In 1950, nearly half of the more than 10,000 New Yorkers living in the heart of Little Italy identified as Italian-American. The narrow streets teemed with children and resonated with melodic exchanges in Italian among the one in five residents born in Italy and their second- and third-generation neighbors.
By 2000, the census found that the Italian-American population had dwindled to 6 percent. Only 44 were Italian-born, compared with 2,149 a half-century earlier.
A census survey released in December determined that the proportion of Italian-Americans among the 8,600 residents in the same two-dozen-square-block area of Lower Manhattan had shrunk to about 5 percent.
And, incredibly, the census could not find a single resident who had been born in Italy.
Little Italy is becoming Littler Italy. The encroachment that began decades ago as Chinatown bulged north, SoHo expanded from the west, and other tracts were rebranded more fashionably as NoLIta (for north of Little Italy) and NoHo seems almost complete.
The Little Italy that was once the heart of Italian-American life in the city exists mostly as a nostalgic memory or in the minds of tourists who still make it a must-see on their New York itinerary.
Last year, the National Park Service designated a Chinatown and Little Italy Historic District with no geographic distinction between the neighborhoods. The two neighborhoods have begun organizing a Marco Polo Day and an East Meets West Christmas Parade.
City Hall will soon further erase the boundaries.
Following the lead of three local community boards, the City Planning Commission is expected in March to approve the creation of a Chinatown Business Improvement District, which would engulf all but about two square blocks of a haven that once spanned almost 50 square blocks and had the largest concentration of Italian immigrants in the United States.
"It's really all Chinatown now," said John A. Zaccaro Sr., owner of the Little Italy real estate company, founded by his father in 1935.
Even the Feast of San Gennaro, which still draws giant crowds to Mulberry Street, may be abbreviated in size this year at the behest of inconvenienced NoLIta merchants.
The number of residents of Italian descent in the neighborhood has been declining since the 1960s, as immigration from Italy ebbed and Italian-Americans prospered and moved to other parts of the city and to the suburbs.
"When the Italians made money they moved to Queens and New Jersey, they sold to the Chinese, who are now selling to the Vietnamese and Malaysians," said Ernest Lepore, 46, who, with his brother and mother, owns Ferrara, an espresso and pastry shop his family opened 119 years ago.
Of the 8,600 residents counted by the census's American Community Survey in the heart of Little Italy in 2009, nearly 4,400 were foreign-born. Of those, 89 percent were born in Asia. In 2009, a Korean immigrant won a tenor competition sponsored by the Little Italy Merchants Association. That same year, a Chinese immigrant, Margaret S. Chin, was elected to represent the district in the City Council.
Sam Roberts. "New York's Little Italy, Littler by the Year". The New York Times, February 21, 2011.