I visited the Village Walk sales center (located, ironically enough, in Quigley's building across the street) to get a look at a model of the finished product. The southwest corner of Village Walk, which serves as its principal entrance, is concave -- an inward curve to welcome the weary traveler. Building has begun on a large fountain occupying the space left by the retreating corner, which may or may not be what Quigley was getting at with the term "architectural frosting." Fountains are certainly associated with Italy, but that does not mean they are associated with Little Italy. Further evidence of this quest for association with things Italian -- however little they have to do with the neighborhood -- comes from the names of the sample floor plans shown on the salesroom walls, names like Caruso, Pavarotti, and Sinatra. (To be fair, it should be noted that Village Walk will feature interior courtyards and that, if the display is to be believed, these will be at least partly visible from outside the building.)
The most visible -- and in some ways, the most curious -- echo of Italy comes from the project's use of color. The curved façade alone presents variously sized blocks of terra cotta, mint green, cream, light mustard, gray, lavender, and a pale gray-green. These colors appear again in rectangular swaths across the balcony-studded face of Village Walk, along with butter yellow and a rich light purple. The mind suspects a pattern, but it proves elusive.
A gentleman approached me as I stood pondering the display model; I asked him about the color scheme. "We get so many questions about that, we had this display made up," he smiled, leading me to a collection of photos on the wall. "This is Burano, Italy," he explained, and I looked at the various scenes of life in what appeared to be an Italian fishing village. What caught my eye was a series of row houses -- each sharing a wall with the one next to it -- painted in an array of colors vibrant enough to make the eye ache: bright crimson, brighter royal blue. "See that?" asked the man, pointing at the red house. "Now see that?" he said, pointing to the display model, which could offer only the dull, brick-tinged terra cotta for comparison. "Pretty close."
That "pretty close" is why I say that this echo of Italy was the most curious -- at least, to me. The colors do not match; Village Walk is a muted reflection of those searing shades, a reflection that took the row houses' neat rainbow stripes of color and scattered them as if through random crystal -- a bit of purple here, a bit of yellow there, and so on. The colors are not Burano's, nor are they Little Italy's. And while they are comparatively quiet, they are still bright in comparison to Quigley's light-guzzling green, making Village Walk, already far bigger than anything around it, seem even more gargantuan.
Village Walk does have this advantage over its northern neighbor, Porto Siena: it stands next to the three-story Mexican Consul, which provides a step between the condo's six-and-a-half-story enormity and the one-story humility of the Auto Radio Specialist shop on the consul's opposite side. Porto Siena's five-plus stories butt up against the single story of Solunto's; the effect promises to be that of a sheer cliff wall rising out of nowhere, emphasizing the disproportionate scale. The multistory hotel Villa Caterina does sit on the same block, but its narrowness seems to apologize for its height, making amends to the eye of the beholder.
Elsewhere, the battle for the neighborhood takes on a different aspect. On the "Italian feeling" side, Little Italy seems to be becoming self-conscious, mining its own past for nostalgia -- This Was Little Italy. A mural on the side of the WearHouse at the corner of India and Fir depicts three scenes of days gone by: an Italian fishing village, a mother and child perched on the hood of a '40s automobile, and a trio of old men playing bocce. The banners that adorn the streetlights feature a stylized tuna fisherman proudly raising his catch aloft for inspection by the passing traffic. And there is the Little Italy sign, straddling the street at the neighborhood's center, its design neo-Deco (another '40s nod), its pillars covered in mosaic tiles that form more images from the past: a fishing boat; a mother with three small children; a pizza chef; a bocce player; and a woman in her kitchen, the local church visible through the window.
On the Little Italy Neighborhood Developers side, the cottages that line Elm Street between India and Columbia have been converted into shops and connected through an astonishing web of color: the pumpkin and aqua of one house is picked up by the pumpkin and aqua in the trim of the wine-red house next to it. The aqua shows up again in the next house, trimming the pale yellow before slipping over to mingle with the apple green walls and purple trim of the adjacent shop. Only the last house lacks some sign of the watery blue, but it connects by picking up the yellow of the third house and the red of the second. Quigley points to the row as an example of the potential for rehabilitation and the possibilities of color, as opposed to the scheme of Village Walk.
While Quigley feels that the gentrification heralded by the condo invasion is "economically inevitable," the opposition is still struggling. For every hulking, foreboding condo construct like the gray behemoth at Columbia and Elm, there seems to be a more elegant answer, such as the prow-fronted Essex building under construction at State and Fir. The entire block below Kettner at Date has been cleared for construction, but the revamp of the neighborhood's restaurant row has been handled with considerable restraint. The contest remains in doubt.