What would Linda Lavin do — with a night off?

By Lincoln Anderson

Volume 80, Number 39 | February 24 – March 2, 2011

West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Gennaro ‘reso’ has Italian blood boiling; Fashion show offer fails

Nolita residents were able to beat back Danny Meyer’s plan for a Shake Shack at Prince and Mulberry Sts. last year. But now a group of residents and boutique owners are finding that going up against the traditional Feast of San Gennaro is a much tougher cannoli to crack — not as easy as knocking out Meyer’s trendy hamburger takeout.

The annual, 11-day-long September festival currently runs along Mulberry St. from Canal St. all the way up to Houston St. A time-honored tradition of 85 years, it’s probably the country’s best-known religious-based street fair. It honors San Gennaro, Naples’s patron saint, whose trademark relic is two vials of dried blood, which liquifies on his feast day.

However, critics charge the feast is based more on selling sausages than revering the saint, and creates an impenetrable “11-day barricade” in front of local designer boutiques. What’s more, the festival coincides with Fashion Week and Fashion’s Night Out, the biggest time of the year for these shops.

Last month, responding to complaints of Nolita residents and boutique owners that the event is a nightmare for their quality of life and businesses, Community Board 2 passed a resolution strongly urging the city to consider cutting the festival at Kenmare St., “so as not to disturb the emerging business community in Nolita… .”

The community board also pointedly put Figli di San Gennaro — the fest’s organizing body — and the Mayor’s Street Activity Permit Office on notice that they should “expect that C.B. 2 will continue to negotiate further reductions of [the feast’s] scale and duration for subsequent years.”

There was an immediate backlash from the feast’s supporters. John Fratta, a former Little Italy Democratic district leader whose grandfather was the feast’s first president, has led the effort.

“It’s personal,” he said.

Fratta founded a Facebook page, “Little Italy and San Gennaro Under ATTACK,” which currently has 3,568 members. And last Thursday night, he led more than 50 supporters of the festival to C.B. 2’s full board meeting to show their displeasure with the board’s resolution, and call for the festival to run its full length. Only a handful of festival advocates were allowed to testify at the beginning of the meeting, during the public session, but after each spoke at the microphone, their comments were greeted by enthusiastic cheering from the San Gennaro contingent.

“We are a very emotional people,” Fratta said in his remarks to the board. “We get even more emotional when we feel that our community or our culture is coming under attack.” Fratta also thanked the board for granting its advisory approval for the festival getting a permit, and — despite the board’s urging the city to consider stopping the fest at Kenmare St. — not making this contingent on its approval.

However, at last week’s meeting, C.B. 2 didn’t discuss or change the language of its January resolution on the festival.

In addition, local politicians haven’t backed up C.B. 2’s call for shortening the festival, either in its physical footprint or its duration. Borough President Scott Stringer’s Office has been working closely with both the feast’s organizers and Nolita activists to try to broker an amicable compromise. Stringer’s staff has been reaching out to Monsignor Sakano of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, on Mulberry St. north of Prince St., to try to improve the festival at its north end. A spokesperson said the borough president will soon send a letter of support for the full-length festival to the city’s Street Activity Permit Office, which makes the ultimate decision on granting permits for street festivals.

“The Feast of San Gennaro is a world-class event with deep historic roots that attracts visitors from across the globe,” Stringer said in a statement to this newspaper. “I support the preservation of the fair in its full length, and my office is currently working in collaboration with the fair’s organizers and Community Board 2 to find the best possible uses for the northern three blocks of the festival. I appreciate the steps the organizers are taking to find uses that are in harmony with the northern three blocks, such as working with Monsignor Sakano to bring Italian art and culture to the festival, as well as sponsoring an 11-day blood drive in conjunction with Old St. Patrick’s Church.”

City Councilmember Margaret Chin, in a Feb. 18 letter to Mayor Bloomberg, also opposed removing any blocks from the feast.

“I am writing to voice my support for the San Gennaro Festival application to run, in its entirety, as it has for the last 85 years, along Mulberry St. between Canal and Houston Sts.,” Chin wrote. “I believe it is necessary to retain and honor the San Gennaro Festival while giving serious consideration to the surrounding community.

“After a series of meetings with the organizers of the festival, Figli di San Gennaro,” the councilmember continued, “I am confident that they have taken significant steps to reach out to the community, engage local business owners, and adapt to a changing neighborhood.

“Over all, the celebration will be more respectful, culturally inclusive, and cognizant of the other events, including Fashion Week, which take place at the same time,” Chin added. “In my meeting with the festival’s organizers, we brainstormed an array of outreach options to get Italian chefs, restaurants and headliners involved in the celebration.

“I believe the renewed attention, and criticism, of the San Gennaro Festival can have a positive outcome,” Chin stated.

In addition, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, on Feb. 7, wrote to the head of the city’s Community Affairs Unit, to add his weight to preserving the full-length festival.

“As the assemblyman representing Lower Manhattan and Little Italy, I urge you and your Street Activity Permit Office to approve the application for the San Gennaro Feast scheduled for September,” Silver wrote to Commissioner Nazli Parvizi. “While there have been suggestions that this annual feast be shortened, I feel that this important cultural, food and art festival should be allowed to continue to run its full length, from Canal St. to Houston St., in the tradition we have enjoyed for so many years.

