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Neighborhood Tour: A Look At Little Italy & Nolita

Italian culture is a crucial component of the rich history of New York City. The majority of United States citizens with Italian heritage can trace their roots back to ancestors who landed on Ellis Island in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Little Italy

Many Italians continued their journey after arriving in what is now the Tri-State Area and fanned out across the continent. However, a large number of their brethren decided to settle in lower Manhattan.

New York Historical Tours tour director and historian Kevin Draper and Eastern Consolidated principal Adelaide Polsinelli show us two neighborhoods that not only offered many American families their first home, but would also play a role in ensuring the future high values of New York's real estate market.

Little Italy and Nolita (North of Little Italy) span from Canal Street up to Houston Street between the Bowery to the east and Lafayette to the west.

Kevin explains that in 1871, the nation of Italy was officially formed. The north of the country was home to the educated and wealthier members of Italian society while those from the southern, agrarian portion of the country struggled financially. Facing a lack of upward mobility, Southern Italians began to immigrate to America in search of economic opportunity and prosperity.

"They just felt like they never were going to have a chance," Kevin says. "Between 1880 until about 19204 million people left Italy. They all came through New York."

Little Italy

As Irish immigrants who had previously occupied lower Manhattan began to assimilate into American culture and accrue wealth, they began to move out of what would become Little Italy and Nolita and the Italians that stayed in NYC would move in. 

The core of Little Italy remains on Mulberry Street, which is adorned with several iconic eateries that offer authentic Italian cuisine, such as Puglia's (pictured).

Little Italy

New York's Little Italy is widely known for these eateries, but the area's rich history is rooted in much more than delicious food. 

The neighborhood was home to a bulk of the city's working class at a time that the Big Apple as we know it today was undergoing massive changes and development. 

"In the 1880s up until about the '20s, everyone came here basically as an unskilled laborer," Kevin says. "During the Gilded Age, the 1880s and 1890s it would be these people—alongside the Irish—that would build pretty much everything that you could possibly imagine."

The list includes the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park and much of the subway system. 

"The Italians very quickly got educated and they very quickly assimilated," Kevin says. Because of the relatively rapid acquiring of skills and gaining of financial stability, the Italians began to leave much of the neighborhood behind in pursuit of more upscale neighborhoods and the suburban offerings of areas such as Brooklyn or Staten Island.

Adelaide tells Bisnow that, although these Italian families became able to afford more spacious accommodations, it was bittersweet when they left the neighborhood.

However, before the gradual exodus shrunk the area to what is essentially just Mulberry and a few side streets, the neighborhood would play a pivotal role in law enforcement history.

A novel concept at the time, a centralized police department stood at 300 Mulberry. The department struggled to earn the respect of the community and the role of law enforcement was not viewed as a credible force to be trusted but rather as a powerless joke. 

Police officers wore simple uniforms and were often only distinguishable because of copper badges they wore on their shirts. Citizens began referring to the officers derogatorily as "coppers" because of those badges and the modern slang "cop" came to be used throughout America. 

In an effort to garner respect for law enforcement, the grand-looking police station (above) was constructed. The regal property gave officers a sense of pride in their workplace and showed local citizens the power and authority law enforcement officials had behind them. Today, the building houses condos.

Little Italy 4

The use of the former police station is not all that has changed over time in New York. The city is home to some of the most expensive real estate in the world, a result of the incredible demand that has led to heightened values in areas that were once considered undesirable. 

Many factors are responsible for generating the frenzy on interest in local real estate, but Little Italy's Mulberry Street Bar hosted a meeting that ultimately led to a critical shift in perception of the Big Apple streets.

While Frank Sinatra was filming a movie in the eatery—which also was used for a memorable scene in Donnie Brasco—he met with now-governor Andrew Cuomo. The two discussed how the film industry could improve New York's image. An initiative to produce more movies with upbeat, family-friendly plots set in New York was born. Tax incentives were offered to filmmakers who painted the city in a positive light

Kevin says this meeting led to a shift in films that depicted New York as a gritty, low-class place and instead produced cinema that celebrated the city's landmarks and tourism draw

As Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan gave way to The Muppets Take Manhattan, the reversal of urban sprawl began to take effect as well. Today, Manhattan and the boroughs are Plan A for many young professionals and families, instead of a densely populated alternative to suburban picket fences and open spaces. 

Little Italy

While Mulberry Street between Canal and Broome remains a celebration of Italian food and culture as New York's established Restaurant Row, Nolita is seeing an influx of cutting-edge upstarts eager to establish their brands.

Adelaide points out an analysis of spaces on the market in Nolita shows asking retail rents average $240 PSF in the neighborhood, but that limited spaces are available. Asking rents average $230 PSF on Mott Street, $228 PSF on Elizabeth Street, $171 PSF on Mulberry Street and $199 PSF on Lafayette Street. 

"Nolita is hip, cool, and is now seen as an extension of SoHo, offering a blend of dining, entertainment, shopping, culture and nightlife," says Adelaide, who recently sold a package of nine retail condos at the base of a luxury loft condominium in Nolita for $26M. The deal set a pricing record, which further emphasizes the impact of retailers' need for alternatives to SoHo.

Adelaide grew up on Macdougal Street and launched her career as an advocate for neighbors seeking to sell their real estate. She was called to assist a family selling a mixed-use building at 253 Elizabeth St, which was the former home of director Martin Scorsese, who used the street and surrounding neighborhood as the basis for his film Mean Streets. Adelaide made sure to protect the family's only asset and was able to achieve a record price. Today the ground-floor space is home to a trendy clothing boutique, Josie Natori.

Eastern Consolidated has leased a number of properties in Nolita including two spaces at 177 Mott St for Café Grumpy on the ground floor and a tech/consulting company on the lower level; a 5k SF lease for Spring Street Natural at 98 Kenmare St between Mulberry and Cleveland Place; and the Egg Shop at 151 Elizabeth St.

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