Tuesday, October 20, 2009
I wanted to post this on Sunday as part of my longstanding (two-week-old) tradition of posting a more lighthearted entry on the weekend (such as the End of the Universe and America's Favorite Cities). But here it is.
This weekend was the Festa Italiana in Houston. Indeed, Festa is the Italian word for party (or feast, festival, or holiday, to be precise). Perhaps that is why my students love Property so much. We had a decent time; my daughter rode a mechanical bull (Italian how?), and we got t-shirts with our last name on them ("always hot, always fresh," indeed!).
What's the land use connection to Italian-American Festas? I can think of two. The basis for the first land use connection is the answer to the question of why city Italian festivals are often held in mid-October. The answer is proximity to Columbus Day. Now there was an era when Columbus's "discovery" of America was the stuff of huge celebrations in the U.S. But nowadays the celebration of Columbus Day is much more fraught with controversy, as Eugene Volokh's recent commentary suggests. One could certainly see the land use lesson of Columbus Day as the European land grab in the western hemisphere. I don't disagree. But I would only mention that for Italian-American immigrants, Columbus Day was historically an occasion of ethnic pride commensurate with St. Patrick's Day for Irish-Americans. For generations of Italian-Americans, Cristoforo Colombo was the great exemplar of Italian contribution to the American experience--the namesake of the District of the capital, a great university, a religious/social fraternal order, and so on.
The more important connection between land use and Italian Festas, to me, is their reminder of the traditional Italian-American neighborhood in many American cities and towns. One of my permanent memories is seeing on the ritual drive down the New York Thruway a building with a sign for the Order Sons of Italy in America. Conscious of my last name, I have been aware of "Festas" in Milwaukee, Scranton, Schenectady, Syracuse, and even Seattle. Like with other ethnic groups, Italian-American immigrants tended to cluster in particular neighborhoods in both big cities and small towns. Some of the more prominent cities had specific Italian or "Little Italy" neighborhoods; among those I have seen are Boston's North End; Manhattan's Little Italy; Cleveland's Little Italy; San Fransisco's North Beach; and New Orleans's French Quarter (yeah, it's called "French," but much of its character was cast by the 19th Century immigrant Italians (ever had a mufuletta in France?)).
I've seen Italian-American neighborhoods in some small towns, too. To the extent that the neighborhood is making a comeback as a land use planning paradigm, as well as the Traditional Neighborhood Development, it is worth considering (without over-romanticizing) the contributions that traditional, (quasi-) organic neighborhoods from all ethnic and cultural groups have made to American culture. I suspect that many Americans today feel a wistful yearning for a connection with the "old neighborhood" of their family's prior generations.