There is no neighborhood like an Italian neighborhood. And there is no Italian neighborhood like New York's Little Italy, particularly in September when everybody is out on Mulberry Street for a 10-day furore of lights, color, music and feasting in honor of San Gennaro.
San Gennaro, a bishop of Benevento and the patron saint of Naples, was thrown to the bears at Pozznoli by the henchmen of Emperor Diocletian 1,686 years ago. But the people on Mulberry Street, early in 1970, refused to let Little Italy be thrown to the wolves of urban decay, traffic congestion, pollution, loss of ethnic identity, fiscal crises and budget cuts.
As Raquel Ramati, the head of New York City's Urban Design Group, tell it, "It isn't clear why a certain moment is the right time to wake up a dormant community. In Little Italy it was a combination of factors. It may have been the threat of the Lower Manhattan Expressway plan, which would have replaced Little Italy with a highway and large-scale developments. There was also the infiltration of the Chinese community. Both served indirectly to unite the Italians. But as in all revitalization projects, the individual personalities involved made the difference."
On the government end, there was New York City Planning Commission chairman John Zuccotti, himself an Italian-American, who had a special interest in neighborhood revitalization. The neighbors were banded together in the Little Italy Restoration Association, or LIRA, working for a risorgimento.
But it was Ramati, the Israeli-born city planner, and her Urban Design Group, a sort of architectural task force of the New York City Planning Commission, who pioneered the ingenious new planning methods and some of the zoning techniques that turned neglect around in Little Italy and other New York City neighborhoods.
They could work somewhere else.
Ramati's is not a rigid prescription. It is an urban therapy, as it were, a "process," to use that overused word, that depends in equal parts on an accurate diagnosis, mild legislative medicine and the patient's will to get well.
It does not depend on large doses of federal money. It is Stockman-proof.
It is all but impervious to congressional budget-cutting and should therefore provide what out cities need most to survive the present taxpayers' rebellion -- an invitation for intelligent private investments.
Ramati's neighborhood diagnosis is not confirmed to traffic anaylsis and the usual regurgitation of undigested census data. Theirs is a careful stocktaking of all the healthy elements that make up the life and character of the neighborhood that is to be preserved, revitalized and enhanced.
In Little Italy, the Urban Design Group has noted the precise mix of stores and activities -- bakeries, wineries, undertakers, restaurants, etc. -- that give life to Mulberry Street. It made careful drawings of characteristic architectural features from building heights and sidewalk widths to store window sills, awnings and signs.
Next the Group asked the city to declare Little Italy a historic zoning district. That provided the legal authority to demand that all development conform to the design criteria the Group had drawn up as necessary to preserve and enhance neighborhood characteristics.
Developers and investors gladly swallow this mild medicine because it assures them of neighborhood stability and improvement. As the owner of one of Little Italy's famous bakeries put it, "Why build a building or invest in a business if nothing is going on around it? Why do it in a vacuum? So we want to see a plan if we are going to put our reputations on the line."
The patient, of course, is the neighborhood itself -- the John Frettas and Ann Capparellis of America, who must not only want their streets and neighborhoods to thrive, but who must also be willing to work, really work, and to raise money?
In Little Italy, LIRA started with $1 to $1,000 contributions by residents and merchants to open LIRA's storefront office. "It was there," Ramati recalled, "that some young city planners and the men and women of the Italian community discussed and defined, late into the night, the problems and the possible solutions." The resulting general plan, completed in less than a year, became the guide and focus for future community actions.
Master plans, to be sure, have fallen into disrepute in recent years, mostly because American cities have few good master planners. Most have attempted to impose currently fashionable styles and "solutions" upon the urban organism. That does not work.
But there cannot be any effective action without planning and no planning without a plan. A good neighborhood revitalization plan must be specific enough to show citizens what it will accomplish, to show developers and investors what their money will buy and to show government how it will all relate to the rest of the city.
Yet the plan must be flexible enough to survive changing circumstances in a changing world.
The first plan was much too ambitious for a city in the depths of a financial crisis. It called for new and rehabilitated housing, a new school, new parks, the recyclying of the glorious old Police Headquarters into an Anglo-Italian cultural center and turning three blocks of traffic-jammed and dilapidated Mulberry Street into a pedestrian mall.
Only the mall seemed instantly doable. Closing Mulberry Street to cars was within the means of the community, and it would attract attention, making all of New York aware of Little Italy -- "it could be an instrument of encouragement, a sign of hope and a signal that good things are happening," as Ramati put it.
They did happen. To begin with, citizens and planners decided to close the street only on weekends but to draw plans for renovating and decorating it as though the street were an enclosed hall for the year-round celebration of the San Gennaro feste 'e tutte 'e feste, festival of all festivals.
The drawings helped to raise more funds -- $25,000 from the Rockefeller Family Fund augumented by neighborhood banks, businesses large and small, and the residents themselves.
When all was done, on July 30, 1975, Mulberry Street looked "as if you were in Rome's Piazza Navona. The umbrellas were up, there was music. I felt like crying for joy. It was as if nobody had ever seen a car before and did not care to see another car again." according to one participant.
Since then, the first banners have worn out. But a new maintenance program is in operation, 15 new restaurants have opened and the facades of a dozen exisiting ones have been renovated, others are painted and cleaned. For the first time in 60 years, business is booming on Mulberry Street.
What is more, the new energy and activity generated private and federal loans to launch the more extensive risorgimento. It is now successfully under way.
Ramati and the Urban Design Group have applied similar techniques with similar success to Newkirk Plaza in Brooklyn and Beach 20th Street in Queens. Ramati has also written a book on "How to Save Your Neighborhood," which Doubleday will publish in May.