Can Italian Connections revive our cities?

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Eye from Albany
September 2004

Can Italian Connections revive our cities?
by Paul M. Bray

Speaking at a statewide Conference on Little Italys at RPI, urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg told the audience that it was little wonder that northern Europeans like the British celebrate their rural landscape. It is because their cities are so ugly. He called it “anglomania”. Italian cities, on the other hand, are well worth celebrating. Their architecture and civic design beginning with their pedestrian friendly piazzas and streets function as a stage for integrating and enriching many facets of life.

With the exception of New York City which is a world class attraction, New York State’s cities leave a lot to be desired when it comes to being interesting places to live or visit. Not that our upstate cities don’t have good features like Buffalo’s architecture and Olmsted Park System and 19th century parks and neighborhoods in Rochester, Albany and Troy. It is just that most retail has been sucked out to the suburbs and social spaces like parks, plazas and sidewalks have become for the most part lifeless. Unlike the Italians, we don’t have a thriving culture of urban life.

Since World War II we have been successful in separating and disconnecting all aspects of life: where we live, work, shop, recreate, learn and spend our senior years. As a result, upstate cities aren’t interesting. Making them interesting, fulfilling and attractive places to live, work and enjoy life is a major societal challenge we need to face up to.

With a lot of help from US Senator Hillary Clinton and participation of state and local elected officials like Senator Joseph Bruno, Lt. Governor Mary O. Donohue and Assembly members Ron Canestrari, Paul Tonko and RoAnn Destito, Fred Miller and Rachel Blevin from the Mohawk Valley Heritage Corridor and the leader and spirit of Troy’s Little Italy effort, Rocky DeFazio, people came together from around the State to talk about how Little Italys can became dynamic districts in their respective cities.

Senator Clinton told the conferees one of the effects of the war on terrorism is an increasing focus on home, safety and personal contacts within one’s community. Yet, as Oldenburg pointed out, we are a nation with 41,000 malls where the patron is a consumer not a citizen versus only 3,100 market places with citizenship, cultural and social values can flourish. Under these conditions, can we learn to connect with other people in parks, streets and market places in order to have livable urban communities as they do in Italy?

Attention to Little Italys struck a chord with me. Since 1996-7 when I lived in Rome at the American Academy in Rome I became aware of a long history of ties between America and Italy beyond the large immigration. These ties as environmental historians like Marcus Hall point out in articles include lessons in conservation going both ways from nation to nation. Creating a Civilian Conservation Corps, for example, is an idea that Rexford Tugwell discovered during a visit to Italy and brought President Franklin Roosevelt’s attention. I’ve had the opportunity and pleasure to build on this history by fostering continuing links between Italian parks and protected areas like the Abruzzo Park, the Pisa Regional Parks and parks and protected areas in the Po Valley with the Adirondack Park, the Long Island Pine Barrens and the Hudson River Valley Greenway.

Let us look at what we can learn from the Italians in order to reenergize Little Italys? First we have to realize the short falls we have to overcome.

Many former Italian American areas of our cities have been depopulation by the flight to the suburbs. The shell of churches, former stores and residences remain, but it is the people and the culture that counts. The stage may be there, but the actors are gone.

Also, the connections with Italy are not as strong as they could be. Most of the Italians that participated in the great emigration from Italy have not enjoyed continuing connection with their families in Italy. Italian American Mike Mancuso points out, “Only a small portion of the descendents of the emigration can precisely locate the Italian town or village from which their forebears had emigrated.” As a result we have lost some of the benefits that can come from ongoing connections between America and Italy.

The challenge for Little Italys and our cities is to repopulate with Italians and others of all backgrounds and ages who want to live the lively Italian way that includes treating everything as art. Little Italys should become dynamic places to live with an Italian inspired life style, not theme parks or a caricature of what once existed. Little Italys need to become synonymous with the best of city living.

Solutions begin with identifying and articulating the narrative or heritage story of former Italian sections of cities. This is making the past a useable contributor to the present. The narrative can come to life through both heritage planning and out reach to Italy. Ties can develop as they have, for example, between the commune of Pisciotta in Italy and Hazelton, Pa.. The Italian community initiated exchanges with an invitation to the Mayor of Hazelton in order to reconnect with descendants of people who immigrated from its region.

With the fruits of old and new ties with Italian communities, good leadership can frame a vision and coalesce those with planning skills and social, political and economic forces to bring a Little Italy to life. The Italian American heritage and Italian culture provide meaning and enrich a setting for the social design of attractive amenities, housing and shops to rebuild neighborhood and community.

Through exchanges between communities in Italy and the USA, there are many ways Italian culture can be a model and inspiration. In Italy one sees a very visible intergenerational social fabric and the effect of what, Anna, an Italian friend of mine calls their “social gene” that draws Italians out onto the street to mingle and see and be seen. Visit a park in Rome at the end of the workday or on the weekend and you will find scores of children with their parents and grandparents enjoying the park. When I warned Anna about the increasing number of malls I was seeing in Italy, she said that the malls would not destroy the Italian’s social fabric, their social gene was too strong. In other words, Italians that isolated themselves would be ostracized from their society.

The Italian way with food, not just the food itself, offers many lessons for us. Writing in the NY Times about the lessons for health eating we can learn from the Italians, Giuliano Hazan, a cooking instructor and author of “Every Night Italian” declared: “?how we eat is just as important, if not more so, than what we eat”. He pointed out the strong social dimension to Italian eating and how savoring a good meal as the Italian do simply makes us feel better. In addition, he tells us “Italians also tend to lead less sedentary lives. Walking is a necessity.” In other words, there is a healthy living connection the Italians have made between good quality food, the social way they eat and the walkable communities in which they live.

Italian tourism that began a couple of centuries ago offers another lesson. Since at least the 18th century tourists have come to Italy to see Italian art and landscapes like the Tuscan landscape. But the tourist also sought to experience the qualities of Italian life like savoring an Italian meal. The leaders of Little Italy of Belmont and Arthur Avenue in the Bronx get it. They not only tout being home to Italian food, traditional crafts and culture, but also view themselves as being integrally related to their neighbors like the Bronx Zoo and The New York Botanical Garden. This is an excellent example of reconnecting the fabric of an American city.

The entrepreneurial spirit of Lou Izzo and Bob DeLillo of Arthur Avenue in the Bronx and drive of Beth Putrino of Little Italy, Endicott, NY who is bringing a Little Italy to life with only a “dollar and a dream,” as showcased at the conference, demonstrates that our heritage is a useable history and that our cities may come back to life by going back to the future.

Little Italys could become the laboratory for revival of our cities. If reviving New York’s cities is the tiger, Senator Clinton and state and local officials through a possibly emerging Little Italy movement could have the tiger by the tail. Now let us see if they follow through for those working in the trenches like Beth Putrino, Rocky DeFazio and Fred Miller who is trying to realize some of the real value added in New York’s unique heritage.

UPDATE: Attorney General Spitzer’s law suit against GlaxoSmithKline regarding pediatric trials of its antidepressant Paxil discussed in the August Eye column has been settled. The pharmaceutical company agreed to post test results from all drugs publicly and to pay New York State $2.5 million to settle the case. Tests by GSK will be posted on www.gsk.com

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, a planning and environmental law firm in Albany, New York. His e-mail is pmbray@aol.com.