“The San Gennaro Feast operators have taken steps to address the concerns raised by some shopkeepers and residents and I believe we need to allow these changes to be implemented and tested during this year’s feast,” Silver said. “Little Italy is a historic and culturally rich neighborhood and the San Gennaro Feast is its biggest and most important event of the year.”

This year, Figli di San Gennaro has agreed not to bring back attractions from recent festivals that drew the most complaints from Nolita merchants and residents, such as “Dunk the Clown,” karaoke, mafia T-shirts, rock and hip-hop CD’s and even live tiger cubs, which briefly appeared at a “petting zoo” at last year’s festival before being quickly whisked away after animal agency officials said it wasn’t permitted.

Instead, this year, trying to extend an olive branch to the Nolita fashion boutiques, festival organizers have offered to let them put on a fashion show during the feast. A meeting was held early last week at Stringer’s office, and the idea was broached. But, speaking last Thursday, Kim Martin, co-chairperson of the new group NOLINA (Northern Little Italy Neighborhood Association), said the proposal wasn’t realistic. Martin, a former fashion writer who has helped produce fashion shows, said while such an event might be an attraction for the festival, it wouldn’t be worth the time and expense for the boutiques. A fashion show, she explained, would take $50,000 to $100,000 to do properly; WiFi would be needed for a press area; provisions would have to be made in case of rain. Also, she said, each boutique would have to create a “sample,” a garment specially made for the show, which is expensive, especially when they would already have one such garment on view at Bryant Park or another Fashion Week venue.

“It’s not as easy as creating a plywood stage,” she noted, adding that for the designers, fashion events are really about doing business and making sales, about the bottom line.

Speaking this Tuesday, Fratta said if the Nolita boutiques don’t want to do a fashion show, the feast — of which he recently became a board member — will move ahead with trying to do one on its own. They’re hoping to get Giorgio Armani or another high-profile designer to sponsor a San Gennaro fashion event. If that fails, Fratta said, they’ll reach out to F.I.T. students and have a “more subdued” fashion show at the festival.

Fratta and others charge that the Nolita boutiques always seem empty anyway, so the festival couldn’t be lessening their business. But Martin said, even if no customers are seen in a shop at a given moment, “maybe they could be selling 20 hats to Paris” right then.

“I want to see these small businesses survive,” Martin stressed of the boutiques. “Because if they don’t, the Gaps, the Starbucks are going to move down into Little Italy. That’s what I’m fighting for: the intimate sense of our community. In a sense, we’re actually honoring the Old World nature of our neighborhood.”

Fratta and the festival advocates, of course, say that’s what they’re doing in supporting the full-length festival.

“It’s no secret that it’s changing, but Little Italy isn’t a facade,” he stressed. “Most Italians that live in America trace their roots to Mulberry St.”

One Nolita resident at last Thursday’s C.B. 2 meeting noted the feast only used to run for four days up through the 1960’s. Actually it was five days, Fratta corrected, noting that it’s now been firmly established as an 11-day festival for 50 years already. Emily DiPalo, a festival board member, said that with setup and breakdown, the festival really takes up Mulberry St. for 15 days. Fratta said the feast must run the full length, so that it can include its “two anchors” at each end, the Church of Most Precious Blood and Old St. Patrick’s.

Nolita activists have complained that some of the comments on Fratta’s Facebook page have been over the top, even “intimidating,” and they have been taking screen shots of them, to preserve them before they are removed.

Fratta said he’s been busy monitoring the page, and has already kicked off something like 25 people whose comments were inappropriate. Someone was even criticizing President Obama, which had no place in the San Gennaro discussion, Fratta said.

“I feel like I’ve been living in Facebook,” he said. Fratta also said he told everyone to keep cool at the C.B. 2 meeting.

“We didn’t want anyone getting crazy at the meeting, because that’s what they want to say,” he said of the festival’s critics.  

Jo Hamilton, C.B. 2’s chairperson said the main thing is that a dialogue has started, and she has high hopes that, as a result, this year’s festival will be improved.

“What we’re really trying to do is minimize the impact of the festival and make it fit in the neighborhood,” she said. “Our resolution didn’t say we wanted the festival to go away. They wanted to change the resolution, but that’s not going to happen, because there’s no reason for it,” Hamilton said, referring to the festival advocates.

“I’m happy with where we are,” she stated of the efforts to work out compromises on the feast. Asked if the board will, in the future, as its resolution states, look at cutting the festival’s physical length and duration, she said she couldn’t really say, since the board’s membership changes, as do its positions and agenda.

“The festival is really focused on those three blocks [south of Houston St.],” Hamilton said, “and they’re saying, ‘We can do better,’ and that’s a positive result. This is a good step in the right direction.”

Nevertheless, feelings are still sore. Regardless of their seeming lack of customers, Fratta said, “We are urging a boycott of these stores — they are going to have to feel it” for attempting to trim three blocks from the festival. “We are going to plan a demonstration — probably at the end of March,” he added. “The protest will be support for Little Italy and against the boutiques.” But he said the protest might be called off “if we can get something settled.”