San Pedro’s ‘Little Italy’ Raises Historical Fiction Question


By Richard Foss, Cuisine and Culture Columnist

Generally, Los Angeles ignores or destroys its past and minimalls rise in neighborhoods that used to have character.

San Pedro is an outlier thanks to a combination of accident and design. The city missed the mid-century wave of indiscriminate development and has some superb period architecture. Less attention has been paid to the people who occupied the lovely Victorian homes and worked in the Deco-era buildings. As such, it sounded like a move in the right direction when the Los Angeles City Council decided to commemorate a local ethnic group that was once a vibrant community but is now an aging minority.

As a historian, I was puzzled when I heard that part of San Pedro would be designated as Historic Little Italy at the instigation of Councilman Joe Buscaino. Though a large Italian community did exist here, most coming from the coast and islands near Naples, the area’s Croatian community has been more active in recent decades. It’s worth noting, though, that to Angelenos in the 19th century they were the same. Angelenos routinely referred to coastal Croatians as Italians, because it was a linguistic designation, not a national identity. Before 1871 there was no nation called Italy. Due to the trading importance of Venice most coastal Croatians spoke Italian as a first or second language and shared a food culture and in 1870s LA there were Italian restaurants owned by people with names like Markovich and Illich. In San Pedro the two communities, both Catholic and involved in the fishing trade, were commingled almost from the outset.

Once I looked at the boundaries of the area to be designated as Historic Little Italy, I was confused. The borders are Gaffey on the west to Pacific Avenue on the east and from 6th Street to 17th Street, encompassing a largely residential area with no particular connection to the historic Italian community. The oldest existing businesses catering to San Pedro’s Italian community, Marabella Winery (1932), and A-1 Grocery (1947), are just outside the designated zone, as is Mary Star of the Sea Church (established 1889, current location 1958). Had that rectangular historic zone been rotated 90 degrees, it might have included all of these. The oldest Italian business I could find within the  zone is Buono’s Pizza (1973), which isn’t quite in the same league as the church when it comes to centers of community. (J. Trani’s, which is inside the zone, dates from 1987, though it was founded by a family that has operated local restaurants since 1925.)

Since I assumed the San Pedro Waterfront Arts District was involved in this designation, I reached out to them first. An email from their spokesperson stated that they were “a bit perplexed as to how this came about, as there didn’t seem to be a public process.”

The San Pedro Historical Society was not consulted either, and an email from a board member includes the sentence, “I know of no significant Italian landmarks in the San Pedro area.” I contacted the office of Councilman Joe Buscaino, and had a conversation with his communications director, Branimir Kvartuc. My questions and his responses are below, with my commentary in italics.

Richard Foss: Will designation as a historic district open up any funding leverage for local improvements?

Branimir Kvartuc: The intent of the designation is a preamble to the Little Italy that the councilman wants to establish in downtown San Pedro. Italians have greatly contributed to the history and economy of San Pedro and the councilman wants to do whatever he can to preserve the culture. Establishing a Little Italy is appropriate on the basis of its historical merit. The historic designation will legitimize the creation of a Little Italy.

The second thing he (Buscaino) wants to do is create a plaza that will be called Little Italy. A Little Italy today is not what Little Italys were 50 years ago in New York or San Francisco. The definition is not the same as it was. Today, Little Italy is more of a branding mechanism, so the councilman is thinking about doing a Little Italy Plaza, similar to the one that was recently established in San Diego. He’s using that as a model, a plaza that has a value in branding.

(As I can’t include our entire conversation here, this is as good as anywhere to note that the word “branding” cropped up in Mr. Kvartuc’s responses many times.)

RF: What about the Croatian community? They were regarded as Italians in the 1850s, and the area is now more associated with them. The Croatian Hall is within the zone boundary.

BK: They’re equal. Why Little Italy? Little Italy has a better brand name than a Little Croatia. Look, having grown up in San Pedro and being Croatian, I take zero offense to the fact that it’s a Little Italy, because I understand and respect the branding of it. Nevertheless, I think that the Italian and Croatian communities in San Pedro are completely intertwined, and both communities will be using the plaza.

RF: The boundaries of this zone extend to 17th Street in a mainly residential district — why?

BK: That area is called Vinegar Hill, because that’s where a lot of Italians lived from the 1920s to the 50s. They made their own wine, and that’s what that came from.

(The designated zone does not overlap the existing Vinegar Hill historic preservation zone, which extends from Beacon to Pacific, from 8th to 14th Street. The homes in the Vinegar Hill district all date from 1886 to 1927, while the designated “Historic Little Italy”zone includes 1950s residential housing, 1970s apartment and retail buildings, a Dollar Tree and a 99 Cents Only Store. A member of the Vinegar Hill Preservation Zone who was involved in that organization’s foundation said that their board was not consulted about the Historic Little Italy designation and he could not figure out any rational explanation for the chosen borders.)

