Ask natives and visitors to name popular, thriving enclaves in San Diego, and Little Italy will come in near the top on most folks’ lists. In recent decades, the historic fishing community has been reborn, and now serves as a beacon to those in search of great Italian restaurants, as well as shops, art galleries and an eclectic housing stock.
The most venerable, continuously-existing neighborhood business district in downtown San Diego, Little Italy historically served as home to the thousands of immigrant Italian and Portuguese fishermen who made their livings on the ocean. It also housed the canneries that processed their catches. Together, the fisherman and canneries helped burnish the city’s early repute as “tuna capital of the Western U.S.”
But in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, competition from foreign tuna processors helped spell an untimely demise for the canneries, just as the construction of the I-5 freeway carved a wedge through Little Italy, destroying more than a third of the historic enclave. With its economy’s lifeblood cut off, the beloved community withered. Its swift downturn was followed by nearly three decades of economic stagnation.
Enter the LIA
The formation of the Little Italy Association (LIA) of San Diego more than 20 years ago eventually reversed those fortunes. The lone district management corporation of its kind in any U.S. cultural neighborhood, the LIA sparked a revolution of sorts.
The organization helped reinvigorate and enhance a community that’s become a model for other Little Italys around the country seeking to preserve historic charm and character, while at the same time propelling economic growth.
“ The Little Italy neighborhood of San Diego has evolved rapidly over the last 20 years ,” says Marco Li Mandri, Little Italy Association CEO and New City America president.
“Much of its success, in terms of attracting new market-rate housing and immigrant- owned Italian businesses, is due to its comprehensive management of all aspects of the neighborhood. That management includes cleaning and beautification, parking and mobility, public space development and management, maintenance of order and setting a balance of needs of residents and needs of businesses.”
San Diego’s Little Italy now encompasses almost 50 square city blocks, making it the largest Little Italy in the nation. The district’s award-winning restaurants include both its traditional Italian eateries and newer bistros launched by talented Italian immigrants. Its flourishing public spaces have recently been joined by the new Italian-inspired 10,000 square-foot piazza, the Piazza della Famiglia. Its imaginatively designed mixed-use developments – combining residences, wineries, art galleries and other entrepreneurial ventures — have helped make the enclave a highly-coveted place not only to visit, but to call home.
Embracing small biz
One of the keys to Little Italy’s success has been its embrace of small businesses, which have helped invest the nook with its distinctiveness and charm. The LIA made this warmly welcoming attitude a key priority, recognizing small businesses would foster additional economic development. In the years since, the small enterprises have created jobs that helped fuel the enclave’s economy. Meantime, locally-owned eateries and entertainment venues, along with a potpourri of special events, have helped attract tourists from across California, the nation and the world.
The LIA’s success has helped differentiate San Diego’s Little Italy from other similar urban districts across the U.S. that were forged from the hard work of Italian immigrants and their descendants. Many of these venerable business districts have begun to disappear, in part because of the dispersion of Italian families from these enclaves. San Diego’s Little Italy serves as a template for what is possible, not only for the remaining Little Italys, but for other revitalized legacy communities across the nation.
“Most importantly, the organization that manages the Little Italy neighborhood consists of members from all aspects of the community,” Li Mandri concludes. “And it funds its operations by a sustainable assessment district, parking district revenues, and an entrepreneurial approach to community development.”