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Parse 140 Years Of Little Italy's Capricious, Shrinking Borders

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Some neighborhood names appear to be jokes. Some have stuck around for centuries, despite changing connotations. Some shift with the winds of gentrification. Welcome to Blurred Lines, in which writer Keith Williams of The Weekly Nabe studies New York City's changing neighborhood boundaries.

Although it's been written off as practically non-existent many times in the past half-century, particularly in the past 10 years, Little Italy has managed to maintain an intimate physical character, if not a consistent demographic. But its embattled past and current demoted status as an extension of Chinatown give it a particularly complicated?and intriguing?backstory.

Born from the ashes of an Irish colony in the 1870s, today's neighborhood was one of several hubs of Italian immigrant activity in the late 19th century. The largest, in fact, was once centered around 110th Street and First Avenue in East Harlem. While that area declined after the installation of the elevated Metro-North lines near the end of the century, its counterpart thrived in the shadow of the Bowery El.

Dark places often spawn dark souls, and such was the case along Mulberry Street, where the Mob found a comfortable home. Perhaps a rising tide does lift all boats; the population of Little Italy reached 100,000 by 1930, up from 8,000 in 1888.

That number waned to 30,000 by 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act opened the door to expanded Chinese immigration. A flood of newcomers pushed their adopted exclave north of Canal Street. By the end of the decade even politicians were sounding the alarm: "Eventually, at this rate, most of the landlords here will be Chinese, and there may not be any more Little Italy," said one Democratic district leader.

Members of the neighborhood, in an attempt to stanch the bleeding, formed a group called Little Italy Restoration Association in 1974. (Its acronym?LIRA?made much more sense before the euro was introduced.) By February 1977, LIRA had convinced the Department of City Planning to rezone the area (warning: PDF!) to "preserve and strengthen the historical and cultural character of the community."

Still, the press licked its chops at the prospect of the death of this long-standing, notorious neighborhood. In 1981, it was "but a two-block relic amid a jumble of Chinese dry-goods stores, vegetable stands and tea shops." In 1990, the government took down John Gotti, and seized his headquarters, the Ravenite Social Club on Mulberry Street.

New neighborhood names have popped up in the last twenty years as a way to avoid the existing connotations. "NoLIta"?North of Little Italy?was created by brokers in the mid-1990s as a trendy alternative to SoHo to the west. One saleswoman vouched that it was "similar to the traditional role of the Left Bank in Paris"?a place for up-and-coming stores or brands to try a new approach with low financial risk.

Also of note is "SoHo South," apparently coined in 2006 by 123 Baxter Street, a Curbed favorite with exposed timber beams and multimillion-dollar loft-style apartments. The broker responsible claimed she sought those "who think SoHo is too trendy already?I think trust-fund babies with ripped jeans is the profile we're looking at."

While the dozens of Chinese stores in row houses remain unmistakable signs of an evolution in the neighborhood?even earning it the moniker Little Chitaly?the extent of Little Italy's shriveling is most dramatic on a map. Its size has ranged from around 60 blocks at its peak?when it encompassed the notorious Five Points (see Gangs of New York) and Mulberry Bend?to three blocks in 2006: either side of Mulberry between Canal and Broome.

And although it has sprung back a bit, Little Italy is still under siege from all sides. (In an ironic twist, a 2007 article claimed it was being "squeezed by NoLIta to the north.") In 2010, the National Register of Historic Places added the "Chinatown & Little Italy Historic District" to its roster, unceremoniously (and formally) lumping the two diverse areas together.

Given its demographic shifts, does "Little Italy" still matter in modern-day New York City? Or has it been relegated to the status of a conversation piece at the dinner parties of our city's historians and preservationists?

Here now, a breakdown of the neighborhood's borders over time.

Italians dominated the 6th and the 14th Wards in the late 19th century:

By the time LIRA secured a zoning change in 1974, the area had been reduced to around 30 blocks:

In 2006, Fodor's saw Little Italy as only three blocks hugging Mulberry Street:

Today, Little Italy's business association sees itself as having 18 blocks:

Google Maps disagrees, neglecting some areas and adding others:

?Keith Williams
· The Evolving Name and Boundaries of Greenwood Heights [Curbed]
· Blurred Lines archive [Curbed]