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So … What Happened to Little Italy? … Why did the Italians Leave? --- Part I: “The Urban Villagers”

So … What Happened to Little Italy? … Why did the Italians Leave? --- Part I: “The Urban Villagers”

Tom Verso (December 17, 2013)

“I’d go back in a heart beat!” … So ended an interview with an upper-middle class southern-Italian American baby boomer. She was born and raised in one of Rochester, N.Y.’s half-dozen Little Italy neighborhoods. In the 1960s she followed the migration to suburbia and lives in a house bigger then her birth home and the two next to it. Yet, she misses the neighborhood of her childhood. She’s not alone. In a series of articles I wrote for a local southern-Italian American newspaper about Rochester’s ‘Little Italy’ neighborhoods (including Jerry Mangione’s renown “Mount Allegro”); interviews with former residents invariably repeated a similar refrain: “I’d go back in a heartbeat”. --- Given the magnitude of difference in material living conditions, the depth of nostalgia is fascinating. The obvious questions: ‘why did you leave’ and ‘why would you want to go back’? When asked: Inevitably there was a pregnant pause – a clear sense of perplexity, facially expressed. They left in a quest for a better ‘material life’. But they want to go back because they miss the ‘neighborhood’! They did NOT say: “I miss the house I was raised in”. Rather, “I miss the neighborhood I was raised in”. The house and other material amenities were insignificant. It was the neighborhood that conjured nostalgia. The word ‘neighborhood’ does not simply denote a physical setting, rather a village community milieu. Per sociologist Sharon Zukin: “An Urban Village where everyone knew each other’s business, women were housewives and mothers, men hung out with men, and outsiders of any type especially other ethnics were not welcome.” --- Individuals explain their behavior psychologically (e.g. I wanted a bigger house). But the conscious psyche may be a manifestation of the sub-conscious, conditioned by unknown sociological factors. In short, why did they leave? --- “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”



“The Urban Villagers”, Herbert  J. Gans 1962

“Reading ‘The Urban Villagers’ as a Cultural Document: Ethnicity, Modernity, and Capital”, Sharon Zukin, City & Community 6:1 March 2007
 “Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960”, 1998 Arnold R Hirsch.
“The Slaughter of Cities – Urban Renewal as Ethnic Cleansing”, 2004 E. Michael Jones
European immigrants, arriving in America throughout the nineteenth and into the first quarter of the twentieth centuries, settled in city neighborhoods with their co-ethnics, forming homogeneous communities that anthropologist Herbert Gans perfectly characterized as Urban Villages”.
Large sections of American cities, such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, etc., became compartmentalized into Euro-ethnic neighborhoods (Italian, German, Irish, Polish, etc.), manifesting all the cultural characteristics (language, religion, food, music, festivals, etc.) of the country of origin. The popular phrase “Little Italy” captures the sense of European ethnic culture reproduced in ‘neighborhood urban villages’.
In the second half of the twentieth century, the children and grandchildren of the immigrants moved out of their urban villages, migrating to the suburbs. For example, approximately 25% of the Long Island population is of Italian ancestry, largely the result of migrations from urban Little Italy neighborhoods such as the Bronx to suburban Long Island.
The sociological question:
Why did Euro-ethnics abandon their ‘villages’ and move to the suburbs?
The most common answer is the ‘positive pulling’ attractions of the better material suburban life style (e.g. big houses and yards). While there is no doubt about a suburban positive pulling attraction, there were also ‘negative pushing’ forces systematically bringing about the destruction of urban villages, coercing the ethnics out of their villages.
Mass migrations are generally associated with both pushing and pulling force: forces pushing the population away from their habitat combine with forces pulling them to a new habitat. For example on the Euro-Asian continent, historian A. J. Toynbee writes:
“The evidence appears to confirm the view that all the recorded eruptions of the Nomads out of the Desert into the Sown can be traced to the operation of pushing and/or pulling forces.” (“A Study of History” v. 3, p. 448)
Southern-Italian Migration
A good example of pushing/pulling forces giving rise to migration is the massive diasporic southern Italian emigration in the late ninetieth and early twentieth century. There were pushing forces in the form of Pietmontese exploitation of the conquered Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and pulling forces such as the economic opportunities in the Americas. In 1888, Francesco Saverio Nitti (future Prime Mister of Italy) clearly, callously and cynically articulated the choice facing southern Italians and Sicilians:
"It is a sad and fatal law: either emigrants, or brigands.”
Brigandage was the violent resistance to the Piedmontese encroachment on southern Italy and Sicily. After that failed, the southern Italians and Sicilians emigrated to the Americas.
Euro-American Urban to Suburban Migration
Similarly, we can find the pushing/pulling forces at work in the migration of Euro-ethnic urban villagers to the suburbs.
Pushing forces:
1) African-Americans responding to the pushing force of Jim Crow segregation and economic deprivation, and the pulling force of jobs in northern cities, migrated from the South to northern cities. Upon arrival, their search for housing brought them into Euro-ethnic neighborhood urban villages and conflict with the residents; e.g. Cabrini Homes Chicago.
2) Government, under the auspices of “Unban Renewal Programs” with the power of ‘eminent domain’, evicted Euro-ethnics and bulldozed their urban villages; e.g. Boston’s West End see picture below.


