SAN DIEGO (CN) - The most successful, booming Little Italy neighborhood is not in New York, Boston or Chicago - it's in San Diego.
While other Little Italy neighborhoods and ethnic communities across the nation have struggled to maintain their identities following the surge of immigration and subsequent flight of immigrant families to the suburbs, San Diego's Little Italy has flourished. The neighborhood has experienced a renaissance over the past 20 years thanks to redevelopment efforts and the district management corporation that has made the community into its own little city.
Once the tuna fishing capital of the world, San Diego's Little Italy neighborhood was a bustling neighborhood in the 1940s and '50s where Italian immigrants - mainly from Sicily - started their new lives in America. But the construction of Interstate 5 cut through the entire neighborhood, sending many families out into the newly developed suburban communities outside of downtown.
The neighborhood continued to decline into the 1980s until the early '90s, when redevelopment efforts were underway thanks to California's redevelopment act. Businesses and restaurants moved in while the city worked to brand a neighborhood locals knew as the "Italian Colony" into a full-fledged Little Italy, complete with annual street fairs and festivals that drew thousands.
The 48 square blocks that make up Little Italy along the waterfront in downtown San Diego has since become a major tourist draw and is home to one of the most photographed landmarks in San Diego, the Little Italy sign. The neighborhood has become a local leader in creating a successful mixed-use neighborhood where residential and retail merge.
What sets Little Italy apart from other historic ethnic neighborhoods struggling to make it in the 21st century is not the sexiest of solutions, but it's one that has worked: the Little Italy Association district management corporation.
Managing Little Italy like its own city has allowed the association to get projects done much faster than if they dealt with the bureaucracy of getting all funding from government agencies. With an annual budget of over $2 million, businesses "buy in" through taxes raised by multiple sources including the parking district and business improvement district. The association in turn advocates on behalf of its members on livability issues ranging from safety and beautification to helping promote new businesses.
The association is strategic about which businesses they allow to move in, hand-picking the best restaurants and businesses that fit into the Little Italy aesthetic, while still maintaining its "neighborhood feel" and cultural identity.
Marco Li Mandri, chief executive administrator of the association, says he doesn't care if visitors patronize the shops and restaurants. His goal is to get people to slow down and enjoy quality time with one another.
"They can buy something or not, but they come here to people-watch. People-watching is one of the greatest national pastimes and we provide the venue. Malls can't provide it - they're too sterile. We are creating venues for interaction; people come to an area like Little Italy for social interaction," Li Mandri said.