Friday, November 25, 2005

Little Italy To Return To Downtown? Paging Joe Cerrell and Rick Caruso!,0,4496724.story?coll=la-home-headlines&track=morenews

While it would have never been mistaken for Mulberry Street, North Beach or the North End, Los Angeles once had a small, but lively Italian quarter (with an Italian presence since at least 1823) which shared its neighborhood with several other ethnic groups, first around and then eventually north and west of the old Plaza, in the area now largely populated by a rapidly expanding Chinatown.

Among the remaining physical reminders of the community are the venerable 1947 St. Peter's Italian Catholic Church on North Broadway (the church's congregation dates to 1904 - but not the church building as seems to be implied in the LAT article), the 1972 Casa Italiana also on North Broadway, the 1907 Italian Hall fronting on Main Street behind Olvera Street, an old 1880's/1914 Italian winery building on Olvera Street (which was until 1877 called Wine or Vine Street due to all the mostly Italian wineries on it), the 1855 Pelanconi house also on Olvera Street - the oldest brick structure in Los Angeles - and the near-by 1917 San Antonio Winery.

But a new Little Italy may soon arise elsewhere in Downtown:

Teresa Watanabe - Times Staff Writer - November 25, 2005

When Hollywood producer Doug DeLuca first wanted to stage what would become Southern California's largest annual Italian American festival, he says, one man bucked the naysayers and furnished him with invaluable contacts and advice.

When Nick Costantini took over efforts to refurbish the historic Italian Hall in downtown Los Angeles, he says, one man helped raise most of the $1 million needed. And when Los Angeles Councilwoman Jan Perry dreamed up an idea to create a Little Italy in her downtown district, she turned to the same man: Joe Cerrell.

Cerrell, 70, may be best known as a Democratic political consultant with deep ties to past and present party stars, including John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, Jesse Unruh and Al Gore.


Cerrell and DeLuca have teamed up with Perry to bring the Little Italy vision to fruition. Perry, whose 9th Council District includes much of downtown, says she is considering the designation for an area along 2nd Street to bring a vibrant street culture to the corridor between Little Tokyo and the Grand Avenue Project development. DeLuca envisions restaurants, shops and such possible cultural events as opera, strolling musicians and Venetian masked balls.

Now about fifteen years ago, I seem to recall a major Italian cultural center was going to be built as part of an office tower on Wilshire Boulevard - either near or in conjunction with the Folk Art Museum - and I seem to recall that Joseph Ventress of the Italian Heritage Culture Foundation was involved with that. I could be mistaken, though, as it may just have been going to be the site for an expanded Folk Art Museum. Does anyone else recall this project?

But having a larger commercial/residential neighborhood in the heart of the city would make a lot more sense. It is also critical that this project not become just a stand alone cultural center, but that it becomes a catalyst for a real neighborhood.

However, with all the development already slated for Second Street and with Little Tokyo once again extending up to at least Los Angeles Street, right now there are now very few unspoken for parcels left along Second Street; in fact, there only two developable parcels left that I can think of. And with all the major insititutional uses (Federal Courthouse, Police Headquarters, Little Tokyo Library, Little Tokyo Gym, Police Parking Garage, two major Japanese hotels, Cal Trans, Rafu Shimpo and the LA Times crammed between Los Angeles and Hill Streets along and adjacent to Second Street - it would be impossible for an organic neighborhood to develop around the cultural center.

Additionally, with Little Tokyo having lost so much of its historic home to civic buildings, it is now reclaiming its previous territory all along Second Street; so creating an Italian neighborhood anywhere east of Main Street is not feasible.

.... Cerrell says that Grove developer Rick Caruso, attorney Tom Girardi of "Erin Brockovich" fame and Angelo Mozilo, chief executive of the home mortgage giant Countrywide Credit Industries Inc. have accepted his invitation to become major donors to the national Italian foundation.

Now any museum or non-profit these days needs a business plan and what downtown needs more than anything else right now - is retail, culture and nightlife. Plus a year ago Rick Caruso was considering revitalizing a real urban neighborhood rather than just building self-contained shopping centers - which reminds me - I owe him that walking tour of the area I had promised him. I say this because if he and Joe Cerrell are looking for the perfect place to combine Italian design, Italian retail, Italian restaurants and Italian culture... I know exactly what to show them...


Kevin over at LAOBSERVED has some questions about the proposed location of the new "Little Italy":

The most authentic places to do this would apparently be Olvera Street or Chinatown, which had some Italian roots before being created as 20th Century tourist traps. But in the great L.A. tradition of fake ethnic enclaves, they are looking at Second Street west of Little Tokyo.

Valid points, but the forces behind El Pueblo decided decades ago that despite the fact that Italians had been there for over 175 years, they and all the other ethnic groups who built this city were not welcome at El Pueblo. From the late 1920's to the 1950's, the Italian community was systematically forced out of the area and even their efforts to restore the Italian Hall were bitterly fought. Below is some insight into that battle:

In 1823, a year after Mexican independence, an Italian immigrant opened a shop and built a home where the plaza firehouse now stands. Soon Italians were living on the east and west sides of the plaza and their winemaking enterprises so dominated Olvera Street that it became known as Wine or Vine Street. Even the Avila Adobe, the oldest structure in Los Angeles today, became known as the Hotel Italia Unita. More than one-third (39,077 square feet) of the total area to be restored on Olvera Street was historically associated with Italian ownership in the General Plan for Historic Restoration approved in 1981.

Italian business ownership in the plaza area continued until the 1950s. In the late 1920s, Sterling and her supporters, in the process of creating the Mexican marketplace, acquired many of the Italian properties, including the Pelanconi building (now La Casa Golondrina), which from 1857 until 1929 had been in the continuous possession of Italian families. The final Italian property owners were displaced in the early '50s, when the state initiated condemnation proceedings on the remaining private property to establish El Pueblo State Historic Park.


Given the limited dimension of this project and the legitimacy of the claim, one cannot avoid asking if the protests generated by the Olvera Street Merchants Assn. do not exceed the scope of the issue. Nor can one avoid asking if, to advance a very different item on the political agenda, the association provided this distracting issue as a red herring that the media have unwittingly consumed.

As an example, the vast majority of historic buildings owned by the County of Los Angeles - dating from as early as the 1850's - have been demolished for parking lots because their histories were not considered ethnically correct.

Chinatown though is a different situation; the rapid expansion of of that community after they were forced from their historic home where Union Station now stands, makes the return of the Italian community there unlikely. So while I do agree that Second Street location does not make a lot of sense for a several of reasons, there is another part of Downtown that is a perfect fit for a recontinuation of Italian culture in Los Angeles.


Anonymous said...

Why not put it a new Little Italy in Lincoln Heights, right across the river from Chinatown? Lots of Italians lived there until the '40s.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Lincoln Heights would be a fitting home...North Broadway to be exact. The area is in need of some improvement and a quick drive down the North Broadway will show the area's potential. Why cram a "Little Italy" on to a few plots of land on 2nd street when there are literally blocks of North Broadway in Lincoln Heights to work with.

Anonymous said...

I think a Little Italy would go much better in Venice than the downtown area.