The ever so cogent Herbert Gans writes:
“ Tenants, and resident owners of buildings were almost unanimously opposed to redevelopment.
[Typical comments]:
“I am going to be lost without the West End. Where the hell can I go.”
“It isn’t right to scatter the community to all four winds. It pulls the heart out of a guy to lose all his friends.”

“If they tear the West End down and we are all scattered from all the people I know and that know me, and they wouldn’t know where I was, I wouldn’t want to die and people not know it.”
Pulling forces:
1) Jobs and mass suburban house construction with easily obtainable mortgages; e.g. Levittown Long Island.
2) Mass highway building (e.g. various Long Island expressways) and affordable automobiles facilitated the suburban lifestyle.
At first some Euro-ethnics resisted the forces pushing on their urban villages, giving rise to protests and at times violence (brigandage). As in Italy, when brigandage failed, then the pulling force lure of the suburbs gave rise to ethnics abandoning their villages and moving to the suburbs (emigration).
Euro-ethnic Urban Villages
The distinction has to be made between the equivocal meanings given to the phrase ‘urban village’. In contemporary pop culture parlance urban village refers to:
Urban planning and urban design concept. It refers to an urban form typically characterized by: medium density development, mixed use zoning, provision of good public transit, an emphasis on urban design - particularly pedestrianization and public space.” (
However, Herbert Gans gave 'urban village' its seminal socio-anthropological meaning:
“A city low-rent neighborhood typically one in which European immigrants – and more recently Negro and Puerto Rican – try to adapt their nonurban institutions and culture to the urban milieu. Thus, they are called an urban village. Often it is described in ethnic terms: Little Italy, the Ghetto, or Black Belt.” (p. 4 emp.+)
For example, he writes of Boston’s southern-Italian West End in the 1950s:
“My first visit to the West End left me with the impression that I was in Europe. Its high buildings set on narrow, irregularly curving streets, its Italian restaurants and food stores, and the variety of people who crowded the streets when the weather was good (p. 11 emp.+)

