In 1937, 140 million pounds of skipjack and yellowfin are hooked by the California tuna fleet. For a boy wandering the dock that year, boats and their ice-packed cargo steam in at sunset. On Harbor Drive, the cannery night crew are stitching their uniforms, passing around copies of Sun Harbor’s Catch & Can News. The whistle sounds, and stevedores fin-toss the fish onto conveyor belts that ramp into the plant. Assembly-line workers decapitate, gut, and filet the tuna, pack minced portions in cans. For that Italian-American boy (his sister, stuck cooking at home), the smell of fish innards is the smell of money. The romance of tuna-boating and the dreamed-of riches landscape the bay like the Seven Seas of Sinbad. Bright-night clouds tell the boy the moon is grinning. His pocket knife is the sword of Hercules. Creeping home, he senses God lurking in alleyways, hiding under a stairwell and visible only when he’s alone.
All this happened once and may, on some level, happen still. The lonely present bulges, tumor-like, with the starry past. Saint Augustine reminds us that our ancestors, the dead, are invisible. They’re not absent.
Exit the old, enter the new, and Little Italy in this century births a new identity. It’s a place to dine, to drink, to seek that starry past. And, for the neighborhood’s promoters, to market itself as such. Taking a walk on the sales side, we encounter a labyrinthine tautology: Little Italy’s boosters, like an ouroboros, have granted themselves the opportunity to make money off of boosting it. The chief espousers, Marco Li Mandri and Steven Galasso, began the Little Italy Association in 1997 and still apportion its $2.5 million annual revenue. That year the pair got its 67 acres designated a small Business Improvement District. It’s an unfortunate noun string, BID, but without it, so it’s claimed, the locale could not have been tendered to the one percent as its favorite urban hot spot.
As proof of its civic activism, here’s the Little Italy Association’s most recent annual report (2016) in which their Monopoly-board metrics are enumerated: the number of employees (6300), the number of media hits and TV segments (450), the number of Little-Italy-marked trash cans (250) and recycling receptacles (100), the number of property owners (1858), the number of apartment units and condos (2866), the number of hotel/motel/B&B rooms (1275), the number of trees (1300), the number of banners (two dozen) celebrating among other famous Italians (Lady Gaga; Antonin Scalia; few San Diegans), the number of social media dings (52,341 Facebook posts; 21,000 Instagram pops; 5724 tweets), and the number of public spaces (13), which includes piazzas, a dog park (whose square feet of K-9 Grass, “The Artificial Grass Designed Specifically for Dogs,” where play and defecation thrive, is 6100), and Amici Park at State and Date. (It matters not how many parking spaces there are — the number is never enough.) Thus, it is claimed, “San Diego’s Little Italy is seen as one of the top Little Italy neighborhoods in the nation.”
I had no idea the number of Little Italy neighborhoods in the nation is quantified, standing today at a dozen. A few are successful while most have “fallen by the wayside” and need associational love.
Marco Li Mandri, the chief flag-waver of the neighborhood, is 100 percent Sicilian. I ask about what’s happening to Little Italy: a good thing? a bad thing? His response snaps back before my question ends. Even by the late 1990s, he says, “Little Italy was a forgotten land: asphalt sidewalks, parking lots. We didn’t know that some 4000 residential units were coming.” They organized the improvement district to corner redevelopment funds and sell the visibility/livability of the historic locale. Li Mandri’s maxim is that “in 1990, 10 percent of San Diegans knew there was a Little Italy. Now, 10 percent don’t.”
After tuna, Depression-era hard times, necessary and ginned-up American wars, and the U.S. Navy all came and went, what was left? In a word, nostalgia. For Li Mandri, an essential word. To commodify that nostalgia is to harness San Diego’s mom-and-pop past: for rainbow-tiled plazas, for yesteryear façades, for monetized management, and for nests of people, in Li Mandri’s summation, who are “highly motivated to keep Little Italy growing vertically but maintain its historical nature.”
Is there any tension between those who want to erect more glass-and-steel boxes and those who want to keep the funky Mediterranean Revival homes of yore?
“No tension, no conflict,” Li Mandri boasts. “The people who live in the neighborhood love living here.”
What about the mounting number of condos sprouting on the last of the blacktop parking lots?
“Would I rather have people or cars on those lots?” Li Mandri says. “I’d rather have people.” He tallies how the having-people idea completes itself in the many potted piazzas he’s midwifed in the neighborhood: Piazza Basilone (India and Fir), for “the boys who never came home” from World War II and the Korean War; Piazza Pescatore (at Kettner and Grape), for the local Italian fishing families; and the large, carless, big-fountain Piazza della Famiglia (Date Street, between Columbia and India), now in its fifth year of construction.
The “vision thing” for Li Mandri is to buttress the current trend — less shopping (“Amazon’s got that covered”) and more fine dining and people-watching. He’s quick to credit foot-traffic to the neighborhood’s “pedestrian” lifestyle. Walk Score, a walkability indexer, rates San Diego as “somewhat walkable,” though Little Italy, its sidewalks bench-packed, is quite high, third behind Core-Columbia and Horton Plaza. (Call it also the Mom-ability index: a safe neighborhood reveals itself in the number of perambulators on India.) “We’ve been able to develop,” Li Mandri says, “a 16-hour day here: seven in the morning to late at night.” Breakfast, lunch, especially for county workers, dinner, plus inbound riders on Uber, Lyft, or FRED, a free, app-summoned van service.
But to rent or own? Another story. Most prices for owners and renters are way beyond affordable. A Little Italy studio (good luck finding one) is $1600 a month; a one-bedroom apartment, $2400; two bedrooms, $2900.