Changing times in Little Italy

Although the Syracuse neighborhood is far less Italian than longtime locals remember, banners throughout the district carry the distinctive name.

When Antoinette DiScenna started working in the North side of Syracuse 50 years ago, the neighborhood was full of Italian immigrants.


They lived in the area surrounding St. Joseph's Hospital, worked at  Learbury Suits, Nettleton Shoes, and other North side factories, shopped in the cafes, bakeries, fuit vendors, shoemakers and grocery stores of North Salina Street, and worshipped at Our Lady of Pompeii Church.


As those immigrants' children grew up and received an education, many decided to leave the North Side for the suburbs of North Syracuse, Cicero and Liverpool.


"Their lives were expanded to a great deal of things, and they moved on," DiScenna said.


One by one, little by little, those Italians began to leave. The factories closed, giving people less of a reason to stay. Vacant storefronts soon followed.


Today, DiScenna still owns and operates DiScenna Travel Service. But the neighborhood she spent her career in is a much different place.


"Life moves on," she said. "We had to change our way of life."


Today, the neighborhood is a mix of Italian shops and restuarants, businesses that cater to the area's South Asian and African population, and vacant storefronts. Although the neighborhood is far less Italian than DiScenna remembers, banners throughout the district read: "Little Italy."


A Re-branding Effort


DiScenna's daughter-in-law, Kathy, and other neighborhood business owners led the push to city hall  to secure grant money and re-brand the district as Little Italy back in 2003. New sidewalks, lamp posts, and banners were constructed, in an effort to build off of the neighborhood's traditions, and  attract new businesses and customers in the process.


Six years later, the effort has been a mixed success. Asti Cafe, Biscotti Cafe and Gelateria, Francesca's Cucina, Frankie's Piccolo Bistro and Barbieri's Italian Diner have all opened on or relocated to North Salina Street in the last ten years. In addition, the old St. VIncent DePaul building at 759 N. Salina St.  was converted into loft apartments


"All of this stuff has a cumulative effect," DiScenna said.


 But Antonio's Restuarant, Cafe D'Italia, Mezzanotte Lounge and Giangelo's Cafe and Cucina all shut their doors in the same time frame. Many other storefronts continue to remain empty.


DiScenna said the revitalization effort was expected to take about ten years.


"We knew it wasn't going to be done overnight," she said.


Obstacles to Revitalization


But building a business district off of traditions and history, and not its surrounding neighborhood, is not easy.


Just ask Soula Carni.


She owns the 90-year-old Thano's Import Market on North Salina. Carni has tried to make a go of it the last two years, after the previous owner had planned to shut it down. She bought the place because of the fond memories she had of coming to the store as a child.


A steady stream of Italians once came in from the blocks of houses surrounding the store. Now, she depends on suburbanites that once called the north side home to buy the aged provolone, olives and homemade pasta.


"The people who live in this neighborhood are not really my customers," she said.


Even then, it is difficult for Carni to fight off perceptions of the area.


"The neighborhood has changed so that people are unwilling to come in the neighborhood," she said.


Others have found ways to adapt. Benny Barbieri, owner of Barbieri's Italian Diner, owned a similar diner, Serpico, at the same spot before opening Barbieri's in 2004. Barbieri remembered the day the "Little Italy"  banners went up.


"I said to myself, where are all of the Italians?" he said.


When he first started, he used to serve many  Italians that stopped in for a bite to eat with a plate of macaroni or pizza omelettes. Now, most of his customers are SU students, barworkers, policemen, and EMTs.


Barbieri owns the building and has been able to stay afloat by adapting to his changing clientele. But he is still uncertain of the future of the business district.


"The Italian businesses have moved out more than they have moved in," he said.


Some business owners see roadblocks impeding the district's comeback. Mike Ghabarou, owner of La Cuisine restaurant, said he loses customers regularly because of the strict parking enforcement on North Salina Street. He said new parking machines have prompted police to check and ticket cars on the street throughout the day.


"The best thing the new mayor could do is take down those stupid things," he said.


Looking ahead


Despite the roadblocks, other business owners see progress. Biscotti Cafe owner Geoff Camire decided to stay in the North side after a fire gutted the original cafe on Butternut Street. He pointed to other new restaurants, and the loft apartments as signs of progress.  The vacant storefronts have more to do with the current economy than a reluctance to invest on North Salina Street, he said.


"I don't blame anyone for not taking a risk," he said. "Everyone is just trying to maintain what they've got."


To Camire, the key to the neighborhood's success lies in its entrepreneurs.


"A banner is a banner. A street is a street," he said. "Banners can only go so far."


Neighborhood activist Jonathan Logan, who works at the Assisi Center on North Salina Street, sees the neighborhood's ultimate revival taking place in many steps, not just with a re-branding effort.


"There is no silver bullet to any problem," he said. "You have to attack things from many levels."

I grew up on Kirkpatrick

I grew up on Kirkpatrick Street and moved awat for college. I miss my neighborhood and go back whenever I am in town - maybe someday I can move home again.

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