Importantly he notes:
Not all city neighborhoods are urban villages while there are a few similarities,
unban villages are not the same as urban jungles, the apartment hotel districts. (p.16)
[and one might add, today’s “urban designed’ gentrified urban neighborhoods are not urban villages in the Gans sense of the word.]
Any discussion of Euro-ethnic urban villages must begin with Gans.
Indicative of the general sociological significances of Gans’ work beyond Boston’s West End, Sharon Zukin of CUNY Graduate Center – Sociology writes:
“Gans intends “urban village” to suggest an ideal type of cultural adaptation to city life that reproduces the distrust of authority and self-protection that are typical of many peasant societies….
“Evoking a village, Gans also captures elements of the working class, ethnic culture of American cities before mass suburbanization—of the “old neighborhood”  (p. 40 emp.+)
In short, the “working class ethnic culture” is not limited to southern-Italian Americans; it included all Euro-American ethnics.
What is most important to understand about the urban village “old neighborhood” vis-à-vis suburbia is the inverse proportionality of ‘insularity’ and ‘wealth’. Zukin writes:
“The urban village is both rich in an insular kind of social capital and economically disadvantaged. (p. 40)
Gans is implying that one has to choose:
- either the urban village sense of community and a lower standard of living
- or the suburban sense of isolation and  a higher standard of living. 
Having both, a sense of community and high standard of living was not an option!
Zukin writes:
 “Bonded to each other by blood and lifelong friendship, the members of the peer group society [urban villages] Gans describes do not dream of escaping their low-wage jobs and low-rent apartments.
Upward social mobility, with a move to better housing in another neighborhood or in the suburbs, would deny them the intimate comfort of their friends and family. (p. 41 emp.+)
Little Italy nostalgia is based on the fond memory and perhaps primordial need for a sense of community even if it comes at the price of a reduction in material standards of living.
Demise of European Ethnic Urban Villages
In short,the European ethnic urban village is a city neighborhood where the residents are predominately of a single European ethnic group (Italian, Polish, Irish, etc.), as in Little Italy.
Starting at about the time of the First World War (circa 1915), these Euro-ethnic neighborhoods came under ever increasing amounts of destructive neighborhood forces culminating with their virtual complete demise by circa1965.
Socio-political pushing forces (e.g. ‘urban renewal’ and ‘African-American southern sharecropper’ intrusion) gave rise to migration to the suburbs. In some cases the people simply packed-up, as it were, and left the ‘urban village’ and moved to the suburbs (e.g. Boston West Enders). However, at other times and places, the migration was preceded by violent resistance to those pushing forces (e.g. Chicago Cabrini Homes).
African-American ‘pushing force’
Sadly, such vociferous and at times violent resistance to African-American ‘pushing force’ has come to be thought of as racist and characterized as race riots. For example, typically Wikipedia has an article: Cicero Race Riot in Illinois”. The prevailing ideological milieu has it that the conflict between Euro-ethnics and African Americans in city neighborhoods is a race conflict. This is a gross misrepresentation of urban social history and sociology. 
The problem, with such conflicts between whites and blacks being represented as race riots, is race often is not the cause of the riot. Whenever there is a conflict between whites and blacks, it is assumed that the cause of the conflict is race even in the face of preponderance of evidence to the contrary.
When is a race-riot Not a race-riot?
If all one knows about two rioting groups is that one is white and other is black, then the riot would generally be called a race riot. However, what’s not known is the cause of the riot between the two groups. And that cause often has nothing to do with race.
If, for example, whites and blacks are respectively union and non-union workers, then the riot would more accurately be called a labor riot. The racial characteristic of the workers would be irrelevant. Historically we know that if both groups were white (i.e. white union workers and white non-union workers) then a riot would still ensue. And if, both groups were mixed race, then the riot will still ensue. See below two pictures: clearly race in not relevant in labor conflicts. 

