The fight of San Gennaro

Tempers have been flaring in Little Italy and Nolita over the long-running Feast of San Gennaro. This 85-year-old street festival — one of the country’s most well known — currently stretches along Mulberry Street between Canal and Houston Streets.   

At the neighborhood’s north end residents and new fashion boutique owners have organized and are calling for the festival to be cut off at Kenmare Street, reducing it by about half. They argued that the neighborhood’s population is no longer heavily Italian, and that the festival has become “generic,” and is an “eleven-day barricade,” preventing people from getting to their stores.

What’s more, the annual September feast coincides with Fashion Week and Fashion’s Night Out, boutique owners added, further negatively impacting their businesses.

In response, members of the festival’s nonprofit board, Figli di San Gennaro — many of them proud, lifelong Little Italy residents — counter that the “newcomers” have no right to say the festival should be cut back. The organizers noted the feast draws about one million people a year — many of them tourists, who generates millions of dollars for businesses, hotels and restaurants. The religious-based festival also features two three-to-four street processions, and a special Mass.

According to the organizers, eliminating the feast’s three northernmost blocks would mean 60 less vendors, which would reduce the feast’s income by about $221,000, with a loss of $21,000 in revenues for the city, which collects 20 percent of vendors’ fees for booth rentals.

When the Feast of San Gennaro started back in 1926, it was a much humbler affair. It was a one-day, religious-based event, centered on Mulberry Street, between Grand and Hester Streets, where Neapolitan immigrant families owning coffeehouses brought tables out onto the sidewalk in honor of their patron saint’s day. The feast has since burgeoned to 11 days and seven blocks, and is now run by Mort & Ray Productions, one of the city’s major street-fair operators.  

Trying to mediate the conflicting interests, Community Board 2’s street activities and film permits committee did a good job of reaching some sort of compromise for this year’s festival in September. Past attractions that drew the most complaints won’t be included in this year’s festival — notably, karaoke and “Dunk the Clown,” the latter featuring a loudmouthed insult clown who would have made Don Rickles blush. Rock and hip-hop music CD’s and mafia T-shirts also won’t be sold. Clearly, the organizers have shown they are willing to work with the community.    

We did hear, though, that Figli di San Gennaro was almost ready to give up the block between Kenmare and Prince Streets this year — so there may be some room in the future for negotiating cutting back the festival somewhat.

Two weeks ago, C.B. 2 voted on its advisory resolution giving conditional approval to a permit for the feast. However, the community board strongly urged the city to consider stopping the festival at Kenmare Street, “so as not to disturb the emerging business community in Nolita…”

C.B. 2 also pointedly noted that Figli di San Gennaro and the Mayor’s street activity permit office should “expect that C.B. 2 will continue to negotiate further reductions of [the feast’s] scale and duration for subsequent years.”

Merchants toward the festival’s north end do say that the vendors’ booths are not of particularly high quality, so the argument could be made that the feast is already overextended.

It sounds like this year’s festival will still run from Canal Street to Houston Street. (Figli di San Gennaro members said they already have sanitation contracts in place for the whole stretch, for example.) But future years will likely see changes. We’re confident that, with C.B. 2’s good help, the right compromise will be reached.