Last November I took a walk straight up Mulberry St. for its entire length. It skirts the west edge of Chinatown and cleaves the heart of Little Italy, before ending at Bleecker St., edging into the south end of NoHo. It’s one of three major north-south streets, along with Mott and Elizabeth, between Centre/Lafayette Sts. and the Bowery. It’s teeming with street life with shoppers, tourists and residents and is among the most crowded real estate in New York City.
Little Italy originated in the 1880s, when immigrants from primarily, but not exclusively, Naples and Sicily arrived in New York City and settled in the streets between E. Broadway and Houston and Centre/Lafayette Sts. and the Bowery. After World War II there was an Italian diaspora, as immigrants and their families moved to the outer boroughs and surrounding suburban areas, ultimately leaving a couple of blocks on Mulberry that still have a strong Italian flavor, chockablock with restaurants and coffee/pastry shops; tourism keeps these areas strong.
In the 1880s, Mulberry St. was the eastern end of Manhattan’s Five Points, so-called because its center was at the complicated intersection of Worth, Baxter (formerly Orange) and Park (now Mosco). It was a “most wretched hive of scum and villainy” as Obi-Wan Kenobi would say. Five Points would put the W. 42nd St. of the 1970s and 1980s to shame for its collection of thieves, brigands, prostitutes, murderers and fiends. “The Deuce” of the 1970s’ 42nd St. had nothing on Five Points, which centered around a 1792 brewery on Cross St. near its intersection with Anthony and Orange Sts., at first called Coulter’s Brewery, but by 1838 was a rooming house known as the Old Brewery.
By the 1920s, most of the old Five Points was replaced by court houses, and by the 1960s, high-rise apartments had obliterated the last of its little wood frame and brick buildings. It’s a shame that some of the buildings of this notorious slum couldn’t have been preserved. Columbus Park (pictured above) replaced some of the old Five Points tenements. The expansive park was designed by Calvert Vaux, co-creator of Central and Prospect Parks. It was named Columbus Park in 1911 in honor of the many Italians settling nearby.
Mulberry St. was named on maps as early as the late-1700s and while surrounding streets like Mott, Elizabeth, Worth and Hester took their names from local personalities or war heroes, its moniker remembers groves of mulberry plants in the area when it was first laid out.
The one-block stretch of Mosco St. between Mulberry and Mott is all that remains of the formerly lengthy Park St. (originally Cross St.), which used to run from Centre and Duane St. all the way northeast to Mott. In 1982, the remaining stretch was named for community activist Frank Mosco, who was associated with the Church of the Transfiguration on Mott St. and involved with youth outreach, lower-income housing and the elderly, and organized the Two Bridges Little League. The northeast corner, 100 Mosco, is where Frank Mosco lived, and 28 Mulberry, Wah Wing Sang Funeral Home, began as the Banca Italia in 1888.
Dr. Sun Yat-sen is remembered in Columbus Park. Sun (1866-1925), the first president of the short-lived Republic of China, which ruled China after the Qing dynasty was overthrown in 1911 and Japanese occupation during WWII and later, the Communist revolution of 1949. The statue, sculpted by Taiwanese sculptor Lu Chun-Hsiung, was erected in November 2011 to commemorate the centennial of the Republic’s foundation. It was originally meant to be a temporary installation, but later gained permanent status.
This building, on the northeast corner of Mulberry and Bayard, is the former PS 23—the first of over 100 buildings that schools architect Charles B.J. Snyder constructed in New York City. The school was dedicated in 1891, when the region was still trying to shed its Five Points reputation. It was innovative as the first fireproof school building in NYC and featured a community center in the basement, also innovative for the time.
According to Tom Miller at Daytonian in Manhattan, “The rough-cut brownstone base featured arched doorways and carved medieval motifs. Above, the orange brick façade was broken by paired windows allowing fresh air and sunshine into the classrooms. The windows of the tower stair-stepped upwards following the course of the interior stairwell.” The Evening World noted “Two advances, called by educators the greatest ever made, marked this structure. It was in this building that the first attempt at fire-proof construction for schools was made. The first floor had no inflammable materials.”
Despite the building’s apparent inflammability a devastating fire in January 2020 so damaged the building’s top three floors (which may have been untreated) that demolition of much of the building was deemed necessary.