White union workers beating up on white strikebreaker – race is irrelevant. And, white and black union workers harassing strike breakers – race is irrelevant. The union worker black or white is aggressive to the point of violence against the non-union worker black or white.
For example, in 1917 East St. Louis experienced a profoundly tragic riot between groups of whites and blacks. This riot is often referred to as a ‘race riot’ (e.g. see: for the obvious reason that whites were conflicting with blacks. 
However, the plot thickens when one takes into consideration the cause of the riot. The white group consisted of striking union workers and the black group non-union sharecroppers that companies were bringing in from the South to take the jobs of the union strikers. 
It is reasonable to assume, based on labor history, that the color of the skin of the non-union workers was (in legal parlance) not the proximate cause of the violence. Rather the threat of lost union workers jobs was the cause of the riot. If the strikebreakers were white it is reasonable to assume that the riot would have occurred. Race was not the cause of the East St. Louis riot; jobs were the cause.
In short, the 1917 East St. Louis riot was NOT a race riot it was a labor riot.
Similarly, the violence associated between Black Folks and Euro-ethnic ‘urban villagers’ (Italian, Irish, Polish, etc.) is represented as a race based conflict. Again as in the East St Louis and other so-called race riots, if one engages in factual sociological analysis, one finds again, that the proximate cause of the violence is not race but protection of the “insularity” of the Euro-ethnic neighborhood culture.
Race Riot vs. Communal Riots
All to often southern-Italian Americans and other Euro-ethics are presented by both mass media and university academics as racist because of their resistance to African-Americans moving into their neighborhoods. When in fact the resistance has nothing to do with race.
Importantly Gans observes that Euro-ethnics did not limit their rejection of “outsiders” to people of different races. They were equally adverse to other Euro-ethnics. 
Zukin writes:
“Gans captures elements of the working class, ethnic culture [in Urban Villages] …outsiders of any type especially other ethnics were not welcome.” (p. 39)
Similarly, University of New Orleans history professor, Arnold R. Hirsch writes in a deeply scholarly book about Chicago’s housing history:
The typical Chicago housing riot was thus a “communal” riot in the most literal sense of the term [i.e. Not a race riot!].
“Each community rose up in its own “defense” and proceeded to fight for its self-defined interests. The truly communal nature of these scattered uprisings is further revealed by the representative character of the mobs involved.
“Indeed, the typical housing riot was a complex communal endeavor launched by a demographic cross section of the area involved. (Kindle Locations 1527-1537)
Specifically the Cicero riot (generally called a ‘race riot’), Hirsch writes:
The Cicero riot was a communal endeavor
The Czechs and Poles were much in evidence in Cicero and Trumbull Park. Our Lady of the Mount parish included the riot area in Cicero and was the “center of Czech social and cultural traditions in the community.” (Kindle Locations 1557-1567)  
Hirsch brings out a very significant fact: the Euro-ethnics resisted other Euro-ethics encroachment on their ‘village’ neighborhoods as much they resisted African Americans. He writes:
One Czech informant in the area said that the “in-group feeling” there was so intense that only twenty-five years before parishioners had held a protest meeting when the first German Catholic family attended services.
Early Protestant residents who were not of Czech or Polish decent met with similar suspicion. Other observers pointed to the pride with which “Czech housewives” maintained their homes and the value placed on property by the “Czech people.”
Again, the conflict was not based on race. The issue was two different cultures not different races. It was an ethnic conflict, independent of race, motivated by desire to preserve the ethnic cultural characteristic of the Euro-ethnic urban village culture, which was profoundly different than the southern rural sharecropper culture. Hirsch writes:
 “In Trumbull Park there was virtual unanimity on the decidedly “ethnic” character of the rioters. Winston Kennedy , manager of the Trumbull Park Housing Project, felt that the “togetherness” of the South Deering community was due to its isolation from other areas, the fact that most of the community’s workers toiled in the local steel mills, and that a “majority” of its residents came from southern and eastern European backgrounds.
In each of the major riots occurring in the 1950s, black commentators noted repeatedly, and sometimes disparagingly, the ethnic origins of anti-black rioters. … in Cicero, some of those with whom I talked had “such thick Bohemian, German, Polish, or Greek accents that it was not always easy to know what they were saying.” (Kindle Locations 1612-1635).
In short, instinctively urban villagers rose up to protect their community from outsiders regardless of race. Cicero and other so-called race riots were not caused by racial prejudice; they were based on the profoundly deep seated desire of the Euro-ethnics to preserve the cultural homogeneity of the urban village neighborhoods.
The prolific cultural historian E. Michael Jones makes the same point in his book. There was a clear history of protecting the urban village culture from outsiders regardless of race. For example, he writes:
“...inter-religious conflict between the Poles and co-religious from Ireland...During the first half of the twentieth century, the Poles and the Irish viewed each other as members of mutually alien 'races'. This meant that Catholics were divided among themselves ...[to the point] where it became the driving force behind the creation of the schismatic Polish National Church i the United States. ( p. 12)
The Irish were just as much at odds with their co-religionists from other European countriesWhat has come to be known as the race issue was at the time in fact an ethnic issue. From the Irish point of view, blacks were just one more alien group, like Germans, Poles, and Italians, who lived elsewhere and would be kept out of the neighborhood by force just as they would repel any other foreign ethnic group. (p. 40)
Brigandage Fails
As in nineteenth century southern Italy and Sicily, ultimately the Euro-ethnic urban villagers brigandage resistance to outsider encroachment failed. As Italy’s Francesco Saverio Nitti observed:
"It is a sad and fatal law: either emigrants, or brigands.”
Accordingly, the resistance failed and the Italians of Little Italy and other Euro-ethnics resorted to emigration. Giving in to the relentless pushing forces, they abandoned their urban villages, as they abandoned their European homelands, and migrated again this time to the suburbs.
Euro-ethnics upon arrival from Europe lived in physically and culturally “insular” urban neighborhoods that have come to be characterized as Urban Villages”.
In turn, they migrated a second time out of their urban villages to the suburbs. This second migration was precipitated by three sociological forces acting on urban Euro-ethnics, leading to the demise of “urban villages” such as Little Italies.  The pulling force of the significantly higher material standard of living in the suburbs, and the two pushing forces in the form of (1) southern African American migration into the Euro-ethnic ‘urban village’ neighborhoods, and (2) Urban Renewal Projects.
Regarding the African American pushing force: The onset of both World Wars brought large numbers of African American sharecroppers from the South to the northern cites to work in the military related industry.  
Many of the African Americans began moving into Euro-ethnic neighborhoods such as those know as Little Italy. The Euro-ethnics, motivated by the desire to preserve the cultural homogeneity of their ethnic “urban village” neighborhoods, and consistent with their history of resistance to heterogeneous multiethnic neighborhoods (to include other Euro-ethnics), resisted the African American southern rural sharecropper culture, which was completely at odds with the Euro-ethnic urban cultures. However, the resistence was to no avail.  The Euro-ethnics ultimately abandoned their 'urban villages' and migrated to the suburbs.
However, a complete explanation of the Euro-ethnic abandonment of their villages entails an analysis of the second pushing force Urban Renewal Projects. That will be the subject of a future article:
So … What Happened to Little Italy? … Why did the Italians Leave? ---
Part II -Urban Renewal: Elite WASP Culture War against working-class Euro-ethnic Catholics.

