October, the month we mark Columbus Day, is also Italian-American Heritage and Culture Month. That combined with the recent celebrations around the 125th anniversary of beloved pastry shop Veniero’s inspires a closer look at the East Village’s own historic Little Italy, centered around First Avenue near the beloved pastry shop and cafe. While not nearly as famous or intact as similar districts around Mulberry Street or Bleecker and Carmine Street in the South Village, if you look closely vestiges of the East Village’s once-thriving Italian community are all around.
In the second half of the 19th century, the East Village was a vibrant checkerboard of ethnic enclaves. Germans were by far the dominant group, until the turn of the century when Eastern European Jews took over the Second Avenue spine and much of what’s now Alphabet City, Hungarians congregated along Houston Street, and Slavs and Poles gravitated towards the blocks just west and north of Tompkins Square. But a linear Italian-American enclave formed along and near First Avenue, broadening at 14th Street. Vestiges of this community survived into the third quarter of the 20th century, with just a few establishments and structures connected to that era continuing to function today.
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Caffe Reggio, via Prayitno/Flickr
Many think of Little Italy’s Mulberry Street or the Bronx’s Arthur Avenue as the centers of Italian-American life and culture in New York. But some of the most historically significant sites relating to the Italian-American experience in New York can be found in the Greenwich Village blocks known as the South Village–from the first church in America built specifically for an Italian-American congregation to the cafe where cappuccino was first introduced to the country, to the birthplace of Fiorello LaGuardia, NYC’s first Italian-American mayor.
All the historic sites right this way
Excavation is nearly complete at 54 MacDougal Street, a ground-up, six-story condominium being developed by Valyrian Capital and Ajax Partners. Up until 2013, a humble three-story townhouse stood at the 2,500-square-foot lot for nearly 200 years, dating its creation to around 1820 when it was built on land formerly owned by Aaron Burr.
The building lot is within a once working-class and immigrant neighborhood referred to by some as the South Village. Unlike large swaths of Greenwich Village to the north and cast iron sections of Soho to the west, the motley mixture of low-rise, pre-war buildings for years lacked landmark protections. Since 2006, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) has urged the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate a 35-block stretch of the neighborhood as an historic district, making it the city’s first tenement-based landmarked district. To date, two of the three phases of the district have been designated.
More details ahead