Umberto’s Clam House, 132 Mulberry, relocated here from its former outpost at the NW corner of Mulberry and Hester Sts. The restaurant gained infamy in its incarnation there when mobster Joey Gallo was shot dead there in 1972. Gallo had celebrated his 43rd birthday at the Copacabana nightclub with a group of friends that included the actor Jerry Orbach, comedian David Steinberg, and columnist Earl Wilson. The party finished and Gallo, his bodyguard, and four women went to Little Italy in downtown Manhattan, looking for a place to eat. The only restaurant open was Umberto’s on Mulberry St. He was assassinated at five a.m. by a hitman sent by the Joe Columbo crime family.
The small two-story brick building with the pair of dormer windows at #149 Mulberry appears older than its neighbors, and it is: it’s the oldest building on Mulberry save for Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral (see below). It was built in 1816 for NY state Assemblyman and Senator Stephen Van Rensselaer (1764-1839), who attained the rank of major general in the US Army before losing the Battle of Queenston Heights (which reversed US efforts to invade Canada) during the War of 1812.
After moving into the house, Van Rensselaer served on the New York State Constitutional Convention, the Erie Canal Commission, and the US House of Representatives. He amassed a fortune of $10 million. His family owned sprawling estates in New York and plenty of NYC properties, and this modest building wasn’t his primary residence. In 1842, the house was moved from the corner of Mulberry and Grand to its present location. When the environs became Little Italy, the wealthy Stokes family acquired it and turned it into “The Free Italian Library and Reading-Rooms” in 1894. The building has hosted a succession of restaurants and other businesses over the decades, at present the Aunt Jake’s trattoria.
Pretty much the epicenter of Little Italy is the corner of Broome and Mulberry, with two of its ancient bastions, Caffé Roma and Grotta Azzurra. Caffé Roma has two old signs, a classic neon and a constantly renewed and repainted building ad, one spelled the Italian way and one in English. Traditionally Mulberry and Broome were Neapolitan territory. In the early-20th century the Ronca brothers from Naples opened a cappuccino, espresso and Italian pastry shop on this corner. The Roncas sold to Vincento Zeccardi in 1952, who renamed it but kept it close to the old Ronca name. His descendants (some of whom were “connected”) continue to run Caffé Roma, maintaining original elements of the place such as a saloon clock over the espresso machine, dark green pressed tin ceiling, and handwritten recipe book.
The original Grotta Azzurra (“Blue Grotto”), named for a picturesque sea cave in Capri, opened in 1908 and lasted until 1997, serving fare to the likes of Enrico Caruso and later, Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. The restaurant reopened in 2003.
St. Patrick’s “old” Cathedral, 260-264 Mulberry St. between Price and East Houston, is called “old” to differentiate it from its “newer” cousin uptown, St. Patrick’s Cathedral at 5th Ave. and E. 50th, designed by James Renwick Jr., opened 1878 and finished in 1888. Old St. Pat’s, NYC’s original Catholic cathedral, started construction in 1809 and was completed in 1815, making it one of the oldest buildings in Chinatown/Little Italy. In March 2010 Pope Benedict XVI announced that it would become Manhattan’s first basilica, a church that has been accorded certain specific and ceremonial rites only the Pope can bestow.
Though the churchyard and its graves are gated off and inaccessible, I did manage a few shots over the gates. Among the burials are the Venerable Pierre Toussaint and Stephen Jumel, whose uptown mansion in Sugar Hill is Manhattan’s oldest remaining private residence. The catacombs are occasionally open to the public.
“Dagger John” Hughes, the first Archbishop of the Diocese of New York, was originally interred in the Old St. Patrick’s churchyard. Though his remains were moved uptown to the “new” St. Patrick’s at 5th Ave., he’s memorialized in the churchyard by a heroic bust. He became known as “Dagger John,” for his following the Catholic practice wherein a bishop precedes his signature with a cross, as well as his aggressive personality.
The Puck Building takes up the entire block between Lafayette, Mulberry, the alley Jersey Street and East Houston. It was built as a printing plant between 1886 and 1893 by the publishers of Puck, a satirical magazine published between 1877 and 1918. It has been home to both the New York Press weekly and Spy monthly, though both left the building before ending their runs.
—Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013)