Volume 80, Number 36 | February 3 - 9, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Fight of San Gennaro

Tempers have been flaring in Little Italy and Nolita over the long-running Feast of San Gennaro. This 85-year-old street festival — one of the country’s most well known — currently stretches along Mulberry St. between Canal and Houston Sts.   

At the neighborhood’s north end — in what not long ago was redubbed Nolita — residents and new fashion boutique owners have organized and are calling for the festival to be cut off at Kenmare St., reducing it by about half. They argue that the neighborhood’s population is no longer heavily Italian, and that the festival has become “generic,” and is an “11-day barricade,” preventing people from getting to their stores.

What’s more, the annual September feast coincides with Fashion Week and Fashion’s Night Out, boutique owners add, further negatively impacting their businesses. Neighbors also complain of public drunkenness associated with the festival.

In response, members of the festival’s nonprofit board, Figli di San Gennaro — many of them proud, lifelong Little Italy residents — counter that the “newcomers” have no right to say the festival should be cut back. The organizers note the feast draws about 1 million people a year, many of them tourists, which generates millions of dollars for businesses, hotels and restaurants. The religious-based festival also features two three-to-four-hour street processions and a special Mass.

When the Feast of San Gennaro started back in 1926 it was a much humbler affair. It was a one-day, religious-based event, centered on Mulberry St. between Grand and Hester Sts., where Neapolitan immigrant families owning coffeehouses brought tables out onto the sidewalk in honor of their patron saint’s day. The feast has since burgeoned to 11 days and seven blocks, and is now run by Mort & Ray Productions, one of the city’s major street-fair operators.  

Trying to mediate the conflicting interests, Community Board 2’s Street Activities & Film Permits Committee did a good job of reaching some sort of compromise for this year’s festival in September. Past attractions that drew the most complaints won’t be included in this year’s festival, notably, karaoke and “Dunk the Clown” — the latter featuring a loudmouthed insult clown who would have made Don Rickles blush. Rock and hip-hop music CD’s and mafia T-shirts also won’t be sold. Clearly, the organizers have shown they are willing to work with the community.    

We did hear, though, that Figli di San Gennaro was almost ready to give up the block between Prince and Houston Sts. this year — so there may be room in the future for negotiating cutting back the festival somewhat.

Two weeks ago, C.B. 2 voted on its advisory resolution giving conditional approval to a permit for the feast. However, the community board strongly urged the city to consider stopping the festival at Kenmare St., “so as not to disturb the emerging business community in Nolita... .” C.B. 2 also pointedly noted that Figli di San Gennaro and the Mayor’s Street Activity Permit Office should “expect that C.B. 2 will continue to negotiate further reductions of [the feast’s] scale and duration for subsequent years.”

Merchants toward the festival’s north end do say that the vendors booths outside their shops and eateries are not of particularly high quality, so the argument can be made that the feast is already overextended, and should be cut back at its uptown end: Quality over quantity.

It sounds like this year’s festival will still run from Canal St. to Houston St. (Figli di San Gennaro members say they already have sanitation contracts in place for the whole stretch.) But future years will likely see changes. We’re confident that, with C.B. 2’s good help, the right compromise will be reached.


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