March 20th, 2006


Little Italy and superintimacy

"Always stay a tourist", said some wise sage (in fact, it was me), for no-one is more adept at analysis and explanation than the occasional and casual traveler. Just recently, I spent several hours in the New York district of Little Italy, and this brief experience has given me an unquestionable authority on the subject. I find it almost comical to believe that my total lack of Italian language ability, ignorance about Italian-American history, and stubborn refusal to read academic works on Italian-American society somehow put me at a disadvantage in serving up sharp commentary upon this wonderful neighbourhood. All that knowledge and understanding would only cloud my general perceptions. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his excellent book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, you don't really need to know what someone is saying when you can feel their motives and orientations through the power of imagination.

My travels took me first to Mulberry Street -- an adorable passage overflowing with ancient buildings and beautiful tile work. I would almost go as far as to say that Mulberry Street feels safer than Tokyo: besides the occasional pushy restauranteur soliciting trade with cries of "Hey, you widda funny pants, wanna table?" or "Pizza, cawfee?" there were few people who even looked suspicious.

No matter how urban the area, communality takes a central position in daily lives. The Italian-Americans possess something I call superintimacy (short-lived Wikipedia entry coming soon): despite Little Italy's rapid economic progress in recent years, its citizens have managed to keep their traditional social networks firmly intact. Whether they walk around the block or take the ferry out to Staten Island, they greet and chat with their neighbors both known and unknown as if nothing has changed in 1000 years.

How is this possible in the 21st century? The citizens of Little Italy are guided by an ancient religious tradition called Catholicism, which dates all the way back to directly after the death of Christ. Unlike the ideological bickering of Protestantism, Catholics value stability, family, order, and ritual. And now with their growing economy standing firmly upon this spiritual base, the residents of Little Italy enjoy something like a socialist capitalism where everyone instinctively helps out everyone else. Furthermore, inter-generational conflict is relatively marginal, thanks to the Catholic rituals of "baptism" and "confirmation" that turn young people into valid members of the community at a relatively early age. And in the spirit of the Eucharist tradition, large families dine together every night -- something unthinkable in economically-obsessed areas like Chinatown.

As I traveled from Mulberry Street to the delis of Grand Street and the stunningly-preserved Elizabeth Street, I couldn't help but think that Little Italy has handled modernity far better than its neighbors: McDonalds are rare, and other chain restaurants barely exist. The Italian-Americans have limited the existence of crass global commercialism to the off-shore Hoboken area -- outlet mall hells brought forth by the pasty-white indie bands living there in retirement. Little Italy shames nearby Chinatown and Tribeca with its careful protection of local culture and traditional architecture. Only rampaging Irishmen celebrating St Patrick's Day are allowed to erase the past.

Little Italy does not just provide an alternate take on the process of modernization -- a brisk stroll into the future while maintaining the "slow life" of the past -- but the one-and-only correct take on modernism. With a history of pacifism and a monolinguistic multi-racial harmony, Little Italy may just be the most progressive couple of streets on the planet.

We Protestant individuals may scorn the communalist Catholic way of life, but Little Italy's existence shames all of us from more Post-Industrial districts, like SoHo and NoLita. As the inheritors of the Earth, we are failures; we must embrace progressive Catholic post-modernism before it is too late.