By: Raymond Guarini, Founder of The Italian Enclaves Historical Society
Pre-pandemic: a recently common term in our uncommon world which refers to things as they were in our global society before March 11th, 2020 when the Novel Coronavirus Disease was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. Prior to March of this year, about eight years prior, I began photo-documenting Italian neighborhoods all across America in an effort to create a photo archive of Italian businesses, churches and overall visual character. These neighborhoods began to gradually change as phenomenally as they were created since the migrations began from Italy in the late 1800’s. Below the body of text, one will find a compilation of maps depicting homes for sale in many of the Italian neighborhoods in New York city excluding Manhattan. Manhattan has long lost its residential element of Italian residents while the other four boroughs have maintained large Italian communities. One can also find a large compilation of photos taken over the last couple of years of homes and businesses that have gone up for sale mainly in South Brooklyn, pre-pandemic and currently. These neighborhoods include Bath Beach, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Gravesend, Bay Ridge, Borough Park, and Mapleton.
Italian businesses located within Italian enclaves suffer due to the dispersion of the people who patronize them and inevitably close when most or all of the enclave’s Italian inhabitants migrate away. It’s a Darwinian concept whereby the strongest businesses survive, the most active parishes remain, and the safest neighborhoods continue to exist; however, all Italian neighborhoods seem to have the same fate, which is that, they will all eventually cease to exist.
From coast-to-coast and north-to-south, the same elements underscore the transition of every ethnic neighborhood; most notably, the ascension of newer generations with higher levels of education and more prestigious and better-paying jobs. Unconditionally, Italian enclaves see the dispersion of its youth more and more from generation to generation until eventually, a neighborhood totally transitions to a new ethnic group or groups; thus the nature of change that exists in every society, for the most part. In the United States, some Italian neighborhoods were/are obviously older than others. For example, neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens and Gowanus in Brooklyn date back to the late 1800’s whereas Bensonhurst became an Italian neighborhood from the 1960’s onward. Some neighborhoods also last longer than others such as Williamsburg in Brooklyn as opposed to Canarsie, which is also in Brooklyn but was only Italian from the 1960’s up until the late 1990’s while Williamsburg has maintained a solid portion of Italians since the late 1800’s until today.
Along my journey I was always presented with the gut-wrenching reality of a business or house in an Italian neighborhood with a “for sale” sign or a tender note thanking patrons for years of loyalty. Churches also ominously stand empty waiting for the wrecking ball like the case of Santa Rosalia in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
In March of 2020, the inevitable, organic ethnic migratory patterns attributed to the transitioning of Italian neighborhoods was sped up in a way that nobody would ever have anticipated. Almost a function of Murphy’s law in the world of photographic documentation of ethnic family-owned businesses took place when Covid ravaged our country. Particularly hit hard were the mom and pop businesses that were closed by decree and given extremely stringent sets of rules to re-open, many of whom are still not fully opened as of the publishing of this blog post. Immediately, people began putting up their homes for sale or not renewing leases. Businesses fell behind on rent as well as individuals. Homeowners who lost jobs with the greatest onset of joblessness since the great depression, went into foreclosure. Others, fortunate enough to have equity or barely above water, could get out with some money in the bank and buy something with much lesser population density in a suburb. People began heading for the proverbial door and it hasn’t stopped since, it has actually only intensified.
I first began to document homes in the South Brooklyn neighborhoods going up for sale because that is where I am from. It was of particular interest to me to see the rapid increase of people deciding to move themselves and their families to greener pastures. With each store closing that has been a neighborhood fixture since my childhood, it felt like I was losing a piece of myself. As friends and neighbors began migrating away from our once familiar and cozy South Brooklyn, what was once home began to slowly feel different.
Rioters looting and burning down huge swaths of the five boroughs including Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, has led many in South Brooklyn, in particular, to want to leave. Staten Island’s north shore saw tons of protests as well along Hyland Blvd spanning across at least three mostly Italian neighborhoods. Many people with whom we have spoken have cited this as being a tipping point for them. Police de-funding and record resignations have left New Yorkers feeling unsafe. Strong restrictions on gun laws have citizens feeling vulnerable, especially the aging Italians in many neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Parents are not resting easy at night knowing the dangers that lurk in the shadows of once safe neighborhoods.
I felt compelled to tell this story of the massive exodus of Italian people from the last remaining Italian enclaves in New York city by publishing a photo-essay. The adage “a picture is worth 1,000 words” can really apply in this case where below one can see maps of homes for sale in South Brooklyn, parts of the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. I have chosen the neighborhoods with the most Italians per square mile so while there are many neighborhoods not included here, it is because the focus is on the largest Italian neighborhoods as of the last few years; however, rest assured, other once Italian neighborhoods that still house Italian communities within them are seeing the same pattern.
Below the maps, one can find dozens of photos of businesses and homes with “for sale”signs that I have been collecting over the last couple of years mostly from South Brooklyn. It would be eye-opening if I had the capability to incorporate all of the above-mentioned neighborhoods and the Italian businesses within them that have closed or gone up for sale, but that is a monumental task and virtually impossible. Nevertheless, the compilation of photos speaks volumes to the largest short-term migratory transition of Italian Americans that may have ever taken place in United States history. The same patterns do apply elsewhere in other parts of the country such as San Francisco, Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, Philadelphia and other cities which housed Italian enclaves, we just do not have as much photo documentation of those areas available, yet.
Brooklyn Homes for Sale Map
Staten Island Homes for Sale Map
Queens Homes for Sale Map
Bronx Homes for Sale Map
South Brooklyn Homes for Sale and Closed Businesses Photos
Please support the Italian Enclaves Historical Society by purchasing copies of New York City’s Italian Neighborhoods published by Arcadia Publishing. All proceeds go to The Italian Enclaves Historical Society and The Saint Rocco Society of Potenza (both 501c3 nonprofit organizations).