‘Making Italian America’ in New York

Mulberry street circa TK (TK)

Mulberry Street circa 1900 was a nexus of Italian-American consumption. (Photo via the Library of Congress)

To celebrate the recent publication of the book “Making Italian America: Consumer Culture and the Production of Ethnic Identities,” the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side hosted a conversation with the editor and some of the contributing authors on Wednesday, May 14.

“We explored the reality of Italian immigrants as consumers instead of workers,” Simone Cinotto, editor of the book and author of several chapters, said.

The book investigates Italian-American consumption and the consumption of Italian products through an array of lenses: history, sociology, gastronomy, art history and pop culture.

“Most of the time, consumption is a way for immigrants to become assimilated,” Cinotto said. “Here what I think we have is, in fact, many of these goods are actually imported from Italy or made by Italian immigrants. The idea is that these people are becoming Italian by consuming the products they have access to in New York.”

From left to right, Marcella Bencivenni, Courtney Ritter and Ervin Kosta all spoke about their contributions to the book. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan/Voices of NY)

From left to right, Marcella Bencivenni, Courtney Ritter and Ervin Kosta all spoke about their contributions to the book. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan for Voices of NY)

Sociologist Ervin Kosta’s chapter looks at Mulberry Street in Lower Manhattan and Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, two loci of Italian culture in New York City. He analyzes the change in character of the streets over time by identifying the types of businesses found. For part of his research, he peeled through phonebooks dating back to 1970.

“As the neighborhood became less and less Italian residentially, it became more and more Italian commercially,” Kosta said.

Courtney Ritter, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan, looked into the transformation of the Made in Italy brand that went hand in hand with gentrification of lower Manhattan in the ’80s.

“There’s this idea that if you belong to the creative classes of New York City, you’re going to need this new vast array of consumer goods,” she said, referring to “luxury consumer goods” like “suits and shoes to balsamic vinegar,” all boasting the Made in Italy branding.

Ritter went on to highlight the strange distinction between Little Italy and SoHo, two neighborhoods that are close geographically, but that pander to dramatically different ideals of Italian identity.

“The tourist spaces of Little Italy continue to sell this immigrant idea of Italy, as red and white checkered tablecloths, rustic bottles of Chianti,” she said. “But then just a few blocks over, the Made in Italy label is used to cultivate an Italian esthetic for an elite class of young professionals.”

TK (TK)

The Crests, a 1950s doo-wop group from public housing on the Lower East Side show the overlap between African Amercican and Italian American cultures. (Source of photo unknown)

Gwynne Hogan is a student at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and reporter for Voices of NY. Follow her on Twitter.

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