The Fascinating History of Little Italy in the Bronx

Take a journey through time with us as we explore how Little Italy came into existence and how it has become one of New York's most iconic tourist attractions.

The Fascinating History of Little Italy in the Bronx

Located in the Belmont section of the Bronx, Arthur Avenue, also known as “Little Italy”, is renowned for its traditional Italian-American atmosphere. The history of this iconic street dates back to 1792, when Pierre Lorillard opened the first tobacco company, “P. Lorillard & Co.”, in New York. The origins of Arthur Avenue can be traced to the late 18th century, when Pierre Lorillard opened a tobacco shop and a manufacturing plant.

A century later, when the Lorillard family decided to move their farm to New Jersey, the plant was sold and eventually became the New York Botanical Garden. We can thank Catharine Lorillard Wolfe for the name of the famous street, who requested that it be named after her favorite president, Chester A. Arthur, when selling parts of the estate. Little Italy, now known as a popular tourist attraction, was formed shortly before the 1880s. Little Italy began to develop in the early 1840s, when some of the first Italian immigrants settled in the Five Points area of New York City.

The first Italian immigrants began to arrive in the United States during this time due to famines that spread throughout Italy and poor agriculture. This area was mainly comprised of poor immigrants who lived in cramped housing. During the 1880s, large numbers of Italians began to abandon their homeland to start a new life in New York. Between 1880 and 1920, more than four million Italian immigrants arrived in the United States. Many of these Italian immigrants settled in “Mulberry Bend”, one of the poorest areas of Five Points. The area was known for its traditional Italian heritage, language and customs, which eased the transition for new Italians arriving in the United States.

In 1910, nearly 10,000 Italians lived in an area of two square miles. In 1930, Italians made up 17% of the population of New York City. Because the area was so overpopulated, many Italians started moving to other parts of New York City, such as Arthur Avenue in the Bronx and Staten Island. As the new flavors and textures of food spread throughout New York, so did Italian cultural pastimes, such as organ grinding and puppet shows, to entertain both young and old New Yorkers. In the early 20th century, when a wave of Italian immigrants arrived in New York, many made the Bronx their new home.

In the Roaring Twenties, at least 390,000 Italians made New York City their home, from East Harlem to the Lower East Side. When Italians brought their laughs and dreams to America they also introduced new and delicious recipes that quickly conquered stomachs and hearts across the continent. This is still reflected today in every Italian restaurant; huge portions, “part of the family service” and all those old-school staples just like Nonna used to do. Anyone who visits New York City is drawn to Little Italy on Mulberry Street. Founded in 1930, ISDA has kept its strong sense of community alive and thriving to become one of the largest and most financially successful Italian-American organizations in the country. By 1930 much of the population had moved to other areas and districts in search of larger homes and the percentage of Italians living in Manhattan dropped to 27 percent according to U. S Census data.

The second half of the 20th century immortalized Little Italy in films that took advantage of its mysterious and attractive world of Mafia culture. Snowballs aside, New York's Italian population profoundly influenced its cuisine and Little Italy is a loving testament to that lasting impact.

José Purce
José Purce

Subtly charming music geek. Unapologetic food buff. Subtly charming web fanatic. Certified food fanatic. Hipster-friendly travel evangelist. Proud creator.

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