Little Italy & Chinatown Overview
In a city filled with descriptive names (Upper East Side, Lower East Side, Midtown), Little Italy and Chinatown stand alone. Both are defined not by their geography, but by their cultural history. Each served as landing spots for recent immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries creating a strong cultural identity that has continued to today.
In the the sections below, you'll get a glimpse into life in Little Italy & Chinatown. But before you go anywhere, make sure you scroll through the photos in the gallery below. Nothing can tell the story of a neighborhood as well as a few good photos.
LITTLE ITALY & CHINATOWN History
During the 18th century, most of Little Italy and Chinatown were part of a 135-acre family farm, which stretched into modern-day SoHo. The family that owned the farm was unfortunately on the wrong side of history in the run up to the Revolutionary War, and as a result, the farm was confiscated by the new republic after victory was declared. The land was parceled off and sold, making way for a rapidly growing residential and industrial area.
In the 1820s, the neighborhood took on the name of its "Five Points" intersection, and quickly became a hub for recently arrived immigrants. Immigrants from Germany and Ireland began arriving in the late 1820s followed by Italian immigrants in the late 1840s. Over the next sixty years, population exploded and living conditions steadily deteriorated until the neighborhood was one of the most notorious slums in the City. By the early 1930s, the neighborhood was 98 percent Italian and had been renamed "Little Italy."
Local gangs existed in Five Points since the 1860s, but it was the Italian mafia that established itself there in the early 1900s. Members of the Five Points Gang included Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Paul Kelly. As late as the 1980s, Mafia boss John Gotti frequented the Ravenite Social Club in Little Italy.
While Italians immigrants remade Little Italy, Chinese immigrants were slowly transforming Chinatown. The majority of Chinese immigrants arrived in California before moving east in the 1870s. Because Chinese immigration was severely limited by the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, Chinatown's population remained small for much of the neighborhood's early history.
After immigration restrictions were lifted in the late 1960s, tens of thousands of immigrants moved into the neighborhood. By 1980, the Chinese community in New York City was the largest in the country.
As the population of Chinatown grew, the neighborhood expanded in all directions. Chinese business owners purchased properties in Little Italy, resulting in today's culturally diverse neighborhood that blurs the line between the two areas.
LITTLE ITALY & CHINATOWN Vibe
Little Italy was once an ethnic enclave full of Italian immigrants (see The Godfather for a fictional version), but now it's better known for its concentration of Italian restaurants than for its dwindling Italian American population. In fact, the small four-block-by-four-block neighborhood is gradually being swallowed up by nearby Chinatown and SoHo.
But Little Italy still maintains its festive spirit, and draws many tourists and curious New Yorkers, especially during events like the annual Feast of San Gennaro. Most of this activity is centered on Mulberry Street, home to Italian restaurants, bakeries, stores, and the Italian American Museum.
Chinatown, on the other hand, is a sprawling neighborhood that is marked by Chinese and Southeast Asian businesses in a large radius around its official perimeters. It's both a home and a destination for much of the city's Asian population, as it's packed with grocery stores, restaurants, cultural organizations, and other businesses useful to the Chinese American community.
On Canal Street and Mott Street, many storefronts cater to tourists and other non-Chinatown-residents. These arteries are often packed with crowds on the weekends and for events like Lunar New Year celebrations. But beyond the obvious dim sum restaurants and trinket shops, the neighborhood has quite a lot of other activity going on.
Children and the elderly gather in parks to play, dance, and sing; the intellectually curious check out the newly redesigned Museum of Chinese in America; young people look for fun at trendy bars or bubble tea shops; foodies descend upon noodle and dumpling hotspots; and artsy types throw loft parties.
In both Chinatown and Little Italy, much of the housing consists of historic tenement buildings. But many of these apartments have been renovated in recent years, so they are a far cry from the shared, cramped quarters they once were. The neighborhood's newest residents favor large loft apartments converted from factory floors and warehouses. And, mixed in with the historic buildings, there is also some new construction, including luxury condos and doorman buildings.
As evidenced by the shiny new buildings, Chinatown and Little Italy are becoming a trendy area to live among young professionals who want to be near the action of downtown. Both ethnic neighborhoods have been undergoing change for a while, but still have very distinct vibes that set them apart from their beyond-hip neighbors, the Lower East Side and SoHo.
LITTLE ITALY & CHINATOWN Transportation
For being centrally located, Little Italy and Chinatown don't offer too many commuter options for getting around Manhattan easily. The plus side is that Little Italy is one of the few neighborhoods that provides nearby access to both the Upper East and West sides.
Little Italy & Chinatown Subway and Walking Times
LITTLE ITALY & CHINATOWN Guidebook Landmarks
If you just made your way through the trendy boutiques of SoHo, finding yourself on Canal Street can feel like entering a different country. The northern border of Chinatown, Canal Street is an always-buzzing hub of street markets and discount shopping. You can always count on packed sidewalks, great deals (on what looks very similar to designer items), and hawking vendors.
Mulberry Street, which now runs from Chinatown up through Little Italy and Nolita, started as Mulberry Bend, the curved section of the street south of Bayard Street. The Bend was one of the poorest, most dangerous areas of the notorious Five Points neighborhood in the 1800s. Later, the upper part of the street became famous as the hub of Little Italy, where the Feast of San Gennaro began as a one-day festival in September 1926. It is now an annual 11-day celebration, turning Mulberry Street into an outdoor Italian dining mecca.
Old St. Patrick's Cathedral
Not to be confused with St. Patrick's on Fifth Avenue, Old St. Patrick's Cathedral (between Mott and Mulberry Streets, south of Houston) was built between 1809 and 1815. A hub of the Irish Catholic community, the cathedral was the ending place of the annual St. Patrick's Day parade until 1830. In 1836, anti-Catholic and xenophobic rage led to the church being attacked by a nativist group; the cathedral had to be defended with muskets pointed through slits in the cathedral's outer walls. Today Old St. Patrick's holds services in English, Spanish, and Chinese.
LITTLE ITALY & CHINATOWN Insider LANDMARKS
When a cheese shop has been open for 120 years, it becomes more than just a cheese shop… it becomes an institution. Alleva Cheese Market still has its original tiles and tin ceiling. Perhaps even more impressive, a century after Pina Alleva opened the shop after emigrating from Benevento, Italy, the shop remains in the Alleva family, with her great grandson Robert Alleva now running the store.
Dating back to 1905, Lombardi's is considered the country's first pizzeria—although it closed for a decade in 1984 and reopened a block down Spring Street. The pizza is still made in a coal-fired oven, and still earns rave reviews. The original Italian American pizza pioneer, Gennaro Lombardi, worked with several others who went on to found their own famous New York pizzerias, including John's, Patsy's, and Totonno's.
LITTLE ITALY & CHINATOWN Parks & Recreation
Columbus Park (3.2 acres)
New York has long been an evolving melting pot of immigrant communities. It should be no surprise then that a prominent park that honors a key figure in both American and Italian history, Christopher Columbus, rests squarely in the heart of Chinatown. When the Park was first established, it was very much out of place: a green space in one of New York most notorious slums - Five Points. In the hundred years since its inception, the Italian immigrants gave way to Chinese immigrants. The Park is no longer quite as green, but does offer a large recreation space and basketball courts.
LITTLE ITALY & CHINATOWN Costs
Unfortunately, because Little Italy & Chinatown do not have well-defined neighborhood borders, accurate individual neighborhood real estate costs are not available. Generally speaking, Little Italy & Chinatown will be among the least expensive neighborhoods in Manhattan. Depending on the specific area, the rent could very well be among the lowest.