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City Living: Bensonhurst, Brooklyn's Little Italy, is now teeming with diversity

Historically an Italian and Jewish neighborhood, Bensonhurst has transformed into a multi-cultural hub of southwest Brooklyn.

The neighborhood’s Italian roots are still visible in the many eateries and specialty shops nestled along the tree-lined streets of Brooklyn’s Little Italy, including Lenny’s Pizza, made famous by its cameo in the opening scene of Saturday Night Fever. However, an influx of Chinese, Russian, Mexican and Middle Eastern immigrants has diversified the area for a few decades.

Bensonhurst acquired its name from Arthur W. Benson, the former president of Brooklyn Gas, who began buying farmland in the area in 1835. Many Italians and Jews moved into the neighborhood in the early 20th century and remained the largest populations until other groups were attracted in the 1990s.

“When I first moved in it was really going through a transition, demographically,” said Marnee Elias-Pavia, Community Board 11’s district manager and 14-year Bensonhurst resident. “And we have really done it seamlessly from an Italian-American, Jewish neighborhood to probably the most integrated neighborhood.

In fact, a 2013 report on the city’s housing and neighborhoods by New York University’s Furman Center named Bensonhurst is the most racially diverse neighborhood in the city.

Bensonhurst also ranked No. 5 for the largest number of foreign-born residents in the city, with 56% of its population born outside the United States.

Its diversity is represented by the in restaurants and shops along 18th and New Utrecht avenues.

“I can go out and buy Chinese, Russian or American food,” Elias-Pavia said. “You can basically find anything here.”

Along with wanting to be closer to her community board job, Elias-Pavia moved to Bensonhurst for its family-friendly atmosphere, access to transportation, shopping and low crime rates.

“I had lived in Sea Gate my whole life and when my daughter was ready to go to school, I moved into the neighborhood for its reputation for great schools,” Elias-Pavia said.

Because the neighborhood houses more families than young singles, there’s a lack of nightlife but also noise.

The streets further from the subway stations and shops feel more like a suburb rather than southwest Brooklyn. Bordering Dyker Beach Park and only a 25-minute subway ride from Coney Island, the residential area is accessible by the D and N trains, with stops throughout the neighborhood. It takes 45 minutes to get to Midtown.

Joseph Giordano, vice president of Bensonhurst’s Coldwell Banker Reliable real estate, explained that because so many people are moving to the area, home sales prices rose about 5% in the last year.

“As far as availability, the homes are more in demand,” Giordano said. “There’s less on the market now – there’s low inventory and it’s increasing the prices.”

According to Giordano, the average price for single-family homes is between $750,000 and $800,000 and two-bedroom apartment rentals average around $1,600 per month.