History of Italian Immigration to Williamsburg:
Italians have inhabited Williamsburg for a very long time. The first wave of Italian immigration to East Williamsburg occurred between 1860 and 1880. A second wave of Italian immigration to East Williamsburg occurred from World War II until the 1970s. Many of the Italians that settled in Williamsburg came from southern Italy. The Giglio Feast, which started in Nola, Italy is still celebrated in the neighborhood today. The feast of lilies, as it translates to in English, honors St. Paulinus of Nola, who was bishop of Nola. For two weeks every summer, the streets surrounding Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, which is located on Havemeyer and North 8th Streets, are decorated to celebrate Italian culture.
The region of Italy where most of the Italians in Williamsburg come from is known as Campania, a region known for it its tomatoes, peppers, onions, and artichokes. While the neighborhood has changed, and the Italian community has decreased in size in recent years, Italian culture is still present along the north end of Graham Avenue, which is known as “Via Vespucci.” It is in this area that the Italian enclave is centered.
About ten years ago, Italians were one of the most dominant ethnic groups in Williamsburg. However, over the last ten years, the Italian population in Williamsburg has rapidly declined. Curious as to why many Italians have left, we asked a few long-time Italian residents of the neighborhood. The main response was increased rents due to gentrification. The Italian section of Williamsburg has undergone rapid gentrification in recent years, leading to the displacement of many long-time residents. Also, noise and an influx of hipsters into the neighborhood has caused many Italians to resettle in other parts of the city such as Bensonhurst and Dyker Heights. An old Italian lady, who is a long-time resident of the neighborhood, told us: “The neighborhood and people have changed so much that many Italians have been forced to move to other parts of Brooklyn and Queens.”
Small Businesses in the Italian Enclave of Williamsburg:
There are a variety of small businesses in the Italian enclave of Williamsburg. However, due to the decreasing size of the Italian population in the area, most of the businesses are not owned by Italians. There are very few native Italian small business owners left. Most of the Italian small business owners that we met in the area were second or third generation Italians that spoke perfect English. The businesses that these second and third generation Italians owned included pizzerias, cafes, and Panini shops. It is clear that the Italians left are attempting to retain their cultural dominance in the neighborhood.
The most prevalent type of Italian small business in the enclave is the pizzeria. There are numerous pizzerias along Via Vespucci. We believe the owners of these small businesses remained in the enclave to retain the tradition and history of the area. When we interviewed Tony, an employee at Tony’s Pizza, which was founded in 1950, we discovered many interesting facts about this part of Williamsburg. Tony said: “This business is one of the oldest in the area. We have been here for sixty-two years. Although we still have loyal Italian customers that have been coming here for many years, most of our customers are non-Italian. We try to cater to any person that comes into the area.” This was a major theme of the Italian enclave. The small businesses that are owned by Italians try to cater to everyone, not only the small Italian population that remains. This includes a large Latino population that has found its way into the area as well as the hipster population that has made its way as a result of gentrification. If the small business owners did not do this, the businesses would not survive.
Since only a few of the small businesses are owned by Italians, the majority of the small businesses in the area are owned by newer members of the community. This includes many Latino residents who have opened up bodegas and restaurants in the area, such as Loco Burrito. Also, a few large chains, such as Dunkin Donuts and CTown, have made their presence known in this section of Williamsburg. This is the result of gentrification. As the neighborhood continues to gentrify, more and more of these chains will continue to enter the enclave, which will take business away from the Italian-owned pizzerias and cafes in the area.