Tinsel arches in red, white and green — the colors of the Italian flag — decorated the narrow corridor buzzing with energy after 18 months of unprecedented quiet amid the coronavirus pandemic, including the cancellation of the event last year. A man's voice over a loudspeaker reminded visitors about an afternoon Mass and a street procession to commemorate San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples.
"And thank you to the city of New York for letting us open up, bless them forever," the man concluded.
On the opening weekend of the 11-day street festival, which has been held here since the 1920s and runs through Sunday, members of an Italian American motorcycle club strolled in black leather vests, friends navigated the crowds carrying piña coladas in plastic cups and parents snapped photos of their children as they hopped on carnival rides.
"It feels like it's back to normal," said Abraham Feliz, a 29-year-old from New Jersey, who watched as his girlfriend rode a Ferris wheel with her son. "Everything feels like it's the same. The only thing that's changed is the people, but the people came out."
The festival, which spans seven blocks, from Canal Street to Houston Street, now attracts hundreds of vendors and more than 1 million visitors each year, and for New Yorkers and tourists alike, this year's gathering is another step toward normalcy as they navigate some of the largest crowds packed into the city's blocks since the pandemic began.
But the return of the Feast of San Gennaro carries a heavier significance for Little Italy's aging residents, business owners and community leaders who are struggling to recover from a crisis that has killed beloved neighborhood figures and damaged the local economy.
Just off the festival's main drag sits E. Rossi & Co., which opened on Grand Street in 1910 offering magazines and newspapers to a neighborhood flush with recent Italian immigrants. Two generations later, Ernie Rossi, 71, the founder's grandson, is still selling items such as Italian housewares, clothing and souvenirs.
Rossi grew up around the corner on Mulberry Street — the heart of the neighborhood — with his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins nearby.
"Being born and brought up here as a kid, I really felt I was the luckiest kid in the world. I'm serious," he said, sitting on a stool in between stacks of boxes.
"During the festival of San Gennaro … I could see all the way up and down Mulberry," he continued. "Then I would look up, I would see the Empire State Building. . . . And I felt so lucky to see that."
Although the Empire State Building can still be seen from Mulberry Street, much of Little Italy has disappeared. Since the early 2000s, many of the Italian-owned businesses have been rapidly replaced by trendy boutiques and bars.
The few blocks of Mulberry Street that remain the same are lined with Italian restaurants and souvenir shops that predominantly serve tourists. Older residents with thick Italian accents can still be heard, but there are fewer and fewer each year. According to the 2010 census, fewer than 5 percent of residents in Little Italy were of Italian descent at that time, down from a peak of 90 percent in 1910 and about 50 percent in 1950.
The past year and a half appears to have made Little Italy even more vulnerable. First came a citywide shutdown, which emptied the streets and forced businesses to close for months. The neighborhood was reminiscent of old, abandoned Western towns with tumbleweeds rolling by, Rossi said.
Then came the deaths. By March 2020, covid-19 began killing longtime neighborhood fixtures, one after another, including Moe "Moe the Butcher" Albanese, 95, and Vincent "Vinny Peanuts" Cirelli Sabatino, 68, who both died in April 2020.
Even as 2021 arrived, the pandemic kept its grip on Little Italy. At the end of March, as Rossi's wife of 50 years, Margaret Rossi, 72, waited to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, she contracted covid-19. So did Freddy Lopez, 64, the couple's best friend and longtime employee. Within a few weeks, both were dead.
"Every time someone would pass, I'd feel threatened, that we're slowly [dying] and there's not any of us left," Ernie Rossi said.
"That's the most important thing about keeping this festival going. If they don't have it anymore, then people are going to say, 'Well, Little Italy doesn't exist anymore,' " he said. "By keeping this festival going, we keep Little Italy alive."
At times, it seemed as though this year's Feast of San Gennaro may not happen. Organizers and community members changed their minds with each pandemic twist. Even with vaccines and relatively steady cases in New York City, many unknowns remained. Would the vendors be interested? Would people show up? Would it be safe?
"We were all in favor of having the Feast. It was just, we were scared," Achille Pirro, a board member of Figli di San Gennaro, which oversees the festival, said as he marched in a procession wearing a suit and a San Gennaro sash.
Pirro tried to hold back tears as he took in the crowd and recounted the losses the past year had brought. "It's a celebration in honor of their memory, because they're the ones who made this Feast, along with the people of New York," he said.
Festivalgoers watched as a small procession of clergy paraded through the neighborhood. As they reached the corner of Mulberry and Grand streets, participants carried the community's prized San Gennaro statue to a white stand filled with trays of Italian sweets and adorned with a black banner that read "Vinny's Nut House." A marching band began to play "Sweet Caroline."
For most of his life, Sabatino was a continual presence in Little Italy. He operated the Vinny's Nut House stand throughout the year and at every Feast of San Gennaro until he contracted covid-19. His spot on the corner had been empty since then, but his sister Beatrice Fratta wanted to make sure the family's stand was open for this year's festivities.
"We have to honor him" said Fratta, 64, standing next to her brother's folding chair. "He used to love 'Sweet Caroline,' and it just broke my heart when [the band] came around."
She added: "I'm happy that he's with my family now, my grandmother, my mom, in heaven. I just wish that this could continue; we're going to try very hard to keep it up for him. I know he's here with us."
Now, after another summer heavy on grief and light on tourism, businesses are still at risk, even with the boost from the festival. Rossi is months behind on rent, but says finding a way to keep E. Rossi & Co. open is more important than ever. If the store were to shut down, the New York City and the Little Italy he grew up in — where immigrants could afford to live and communities were served by mom-and-pop businesses — would be one step closer to disappearing, he said.
"When I walk through Chinatown or any ethnic neighborhood, whoever is behind the counter, whoever's in the street selling fruits and vegetables, I could see through them the immigrants of my family that came here," Rossi said, explaining why he holds on so tightly to the memories of what Lower Manhattan once offered to communities such as Little Italy.
"People come from all over the world to live here. And I know some people say, 'I had it with the city,' but no, it's the best place to be," he continued. "If tomorrow I would close my eyes and the good Lord would come to me and say, 'Ernie, I'm going to give you a chance to start over again. Where [do] you want to be born? Where [do] you want to live?' Right here."