Little Italy and Chinatown.

New York City was home to at least six ethically Italian enclaves established during the massive Italian immigration from 1880 to 1923. The first significant Italian immigrants began arriving in the Five Points neighborhood in the 6th Ward during the late 1840’s---these immigrants were from northern Italy.  During the 1870s southern Italians arrived in New York City in great numbers, but it was in the 1880s that the great mass of Italian immigration began (1880-1923). They settled in great numbers on Pell Street, Baxter and Worth: and along Bayard and Mulberry from Worth to Houston.  Italian laborers, musicians, barbers and tradesmen were enumerated in the census. By the 1890s, the area was known for several food businesses—one Pina Alleva, recently arrived from Benevento, established her cheese shop at the corner of Grand and Mulberry (1892).  This is now considered New York’s oldest cheese shop still in operation, and Mrs. Alleva’s descendants are still making ricotta and mozzarella to her specifications at 188 Grand Street. The thriving markets of Mott and Elizabeth Streets provided Little Italy residents with fresh fish and seafood, meats, cheeses, and the fresh fruits and vegetables abundant in Italian cities. Giuseppe and Carmela Siano, who, along with many of their neighbors, ran a clam and scungilli cart (many Italians ran cart businesses and served candy, fruit, garlic, fish and other items), in 1904 moved their business indoors, establishing Vincent’s Clam Bar (named after their son) at 119 Mott, corner of Hester---Vincent’s restaurant is still operated by cousins of the original owners.

[photo]
Chinatown and Little Italy Historic District
Photograph by Kerri Culhane
Courtesy of the New York State Historic Preservation Office


The Roman Catholic Church, central to the lives of many Italian immigrants, was dominated by Irish Catholics in New York City. In 1891, the first Catholic Church was built that retained Italian Catholic traditions—the Church of the Most Precious Blood of St. Michael at 113 Baxter Street. In 1894, the church was purchased by the Franciscans of the Immaculate Conception province, who were already engaged in building St. Anthony of Padua on Sullivan Street in the heavy Italian South Village. Sat the time, only the basement was constructed and roofed over, and masses had been celebrated in the in complete building.  The cornerstone was laid for the Church of the Most Precious Blood on July 7, 1901, presided over by New York’s Archbishop Corrigan. Other notable sites established in the neighborhood were the Protestant Church of san Salvatore (359-61 Broome Street, 1901), the Italian Free Library at 149 Mulberry Street and the St. Barnabas House at 304-306, which was a shelter for widows and orphans.

The immigrants from Italy arrived after 1900 at about 200,000 a year to the United States. The Immigration Act of 1924 had limited severely the number of Italian immigrants allowed –southern and eastern Europeans were restricted while northern Europeans were favored. By the early 1930s, Italians made up an estimated 98% 0f households in Little Italy.  By 1940k, Little Italy was a tourist attraction, and each street in Little Italy was populated by particular regional groups-Napolitani, Calabrese, Sicilani, and Basilcanti, although today the neighborhood is identified with broader “Italian” culture—an Italian-American culture, rather than the regional cultures that predominated during the period of the great migration.


[photo]
Chinatown and Little Italy Historic District
Photograph by Kerri Culhane
Courtesy of the New York State Historic Preservation Office

The rapidly growing Chinese community has continued to expand well beyond its historical boundaries, and by 1980 the Chinese community in New York City (including neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Flushing, Queens) was the largest in the country, surpassing the one in San Francisco. The Italian population of Little Italy contracted dramatically starting in the 1950s, when, like so many Americans, large numbers of the middle and upper classes moved to the growing suburbs. A core of restaurants, cheese shops and pastry shops remained, and the annual feast celebrations, notably san Gennaro, continued to draw Italian-Americans from across the region and world to celebrate a common cultural heritage.  Little Italy has contracted in size, and today its core is centered on restaurants and food shops of Mulberry Street between Canal and Spring Streets.

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