Preaching not from his usual podium last week, Father Fabian Grifone harked back to a time when the yearly feast of San Gennaro was about family and tradition.
And gambling—“mild gambling,” as he put it, which used to take place in the courtyard of his Church of the Most Precious Blood on Mulberry Street as part of the annual autumnal festivities in Little Italy.
But no more: “The powers that be thought that somebody was getting some of the proceeds of that gambling,” said Father Grifone.
That “somebody,” of course, being the mob: More than a decade ago, several members of the Genovese crime family were convicted on charges of secretly controlling and skimming money from the hallowed fall festival.
City officials have since striven to cleanse San Gennaro of certain less-than-desirable elements: No more gambling. No more booze-slinging street vendors. And, if you believe the current organizers, no more Mafia involvement.
Mob mentality, though, still has its place.
Or so it seemed last week during a tense street-permit hearing concerning the future of San Gennaro. Vehement defenders of the nearly 80-year-old religious-themed retail festival railed against residents of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood who dared to publicly complain about the noise, trash, late hours, overcrowding, overwhelming commercialization and overall integrity of the sacrosanct street fair. At least one festival critic sustained swift rebuke for an accounting-related remark deemed “discriminating against Italians.”
Even pious Father Grifone piled on: “I cannot understand for the life of me how people who are non-Italian want to move into an Italian neighborhood, knowing that Italians live there—and they’re noisy people. By nature! Ya go to Italy? They’re singing in every square. Try to tell them to be quiet. Try to tell them that your kids have school the next morning. They’ll laugh at you!”
FOUNDED IN 1926, THE 11-DAY San Gennaro celebration honors the patron saint of Naples but also, perhaps more tangibly, pays hefty tribute to the ever-present overlord that is commerce.
The event is a particularly significant financial boon to Father Grifone’s church, which, following the betting ban, turned to selling religious trinkets along the sidewalk to boost revenues.
During the festivities, however, a statue of the saint is paraded down Mulberry Street, to which attendees attach donations. “All the money from the statue goes to the church,” he explained.
Over the years, Father Grifone noted, the event has taken on “more and more religious meaning.”
About 200 street vendors also set up shop along Mulberry Street during the festival, hawking the event’s signature sausages and peppers, among other items, to an estimated one million visitors each year.
The Little Italy Merchants Association also sets up a pedestrian mall on summer weekends; this, too, turns eatery-lined Mulberry Street into a foot-traffic extravaganza, forcing nearby residents to put up with the heavy customer flow and all the clamor and clutter that comes with it from May through September.
The cultural enrichment provided by this perpetual al fresco experience may be lost on newcomers to the ever-changing neighborhood, where glitzy new luxury apartments are under construction at the corner of Mulberry and Hester streets, just up the street from Father Grifone’s brick church, which the Franciscans built in 1947 with pennies collected from poor Italian immigrants.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that the newly transplanted hushers and sanitation hawks could sway officials into yanking the street permits, given the city’s own economic stake: around 20 percent of the fees collected from San Gennaro street vendors, generally between $160,000 to $180,000 annually, plus an estimated $1.65 million in sales-tax revenues collected from merchants, according to organizers.
The city further receives a 60 percent cut—reportedly amounting to more than $110,000 last year—of the fees that area restaurants and retailers pay to participate in the merchant association’s summer-weekend-mall concept.
Perhaps not surprisingly, amid all the speculation about the future of San Gennaro in recent weeks, both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer voiced their support for maintaining the street-closure status quo.
The feast and the mall will probably proceed as planned, albeit possibly with earlier curfews. Backing down from its own subcommittee’s previously unprecedented and highly publicized recommendation against San Gennaro, local Community Board 2 gave its conditional O.K. to both permits last week, provided that organizers scaled back the hours of operation. (The city’s Community Assistance Unit, which critics cited for failing to enforce similar guidelines last year, makes the final call.)
You can’t blame residents for their skepticism about the street activities, especially given the history of nefarious festival management on Mulberry Street.
Even after former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration pledged to eliminate Mafia influence over San Gennaro in 1996, corruption charges continued to dog the festival.
Criscitelli, whose family runs several neighborhood eateries, including Il Palazzo and Da Nico, resigned as festival president in 2004, after a witness in a federal trial reportedly identified him as a member of the Bonanno crime family—an allegation that Mr. Criscitelli denied. His immediate replacement, Vivian Catenaccio, soon also stepped down after a New York Post article identified her brother, Frank Catenaccio, as part of the Genovese gang.
As recently as 2005, a federal prosecutor alleged that organized crime still had a hand in San Gennaro.
Shortly after taking charge, the festival’s sitting president, Frank Macchiarola, downplayed the Mafia rumors as the sort of stereotypical speculation that inevitably follows any Italian-American in Little Italy, which he humorously dubbed “Sopranos East.”
Perhaps that’s why most questions from the community last week were fielded by the very non-stereotypical, rather un-Italian-looking street-fair specialist Mort Berkowitz, whom Mayor Giuliani tapped as San Gennaro’s production chief back in 1996. “I’m just the hired help, the Jewish guy from the Upper West Side … whatever I can do to help,” he told the crowd.
Judging by the comments of some street-closure opponents, not everyone’s buying Mulberry Street’s new Mafia-free shtick—a particularly hard sell in a neighborhood overrun with images of gangster glorification, from the souvenir stands shilling Al Capone T-shirts to the posters for The Sopranos adorning the Mulberry Street Bar.
One woman who spoke out against the merchant association’s planned pedestrian mall at last week’s hearing suggested that if she wanted to conduct a petition drive, “most people would want to remain anonymous due to the fact that [clears throat] it’s, uh, not an organization that gives back to the community.”
The merchant association’s lawyer, Arnold Kriss, disputed that notion, asserting that the group might make a donation to the Most Pr
ecious Blood church, “assuming, at the end of the year, there’s money left over.”
IN A RECENT INTERVIEW WITH THE Daily News, one outspoken San Gennaro critic joked that the festival seemed “better organized when the Mafia ran it.”
Some hard-line festival proponents might agree.
Take Father Grifone, who still holds a grudge against Mr. Giuliani for wiping out the church’s gambling revenues, of which, he adamantly stressed, “no one was getting any proceeds except the church.”
He pointed to last year’s San Gennaro lighting debacle with the city.
Organizers used to pay around $180,000 to a reportedly mob-connected electrician who once provided the festival’s lighting—that is, before he was indicted on extortion charges.
Last year, the city reportedly charged $252,000 for less work. A private contractor had to be called in for an additional $90,000. Not a dime was left over for charity.
“Now who the hell are the racketeers?” quipped Father Grifone.