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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | A year ago, Little Italy and Nolita were in the midst of a civil war: Nolita was trying to “secede” from the annual Feast of San Gennaro.
A group including new fashion boutique owners along Mulberry St., as well as some residents and some of the area’s newer restaurants were stridently lobbying Community Board 2 to shorten the 86-year-old festival by three blocks — cutting the event off north of Kenmare St. Every year, the 11 straight days of vendors and crowds killed their business, the merchants said. Making matters worse, the feast coincided with September Fashion Week, frustrating local fashionistas’ efforts to capitalize on this key time of year.
Opponents and supporters turned out in numbers to testify at community board meetings. A pro-feast Facebook page filled up with hundreds of indignant comments.
In a backlash against the effort to lop off blocks from the feast, there were threats of a picket of the chic boutiques — and even of a statewide Italian-American boycott of the swank shops.
In the end, however, C.B. 2, last year, recommended approval for the full-length street fair, although noting that the event could face shortening in future years.
In contrast to the previous year’s hoopla, last month, without fanfare, C.B. 2 voted to give “conditional approval” to Figli di San Gennaro, the feast’s organizing group, to hold the annual event from this Sept. 13 to Sept. 23. The advisory approval was for what has been the street fair’s full length for decades now — along Mulberry St. from Canal St. to Houston St.
There was no opposition from the community voiced at the full board meeting. At the board’s earlier Street Activities and Film Permits Committee meeting, where the application was first considered, 10 community residents spoke in favor of the feast; none spoke against.
The upshot of the discussions before last year’s Feast of San Gennaro was that a number of changes requested by the community were put into place. For starters, “Dunk the Clown,” which featured a loudmouthed insult clown who harangued passersby, was nixed. Also, the northernmost block of the feast, from Prince to Houston Sts., was turned into a quieter, “cultural” block, featuring bocce courts, Italian singing performances and a blood drive — but notably no vendors booths. Firm shutoff times were set for music and amplified sound.
Apparently, these changes had an effect. As last month’s resolution of the C.B. 2 Street Activities and Film Permits Committee stated: “…[T]he committee believes that the concessions negotiated over the past several years from the organizers have made San Gennaro a more community-friendly event, resulting in decreased community opposition to the fair in previous years and no opposition this year.”
C.B. 2’s resolution recommended approval of San Gennaro “subject to an ongoing dialogue” — before and after the feast — about the fair-specific regulations and their enforcement.
Groups to be included in these discussions, C.B. 2 said, should include the applicant, the Little Italy Merchants Association, residents, merchants, the Fifth Police Precinct, the Mayor’s Street Activity Permit Office (SAPO) and Councilmember Margaret Chin’s Office. Ultimately, it’s SAPO that approves the festival permit.
Board 2’s resolution approving this year’s feast, once again, cites specific restrictions that have been negotiated with the event’s organizers, including no karaoke booth; walkways clearly marked to keep the sidewalk and building entrances unobstructed; no P.A. announcements at the end of the night — instead, event staff will walk the streets telling the vendors to close their stands; a policy of “respect the trees,” as in no hanging objects on branches or dumping waste in tree pits; and no building of booths or platforms and the like overnight.
John Fratta, whose great-grandfather was a founder of the feast, has been a board member of the famed fair for the last three years.
“We made a lot of changes last year,” Fratta said. “We heard a lot of legitimate concerns. There were also concerns by people that just don’t want to have the feast.”
Fratta also noted that, last year, the feast worked with Mulberry St. merchants to help improve their storefronts’ visibility amid all the San Gennaro vending booths: If a merchant requested that a vendor’s booth be shifted to offer a better sightline to the store, the feast did it, he said. The fashion boutiques were also offered the opportunity to each have a booth in the fair — albeit including having to pay the fee, just like the other vendors. In the end, no merchants took the offer, Fratta said.
Fratta said the organizers actually “could have done more” on the “quiet / cultural” block at the fair’s northern end. Seventy pints of blood were collected, but it could have been more if the feast had been able to do the blood drive on two days instead of one, he noted.
Scot Boswell, a stylist at Fox & Boy on Mulberry St. between Prince and Houston Sts., has worked at the hair salon through two San Gennaro fests now. He said last year’s was much more benign than the year before.
“It definitely was better,” he said. “There wasn’t as much of the trashy, cheesy booths. The clown that was in front of our salon the year before was gone. There was just a sitting area. Two years ago, there was a trailer in front of our salon the whole time. Last year, the feast increased the foot traffic on the street — it wasn’t a benefit, but it wasn’t anything negative.”
On the other hand, two years ago, he said, the salon sometimes saw intoxicated festivalgoers come in wanting to use the bathroom and “asking silly questions.”
Acknowledging that there had been no opposition at C.B. 2 to the San Gennaro application this year, one Little Italy resident, who requested anonymity, noted that was also the case two years ago.
There’s a precedent for the fair being shortened, however, he noted, recalling that it once extended, at its southern end, across Canal St. and a few blocks down to Columbus Park before this section was cut out around 1980.
“In ‘Mean Streets’ there’s a beautiful aerial from Union Square at night that shows the feast going all the way down there,” he said, referring to the classic Martin Scorsese film.
Asked what happened to the opponents, Kim Martin, a leader of last year’s fair-shortening fight, said in an e-mail, “I think people were just tired of being threatened and bullied.”
But while the feast’s length wasn’t in dispute this year, the length of another Little Italy feature is: Local restaurateurs and merchants hope to extend the seasonal Mulberry St. Mall one block northward to Kenmare St.
“This is now the issue,” Fratta said.However, Fratta said, the merchants wouldn’t move ahead on the matter if there’s opposition. He stated only three opponents showed up for the issue at a recent C.B. 2 committee meeting, and that at least one, Marna Lawrence, was from Cleveland Place, not Mulberry St.
“The mall is nowhere near her,” he said. “Anything that comes up in Little Italy, she’s against it. I don’t know what her problem is. There are instigators that are everywhere that are trying to rabble-rouse people.”
But Lawrence said she has a perfect right to protest the mall’s growth.
“I live in the Little Italy Special District — literally, that’s the zoning,” she said. “To say I shouldn’t have a say in this is absurd. I care about my neighbors. I was part of the original Little Italy Neighbors Association.”
She said, in fact, five people, not three, spoke out against the plan at the committee. Plus, 29 residents sent letters of opposition, she added.
Meanwhile, Fratta noted that Ralph Tramontana, president of LIMA, collected 75 signatures of support for a longer mall.
The mall operates Friday to Sunday, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The street is closed to cars, and restaurants can put their tables out into the street.
Fratta accused C.B. 2 of being tough on the mall, for example, making the new Toby’s Public House — which is seeking a beer-and-wine license — agree not to put tables out into the street in the proposed mall extension area.