America is often referred to as the melting pot. People from all over the world settle here and build communities, relationships, and, perhaps most importantly, businesses. Throughout the country there are communities which reflect the passion of those immigrants. In San Diego a community called Little Italy has remained a base for several generations of Italian business owners. Heapreneur sat down with Christopher Gomez-Pancucci, Little Italy Association District Manager to learn more about Little Italy and what makes the community so unique.
What is Little Italy and why is it important?
Little Italy San Diego is a unique cultural and historic neighborhood. In the 1920’s, this neighborhood in San Diego was the hub of international tuna fishing industry, the majority of which was done by Italian immigrants. However, due to the construction of Interstate-5 freeway, the tuna industry declined, 35% of Little Italy San Diego was destroyed and the neighborhood suffered for nearly 30 years. But, in the early 1990′s, established property owners and family-run business owners decided to take their fate into their own hands and clean-up and rebuild the neighborhood they loved and had lived in for generations—Little Italy San Diego was the first Little Italy in North America to do so.
Now Little Italy San Diego is one of the most beloved neighborhoods in San Diego and serves as a cultural, culinary and entrepreneurial hub, holding some of the biggest, most-loved festivals and events in the region.
What is the Little Italy Association?
The Little Italy Association is a non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation. It’s the only district management corporation of its kind in any Little Italy neighborhood in the United States. The Association has 28 board members comprised of property owners, residents, business owners and community-at-large representatives. The Association oversees and expedites the revitalization and beautification of the Little Italy neighborhood of San Diego.
The Little Italy Association has been reviving, for over 20 years, this neighborhood into a thriving destination unlike any other place in Southern California. Thanks to the Little Italy Association, San Diego’s Little Italy is now not only a model urban neighborhood for the City of San Diego, but is also serving as a model for the handful of Little Italy’s remaining throughout the country.
How is the American Dream alive in this community?
There are 75+ Italian business owners in the neighborhood, all from different generations. Little Italy San Diego has presented the perfect opportunity for first-generation businesses owners to live out their American Dream and start a successful business in San Diego because the community creates a since of family and a cultural environment with Italian and European influences throughout its 48 square-blocks. It makes Italians feel like they are a part of Italy, but out of Italy and in a stable environment where opportunities are endless and visibility to the world is possible. The Little Italy Association provides support and makes business owners feel secure when they are able to open their doors in a beautiful neighborhood.
What makes this community so unique?
The experience a visitor and local get when they are in Little Italy San Diego is unlike anything they can experience anywhere else. A normal day in the neighborhood could include savoring an authentic Italian espresso con panna from one of the dozens of quaint coffee shops, a treasure hunt of finding all the hidden famiglia recipes hidden on bronze markers in the sidewalks, watching the annual Stickball tournament in the streets with children and adults alike, indulging at one of the restaurants in the neighborhood, or just strolling up and down the streets visiting its many piazzas and public spaces, admiring the flower-lined sidewalks, twinkle lights wrapped from the lampposts and views of the marina and the neighborhood’s historic architecture. Little Italy has a way that makes individuals feel like they are a part of the community, making them want to come back or start their families here.
How is this community the same as Italy? How is it different?
Little Italy San Diego brings strong Italian culture to the neighborhood. There are piazzas with water fountains and public spaces throughout the neighborhood with tables and chairs that aren’t designated to any specific business, but there for the public to sit at and enjoy the surrounding environment, much like in Italia. When visitors and locals walk down the sidewalk, they are lined with restaurants’ front patios that have seating where a hostess is always outside the front of the restaurant greeting them in Italian! Over a majority of the restaurants are Italian and owned by an Italian, so the romantic language is constantly heard throughout the neighborhood. Cafés serve real Italian coffee and one can even choose to drink their espresso or macchiato standing at the bar (like a real Italian would do!). Ingredients, wines and coffee are even imported from Italy at select restaurants and cafés, giving visitors a true taste of Italy.
How important is community to building and growing a business?
One of the Little Italy Association’s largest focus is on growing and reviving the neighborhood. This neighborhood gem is cranking out many new construction and design projects throughout the area, aimed to beautify the community, promote public spaces, make room for more residents and provide space for incoming businesses. Little Italy continues to be the most coveted and desired neighborhoods in downtown San Diego, and much of it is due to projects that the Little Italy Association is putting in motion.
Piazza Famiglia is one of Little Italy’s newest and most special projects. The 10,000-square-foot piazza broke ground on December 1 and will be completed in 2016. This project will bring the largest public piazza to the neighborhood—connecting W. Date Street between India & Columbia Street, as well as open up 13,600-square-feet of restaurant and commercial space, and 3,000-square-feet of rental space.