Effort to shorten San Gennaro Fest falls short

By Lincoln Anderson

A push was made last Thursday night to get Community Board 2 to recommend reducing by half the footprint of the famed San Gennaro Festival, but the motion failed by a vote of 20 to 13.  

Traditionally, the feast, which lasts a full 11 days in September, has stretched along Mulberry St. between Canal and Houston Sts. However, new designer boutique owners, restaurateurs and residents in stylish Nolita, at Little Italy’s northern end, have grown increasingly opposed to the event. They say the neighborhood has changed. And the 85-year-old festival isn’t authentically Italian anymore, they say, but is just like other generic street fairs and, most of all, is a major disruption for the neighborhood for close to two weeks each year.

Unfortunately for Nolita’s boutique owners, the feast also coincides with Fashion Week and Fashion’s Night Out, keeping fashionistas away during what should be a highpoint of the year.

The Charlotte Ronson boutique, near Spring St., owned by hip music producer Mark Ronson’s sister, simply closes for two weeks during the festival, said assistant manager Jessica Pimentel, speaking the day after the C.B. 2 meeting.

“The average price of our goods is $100 and made in America,” one boutique owner testified at the meeting. The average price of San Gennaro wares is “$5 and made outside this country,” she said.

The festival “becomes an 11-day barricade to the stores,” stated another shop owner.

Giving them a newfound sense of community empowerment, however, Nolita residents last year successfully organized to defeat Danny Meyer’s plan for a Shake Shack at Prince and Mulberry Sts. Lacking sufficient seating, the sure to be wildly popular hamburger takeout would have overwhelmed the neighborhood, they argued, before Meyer ultimately pulled out due to their opposition.

The recent petition effort to shorten the San Gennaro Festival at Kenmare St. was an outgrowth of this positive experience fighting Shake Shack, said two Nolita denizens, Kim Martin and Sharon Gary.

“You can only take so much after awhile,” said Gary, a physical therapist, and a Prince St. resident for more than 20 years.

Through the work of its Street Activities & Film Permits Committee, C.B. 2 did succeed in getting a number of concessions from Figli di San Gennaro, the nonprofit board that runs the festival. The group has agreed that, at this year’s festival, there will be no “Dunk the Clown,” since people complained it was too raucous. Also, there won’t be any karaoke, no booths selling or playing CD’s — unless the music is directly related to the festival’s theme — and no vulgar or mafia T-shirts for sale, either.

Figli di San Gennaro has also agreed to strict guidelines on shutdown times for each night and will rotate the soundstage’s location so as to spread the noise impact around equitably. Also under the stipulations, no building of structures will take place overnight.  

The community board, in its resolution, recognized that the festival “is an important and symbolic annual event.” At the same time, the resolution states that C.B. 2 “strongly urges [the city] to consider cutting back the size of San Gennaro by stopping the street fair at Kenmare St. so as not to disturb the emerging business community in Nolita who expressed significant concerns about lost profits and disruptions caused by the festival.” Yet stopping the festival at Kenmare St. wasn’t a deal-breaker for the board’s granting its advisory approval for the event.

In 1996, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani brought the formerly corruption-plagued festival under tight control, and its activities are still monitored. The event’s organizers note it has given out about $2 million in charitable donations in the past 15 years.

Vivian Catenaccio, a San Gennaro board member, noted that Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, between Prince and Houston Sts., was only just recently designated a basilica. To think of excluding this block from the festival, “it’s an insult to the basilica,” she said.

Emily DePalo, another San Gennaro board member, also noted the festival’s religious foundations.

“We have two religious processions. It’s a grueling three-to-four-hour process,” she said. “One of them they walk, one of them they float.” On Sept. 19, the cathedral is packed for a big Mass for San Gennaro feast day, she added.

Catenaccio added she sees few actual customers in the Nolita fashion boutiques.

“I feel sorry for them,” she said, noting they pay high rent.

If the storeowners want to participate in the festival, they can set up vending tables on the sidewalk, at a reduced rate, to sell their merchandise, she said.

In addition, she said, “We welcome them to do a fashion show on the stage.”

Reducing the festival’s space would be a safety hazard, according to Catenaccio, with the same amount of people packed into fewer blocks.

Opponents complained about public drunkenness at the festival. But Catenaccio countered there is “no tolerance” for it.

The day after C.B. 2’s vote, Julie Dickson, owner of Fox & Boy hair salon on Mulberry St. between Prince and Houston Sts., said she’d love it if the festival wasn’t outside her store.

“That would be awesome,” she said. “It’s kind of dangerous, the element it attracts. We don’t have any walk-ins that week.”

Instead of walk-in customers, drunk guys from the feast will stick their heads into the salon, and with a cigarette dangling from their hand, say, “Hey, what do you think of my hair?” she said.

Dickson said that while the street fair seems nice and authentically Italian down where the old-style restaurants are, north of Prince St. the vendors are, well, pretty schlocky.

Last year, she said, “There was a card table outside and a guy on a microphone screaming. … There was a clown-dunking tank a year ago, and that guy was screaming insults at people, like, ‘You belong on Christopher St.’ — I mean what year is this? — or ‘Hey lady, you’re not ugly, you’re just fat.’ ”

Told “Dunk the Clown” and karaoke were definitely out this year, she said with relief, “That’s fantastic.”

There were even live baby tigers at San Gennaro last year, at least briefly, she said. Her understanding was they were quickly removed after it was found there weren’t proper permits.

“They were there for 10 minutes,” said Figli di San Gennaro’s Bob Marshall. A local resident had been given control over the concessions on that block and thought a “petting zoo” would be fun, he said.

“We thought it was going to be lambs or sheep,” Marshall said. “When we saw what it was, it was immediately shut down. No one was ever in danger.”

Nicolas Dutko, a co-owner of Tartinery, a new French restaurant at 209 Mulberry St. at Spring St., said he supports stopping the festival at Kenmare St.

The restaurant had to pay $3,400 to reserve the sidewalk space in front of it, and put tables out, but the smoke from food vendors was so bad, no one wanted to eat outdoors. Meanwhile, festival-goers passing by would keep asking if they could buy beer at the outdoor tables, he said.

“And the people are very rude that come” to the festival, Dutko added. “It’s one thing to celebrate your Italian heritage. Up here north of Broome St., they’re just doing it to make money. It’s affecting us a lot.”

Les Schechter, who does the festival’s P.R., said the street fair is essential for Little Italy’s restaurants.

“Oh yeah, definitely,” he said. “They depend on that every year. Those 11 days bring them a lot of income.”