By Tom Cesarini
Today’s Little Italy has become, arguably, a culinary and cultural locus for San Diego residents and visitors. With the Little Italy Association at the helm of the rampant redevelopment of the neighborhood— beginning in the early 90s after decades of decline—what was once known as the Italian Colony has thus been reimagined, re-invented, and re-invigorated. Today, Little Italy is being hailed as a bold model for urban redevelopment. Moreover, with the arrival in recent years of a new wave of immigrants, a modern tale of toil has taken the place of the previous historical narrative of this colorful community.
The characteristics of these new immigrants (while in some ways not so different than the immigrants of past generations looking to make good in a new land), do contain one notable difference: These entrepreneurs have often arrived with a plan in place and requisite funding in hand. Consequently, they represent a vital component in the overall systemic restructuring of this neighborhood.
Little Italy has become an ever-evolving enclave, one that is at once suited for and defined by the vibrant and diverse demographic that composes its landscape a neighborhood that has almost come to represent a microcosm of our cherished land of opportunity writ large. The new merchants setting up shop in the neighborhood have deliberately flocked to San Diego’s Little Italy, likely for the sense of community and for the ambience Little Italy fosters and of which they are also creators. So, too, are the new residents of Little Italy looking for a sense of community in a downtown setting when it comes to their selection of dwelling and they are not only consumers but co-creators as well.
The neighborhood has taken on a different role, not one based on history or tradition but one based on a continually changing definition of purpose and place. The evolution of the neighborhood’s cultural artifacts, then, is a natural extension of these dynamics. But how does its changing identity and purpose affect the cultural heritage of the neighborhood? Regarding cultural artifacts and assets in the form of narrative, what stories are being told, who is recounting them, and what is being left out? Ultimately, how the neighborhood develops in the next several years and how it retains an Italian American identity or perhaps how it reshapes that identity will provide a context for rich scholarship.
San Diego’s Little Italy remains a salient element in Italian Americana. At Amici House, we are doing our own re-defining of space and place at Amici House in the Little Italy Dog Park. The classic restored cottage serves as the community’s cultural hub creating a third place for residents and visitors to the Italian neighborhood.
So what is an arts and culture organization to do in the middle of a pandemic lockdown without events or programs? Re-visit. Re-imagine. Redefine. We are hard at work to reshape and repurpose our center. A new coffee bar accentuates the patio area with an inviting outdoor space. Indoors, new historical and art prints are beginning to adorn the walls conversation pieces to help cultivate community. And behind the scenes, we are doing further toiling as we continue to press onward in our preservation efforts through our digital archives and upcoming heritage exhibits and projects. We look forward to welcoming the community for our grand reopening of Amici House soon! And we will continue to explore Italian American identity through our diverse program offerings.
We would love to hear from you. What makes Little Italy stand out for you? What would you like to see regarding programs at Amici House? Please drop us a line at www.conviviosociety.org/contact.
— Tom Cesarini is the executive director and founder of Convivio and also serves as the Italian honorary consul of San Diego. Convivio cultivates community and fellowship, advances Italian cultural identity, and fosters multicultural awareness across myriad disciplines through education and research, social enrichment, and innovative programming. Visit: www.conviviosociety.org | Follow: @conviviosociety