The Local: Bensonhurst—From ‘Little Italy to Little Odessa to Chinatown’

Before the Italian-American exodus from Bensonhurst, only Italian food vendors participated in the annual 10-day Feast of Santa Rosalia–Brooklyn’s version

Before the Italian-American exodus from Bensonhurst, only Italian food vendors participated in the annual 10-day Feast of Santa Rosalia–Brooklyn’s version of Little Italy’s San Gennaro Festival–in honor of the patron saint of Palermo, Sicily. But lately "The Feast," as it is dubbed by locals, has become less a nod to what was once Bensonhurst’s most populous demographic group than a multi-ethnic smorgasbord.

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At this year’s Santa Rosalia, which ended Sunday, Middle-Eastern shawarma vendors and Mexican arepas booths were sprinkled among dozens of Italian sausage stands lining the neighborhood’s main commercial artery of 18th Avenue. The seven-block strip from 67th to 75th streets was festooned with red, green and white flags, but a gyro stand demarcated the fair’s boundaries.

"We never used to have gyros or Mexican food," Bensonhurst resident Rose Poveromo confided from behind the fried-dough booth she was manning on Thursday. "It was all Italian."

The 62-year-old blonde with long, manicured nails, a half-dozen gold chains and a diamond-encrusted nameplate hanging from her neck-has lived in the same building off 18th Avenue since 1970, and watched the neighborhood change from "Little Italy to Little Odessa to Chinatown."

"When I moved into my building 38 years ago, everyone was Italian and I was the only American-speaking person who lived there," she said. "Thirty-eight years later, I’m still the only American speaker, but they all speak Russian, Polish and Albanian."

Ms. Poveromo said she no longer has many friends in Brooklyn, but she has resisted her daughter’s pleas to move into a "big house" on Staten Island. "I’ll never leave," she said defiantly. "I love my neighborhood."

Italian Bensonhurst stalwarts all tell a similar story: The children of the first-generation immigrants who flooded Bensonhurst in the 1960s began to trickle out to Staten Island and New Jersey more than a decade ago, shrugging off their parents’ working-class roots in favor of the suburbs. Locals report that the migration has been gaining steam since the 2000 Census. Then, the number of residents of Italian descent in Bensonhurst had already shrunk to 59,112, almost half as many as two decades ago, mirroring citywide trends; the total Italian population in the city dropped from over a million two decades ago to 700,000 in 2,000.

"This neighborhood used to be thick with Italians," said Bensonhurst broker Joseph Di Fiore of Century 21 Calabrese. "Now they are moving out because they’re retiring. It’s normal."


RATHER THAN PASSING THE two-and-three-family row houses radiating off 18th Avenue to the next generation, Italian families are selling their homes to the highest bidders who are most often Chinese, now that Sunset Park-the area with the third-largest concentration of Chinese in the five boroughs-is packed to the gills.

The "Asian community" accounts for about 20 percent of the brokerage’s total sales, Mr. Di Fiore said-by far the largest volume of any single ethnic group.

Single-family homes in Bensonhurst fetch an average of $500,000 to $650,0000 and two-family homes between $700,000 to $900,000, he said.

Russians from Brighton Beach who "are becoming middle-class and ready for a bigger home," are also moving to Bensonhurst, Mr. Di Fiore said, along with dozens of other ethnicities drawn by the glut of inventory and proximity to public schools. Century 21 Calabrese has 70 brokers who speak a total of 13 languages.

If Bensonhurst native Antonio Gnerre were not still at the helm of the family business that his father started 44 years ago, DaVinci’s Pizzeria, he might fit the profile of a typical defector.

"[Italian families] are not working as butchers and bakers anymore, their kids have grown up, and they’re selling these homes that their parents bought for $30,000 for $850,000, which brings you into a whole different category of house in New Jersey," the 38-year-old Mr. Gnerre said from a booth inside DaVinci’s. "You can get a McMansion for that."

The Local: Bensonhurst—From ‘Little Italy to Little Odessa to Chinatown’