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

"It’s the same thing that happened when the Italians came in the 1960s and 1970s and bought from Jewish people,"

"It’s the same thing that happened when the Italians came in the 1960s and 1970s and bought from Jewish people," he said. "Bensonhurst has always been an immigrant neighborhood and now [the Chinese] are moving here because they don’t want to raise their children in the city."

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Despite Bensonhurst’s changing demographics, remnants of the tight-knit, relatively homogenous Italian community it was a few decades ago linger. The block of 18th Avenue between 73rd and 74th streets appears to most closely resemble the community evoked by nostalgic Italians. The street is home to three of the remaining Sicilian social clubs that were popular in the 1960s; the Italian-language music and film store Arcobaleno Italiano; and the Cotillion Terrace banquet hall.

A white-haired man wearing aviator sunglasses and a partially unbuttoned flannel shirt above a white undershirt, held court over a group of men in their sixties and seventies outside the Societa Figli di Ragusa–"the Society for the Sons of Ragusa," a region in Sicily–before "The Feast" began on Thursday.

His friend who was most comfortable in English introduced him as "Angelo Napolitano, the Mayor of Bensonhurst."

Napolitano is not, in fact, Angelo’s last name, but a reference to his place of birth, and one of many regional barbs the old friends direct each other’s way.

When Angelo arrived in Bensonhurst 50 years ago, there were hundreds of clubs like his that boys joined after they turned 21, he said. Membership peaked in the 1960s, but old-timers still gather at the clubs to "drink coffee and watch football matches."

"You used to walk down the street and only hear Italian," Angelo said, "but now you hear French, Spanish, everything."

Though Angelo admits to missing the Bensonhurst of his childhood, he turns down notes in his mail box offering to buy his home "all the time."

"I’m here for good," he said decisively. "I’m not going to let someone else take my place."

 

THE BUYING SPREE HAS not been limited to residential real estate. Mom-and-pop shops still line 18th Avenue from 60th Street to Shore Avenue; but, if Chinese shops do not outnumber the Italian ones, they certainly come close.

Joe Mafia, the owner of 40-year-old Gino’s Focacceria, said business has suffered since his Italian customers began to leave Bensonhurst.

"[The Chinese] don’t eat Italian food like this," Mr. Mafia said in heavily accented, broken English, sweeping his hand past a buffet of lasagna, stuffed mushrooms, and other Italian fare. "They eat sliced pizza, that’s it."

More and more Italian-owned stores are closing and Chinese ones opening in their place, Mr. Mafia said, and though he resisted a previous offer from a Russian buyer, he will probably move soon: "Maybe to Staten Island."

"In four or five years, it won’t be the same," he said. "No one likes it, but we don’t fight with each other."

Other merchants have managed to stay afloat in spite of their limited customer base. Cesare Cali, the owner of Italian-language film and music shop Arcobaleno Italiano, said business is still "O.K." because there are few other stores that stock such a large selection of Italian-language merchandise.

He relies mostly on customers from out of town, and catalogue orders.

At the moment he has no plans to sell his store. "The Russian people say, ‘You want to sell your store,’ and I said, ‘Not right now,’" Mr. Cali said, struggling with his English.

Eventually, he plans to retire in Italy; but until then he will stay put in Bensonhurst. "I’m just a tourist here."

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