What is truly magical about big western cities? For me, one of the things that drove me to London – besides better career opportunities and the offer in culture – was to be able to see so many different people from all around the world living in the same space. Being able to open my mind and experience what was so different to me. And today I feel like I’m part of what brings true wealth to these urban centres – diversity.
This is what creates Little Italys, Chinatowns, and so on in big cities. While this attracts me and many others, being an immigrant myself, I know that there is a pretty dark reason for this. Most people don’t leave their country, their homes to move into a big city, often on the other side of the world, having to relearn how to speak all over again, often facing discrimination and racism, just because they want to experience something different. Most times, it’s about survival. All immigrant communities everywhere in the world have had a tough beginning (and still face tough lives) – these people came to find a better life.
The Shrinking Little Italy
The biggest waves of Italian immigrants to the U.S happened between the 1880s to the 1920s. This was a tough period to live in Italy – southern farmlands were being destroyed by droughts, and the Italian economy was suffering after the First World War. Things did not improve when fascism became the regime in Italy, and mafia and corruption dominated parts of the country, encouraging even more people, including entire families to permanently move to America, where the industry was booming.
Most of these Italian immigrants settled in Lower Manhattan, for about an area of 30 blocks, which would be called Little Italy. Italians brought with them the delicious recipes they are very well known for, but unfortunately, as you may knowfrom Hollywood filmmaking, the Italian mafia also took dominance over this region. By the late 1930s, Little Italy was 98% Italian – and it is in the second half of the 20th century that the mafia flourished in the area. The Black Hand, the Gambino family and the Genovese family controlled the neighbourhoods, using fear, briberies and crime.
People build homes outside their homes – wanting to be close to what’s familiar, living in a community. Yet, it is pretty sad that the infamous Italian Mafia had to eventually also move to New York City – one of the things that had been the cause for some to leave their motherland.
Nowadays, Little Italy is really little. It shrunk from 30 blocks to solely about two. Part of the reason is the high rents and the assimilation of new generations of Italians into America – the other part is the expansion of Chinatown, as the Chinese refused and refuse to so easily assimilate.
The Expanding Chinatown
Chinatown has rapidly expanded at the same pace as Little Italy started to shrink. Today, New York City’s Chinatown has the largest population of Chinese in the Western Hemisphere. And while this is today such a colourful and interesting place for westerners like myself, similar to Little Italy, its origins are quite dark.
A big number of Chinese labourers arrived in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, particularly on the Pacific Coast, lured by the stories of California´s gold rush. The goal was to spend a few years working to make enough money to return home to China, build a house and start a family. Chinese workers were cheap labor for the Central Pacific Railroad, but when its construction came to an end, there was a huge availability of cheap labor in the market, of which the cigar-rolling and textile industries started taking advantage of.
This created tensions with white labourers, who started accusing the Chinese of stealing their jobs (a tale as old as time…). This led to violence and discrimination, driving the Chinese east, to the larger cities, where there were jobs and they could blend more easily in urban centres already more familiar with diversity. New York was of course one of such places and Chinatown started rising.
Getting together in a community was also a measure of safety. Chinatown became self-supporting. Instead of disintegrating and being assimilated, the community continued united, moving up and down – contrary to what started to happen in Little Italy.
However, the willingness of Chinese labourers to work for much lower pay and far worse conditions than their white counterparts and their refusal to assimilate into Western culture bred an anti-Chinese sentiment which ultimately led to the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943). This meant Chinese could not be naturalised, could not be granted work permits and, worst of all, prohibited the immigration of the wives and children of those already living and working in the United States. This incredible racist law was finally lifted during World War II, when it would be impossible for an ally to hold it.
Since the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited the entrance of Chinese labourers wives into the country, it also contributed to the already unbalanced ratio between male and female population in Chinatown, accentuating it. It became known as “Bachelor’s Society”, with rumours of opium dens, prostitution and slave girls, which only worsened the anti-Chinese feeling already in vogue. Yet, the Chinese community is to be admired for its strength – they created their own associations and societies to protect their own interests and find ways around the restrictions imposed by the U.S. government. This way, Chinatown was able to survive (but not without its own corruption, let’s say it had its own Mafia, but I won’t go a lot more into detail here).
In 1943, with the Exclusion Act being lifted, China was given a small immigration quota and the community continued to grow and slowly expand through the 40s and the 50s. The quota was raised in 1968, and that’s when Chinese immigration really exploded, and Chinatown began eating out Little Italy due to its increasing population, often buying entire buildings in cash – consider the wealthiest coming from Hong Kong, and investing in Chinatown.
Today Chinatown continues to thrive, a very much alive part of Lower Manhattan that has managed to maintain its authenticity. There you can access some of the best Asian foods in town, buy souvenirs that can make someone back home believe that you were indeed in Asia and, if you’re ok with it, there is also a market for counterfeit goods. On the other side, Little Italy barely resembles what it once was. There are still very good restaurants in the area, but prepare to pay well for a good Italian dish.
Are there any communities such as these where you’re from?
4 thoughts on “NYC Impressions: the very little Little Italy & the very big Chinatown”
Fantastic post; thank you for sharing these little slices of the world in the Big Apple! 🙂
To answer your question — well, the Philippines (where I am) boasts of the world’s oldest Chinatown, established in 1594. There’s also a sort of “little India” here, but adherents of Sikhism comprise the majority of its residents as it’s located within the vicinity of a Sikh temple in Manila.
Thanks for your comment and sharing such an interesting fact about the Philippines. I hope I’ll visit one day 🙂 A Chinatown so old – it does say a lot about the Chinese community! Very inspiring indeed.
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Appreciated the immigration history you provided here Nic. I have a vague memory of eating pizza in Little Italy from a hole-in-the-wall-place. I once stayed in Chinatown during a trip when I had to do some press interviews in NYC. I loved the vibe and was impressed with the authenticity of the food scene. Many of the dishes matched up to the kind of stuff I ate when I lived in Beijing. Lovely photos of the lantern-lined rises.
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Thanks for reading Leighton, I think it’s important we recognise the struggles of immigrant communities! It sounds like you had a great time in Chinatown – it’s definitely a place where I want to spend more time on next time I have a chance to travel to New York. I hope it remains as authentic as it is now!
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