To the average tourist, the Mulberry Street pedestrian mall—which opened June 2 and runs every weekend through Labor Day—is just a fun place to sip an espresso. Vehicle-free from Broome to Canal, with traditional colors and monkey-suited maitre d’s decorating the verdant astroturf, Little Italy never seemed so amusing.
The Disney-perfect facade may fool outsiders, but as 40-year resident Lillian Tozzi says, “I have never seen my neighborhood as divided as it is now.”
In fact, just steps away from Mulberry’s restaurant row, Asian produce markets, designer boutiques, and luxury loft buildings suggest entirely different neighborhoods. With the demographic shifts of the past decade, those sidewalk café tables rest on hotly contested concrete. But the contest, some locals say, is fixed.
The circumstances surrounding the mall’s very opening, critics argue, smack of City Hall intervention. Festivities did not begin, as they had since the mall’s 1996 founding, on Memorial Day weekend. Uncertainty over the mall’s fate followed news of an ongoing probe—which the Department of Investigation neither confirms nor denies—into whether Rudy chum Anne Compoccia, former organizer of the Mulberry mall and the annual San Gennaro feast, skimmed from retailers’ permit money collected last year. But then, according to Community Board 2 district manager Arthur Strickler, City Hall stepped in.
“They’re running it, and we’ve just been excluded,” he says. “It’s outrageous.”
On the morning of June 2, irate Mulberry Street residents say, they learned that the mall would open that afternoon, blocking out cars from six to midnight on Fridays and noon to midnight on Saturdays and Sundays. They also discovered that tenant nemesis Annette Sabatino, who as the owner of mayoral hangout Da Nico has been vying for a long-term lease to the backyard of an adjacent, city-owned tenement building, had ascended to Compoccia’s former position.
The mayor’s office would not return repeated calls for comment. But to any who would grant the mayor the benefit of the doubt—perhaps City Hall is just small-business-friendly?—critics say to look just one street over.
“The only people who would purchase these run-down buildings were Asians,” says Fau Chan, whose family owns a fish market on now bustling Mott Street. Longtime residents agree that Mott Street lay underdeveloped for years until Chinatown merchants and tenants began migrating north about a decade ago. The street is now so established, boasts store owner Po Shum, that his block, between Grand and Hester, was chosen as a location for the Chow Yun-Fat vehicle The Corruptor.
But merchants claim they have not received so much as a brass plaque for their contributions.
“It was horrible!” gasps Tozzi, referring to the city’s February 22 multiagency raid of Mott Street businesses. Observers recall how mayoral community affairs commissioner Rosemarie O’Keefe supervised as dozens of agents from the departments of Buildings, Health, Sanitation, Transportation, and Consumer Affairs issued over 200 violations and dumped thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise into garbage trucks, terrifying some merchants into closing up shop for days.
Chan says the raid was par for the Giuliani course, recalling the city’s February 1999 eviction of Asian street vendors from lower Manhattan’s Sara Roosevelt Park. She estimates that her family’s business has incurred up to $30,000 in fines since 1994. “We’re doing business legally,” Chan insists—agencies did not comment otherwise—”but we’re treated like criminals.”
“It was long overdue,” Little Italy resident Emily DePalo says of the sweep. Mott Street is “disgusting,” she claims, and its merchants “are forcing me to live in a third world country.” Even the merchants’ supporters, like Tozzi, agree that the street can be dirty and crowded.
But some Mott Street merchants gripe less about the fines and citations than about the way in which they are distributed. Mulberry Street businesses can hardly be infallible, argues retailer Shum. Indeed, a group of mostly Italian American Mulberry Street residents may bring a lawsuit claiming that the periodic restaurant festivals are disrupting their quality of life.
Shum argues that “Mulberry Street has more of an established political system, so they can put more pressure on City Hall.” Mulberry Street interests also happen to have the law on their side.
Critics call the Little Italy special district zoning regulations—established in 1977 “to preserve and strengthen the historical and cultural character of the community”—outdated. Italian descendant John Casalinuovo, whose family has owned 116-120 Mott Street for over 60 years, laughs away “the idea that we’re in Little Italy.” He says, “If anyone walks around this area, they’re going to know they’re not in Little Italy. This is ludicrous.”
But the city is guilty of more than being old-fashioned, says Casalinuovo, also accusing it of engaging in “selective enforcement.” In fact, city agencies cannot explain why building permits for certain Italian restaurants inside the special district read “N/A” in the space for special district designation. Buildings spokesman Paul Wein said the abbreviation means a given building “is not in a special district,” before backtracking and referring inquiries to the Department of City Planning—which referred inquiries back to Buildings.
“People don’t want to say it’s a race issue,” Casalinuovo says, defending his six Asian retail tenants, “but it’s very hard to not look at it that way when someone else is getting carte blanche to do what they want, and you’re getting stopped no matter what you do.” Shum says that the predominantly Asian immigrant merchants on Mott street “carry the burden of other people’s privilege.”
City Council member Kathryn Freed accuses city agency critics of playing the race card and lauds the February raid, saying, “It took [the city] long enough!”
But the mayor did little to allay suspicions of bias when, at his March 30 town hall meeting in Chinatown, he cracked jokes at the expense of an Asian constituent who suggested that the special district designation “no longer reflects the makeup of the neighborhood.”
To titters from an audience packed with supporters, the mayor responded, wide-eyed, “You want me to remove the name of Little Italy!” When the constituent reminded him, “You’re the mayor of all the people,” Hizzoner joked, “I’m usually good at making tough decisions, but if I have to go against my mother and ancestors and family, this could be really tough!”
Perhaps his hilarity was merely an aftereffect of having just had six Asian protesters thrown out of the public meeting (and subsequently arrested), but meeting attendee Debby Corper believes the mayor took liberties based on the assumption that the Asian community “is not a very strong constituency.”
Mott Street merchants advise their Mulberry Street counterparts to crank pasta while the sun still shines. Mott retailers are surmounting what Chan calls a “lack of unity” by forming a business association, and the Little Italy-loving mayor’s term will soon be up.
But with wealth and the latest trends flooding south from hip Nolita, one community board member observed, the Mott-Mulberry rivalry may soon be outmoded.