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With all due respect, your

With all due respect, your analysis is completely wrongheaded. First, why put Italian-Americans or Southern Italian Americans in the same category as Euro-ethnics? Patterns of Italian immigrant settlement, especially dense neighborhood settlement stands in stark contrast to other "European" ethnic groups; yet, where there is overlap, there is also overlap with immigrant groups from elsewhere around the globe. Why not analyze Italian Americans alongside, say, Chinese Americans? Secondly, to indict African Americans is completely idiotic, and calls to mind the worst of Italian American puerile blaming.

An analysis of the many "Little Italys" in New York City's five boroughs, for example, would reveal a variety of different driving forces leading to movement from dense ethnic settlements to looser suburban ones (including the outer boroughs), which did not necessarily loose their ethnic component. You mention some of reasons: housing (in particular, the desire for homeownership), school, etc.

But, missing in the analysis is the compounding effect that immigration legislation between 1924-1965 had on this movement: no people left to replenish those who left and a lack of need among subsequent generations for in-language, culturally delineated landscapes.

Ultimately, missing entirely from your analysis is choice. People chose to leave, for whatever the reasons, and those who say they wish they could go back do so from the point of view of nostalgia or perhaps from realizing that the choices they made were wrong: the big house wasn't worth it, the large backyard wasn't worth it, shopping in the white man's supermarket wasn't worth it, marrying that blonde chick who doesn't know how to cook wasn't worth it, etc..

Don't fool yourself into thinking that this out-migration from Little Italys is simply relegated to the past. There are still dense, though unraveling settlements of Italian immigrants and Italian Americans in many parts of New York City, places where you can go about your business in Italian and not bother with learning English. But, those too are dying as we speak. And they are dying for two reasons: people choose to leave them and no one is coming across the Atlantic to replenish them. People come back and they wonder why did it change. Then they go looking for reasons, for people to blame... much like you. Completely clueless.