RF: Just outside of the designated district are A-1 Grocery and Marabella Winery, two of the oldest Italian-owned businesses in San Pedro. They offer unique products tailored to that community. Why are they outside of the zone?

BK: You’re taking the line a little bit too literally.… I don’t have the exact answer as to why exactly the line was drawn where it was. I’ll get back to you on that. The plaza will be an incentive and a magnet to bring in people, and they will all benefit.

(Despite follow-up requests, one of which was acknowledged via email, Mr. Kvartuc did not get back to me.)

RF: I’m comparing this to the city of Westminster designating part of the city as Little Saigon, which was in response to years of pleas from the community. The San Pedro designation doesn’t seem to be a response to a popular movement.

BK: The community movement at this point we’re at now is coming from the San Pedro Business District and the [San Pedro] Chamber of Commerce. They have been trying to do everything they can to promote San Pedro as an event space. We have the Fleet Week, the Battleship Iowa that is drawing over a million people a year, the San Pedro Fish Market has been drawing a million people for a long time and when the San Pedro Public Market is built they’ll have a new building and will continue to draw people. Using Hermosa Beach as an example, before the Pier Plaza was built Hermosa Beach was a seedy place. We’re about 20 years behind Hermosa, but that’s what shook up that area and this designation has been done to lay the foundations to create a branding mechanism to do economic development in downtown San Pedro. The bottom line is economic development, that’s what all of this is about. It’s not like the example you just gave in Westminster, it’s so we can attract more businesses. They may not be Italian businesses, but maybe more restaurants.

RF: I contacted the Arts District to see whether they might be involved in creating an Italian film or music festival, perhaps something involving Italian art and design, and they said they have never been contacted.  Who is doing the planning and will the public be involved?

BK: The San Pedro Chamber of Commerce is on board and participating in the conversation, and so is the Downtown Business Improvement District. A nonprofit is being developed to raise the funding to create and maintain the plaza, and the board will be responsible for programming the plaza. The public process will begin after the board is established…. To all the (program idea examples), yes to all of them. Yes to non-Italian events as well. The farmer’s market might move there, we’re looking into that. It’s about having it programmed as often as possible, if we’re lucky 365 days a year. There will be places to hang out at the plaza, to eat at the plaza and hopefully restaurants can set up European-style so people can eat outside.

(The reference to involving the San Pedro Waterfront Arts District only after a board is created implies that the Arts District will have no representation on the nonprofit’s board, and that any role in the programming will be limited. Since the Arts District has been active in the community for many years and has broad community support, it seems surprising to not include them in the formative stage.)

RF: There are some public spaces that may be intended to commemorate a people or event, but are standard public parks in all but name and decorative touches. What can you tell me about the design of the plaza?

BK: There’s a consultant that was hired to kind of develop the model and it’s the same consultant that did the Little Italy in San Diego. His model is to vacate a public street and create the plaza out of that public street. The model is to do that in as much density as you can find. Being that there’s at least a thousand new apartments going up in San Pedro, we’re trying to create a situation where we can attract new business into that area, because that area will be connected into the new San Pedro Public Market, making that entire area a destination.

(The reference to a thousand new apartments seems to be based on proposed developments that are scheduled to be completed over a 10 year period. I have been told that only 420 new units have been approved at this time. As designing, building and moving new tenants into a new plaza would probably take a decade to implement, this is probably consistent with that estimate.

Kvartuc did not say how the area designated as Historic Little Italy might be connected to the Public Market. It is a half-mile walk uphill from southern edge of the Public Market to the closest point in the Historic Zone and almost a full mile from the centerpoint of one to the centerpoint of the other. If any public transit is planned between the two, Kvartuc did not mention it. He also did not address adding parking structures near the plaza to accommodate increased auto traffic. A request for clarification was emailed on Aug. 3 and a response was promised, but none was received by Sept.4,  when this article was submitted.)

In Retrospect

Our conversation lasted almost half-an-hour and I don’t have room for all of it here, but in retrospect two things stand out. One was that while the potential for attracting new businesses was mentioned many times, Kvartuc never mentioned any initiatives to promote existing businesses that have roots in the community. Any new businesses on the plaza would be likely to include Italian groceries and restaurants that will compete with locally-owned businesses outside of the development. Had there been any mention of a plan to assist historic San Pedran businesses in relocating to the high traffic zone, it would have at least indicated that their interests and livelihoods were being considered. Instead all benefit to the existing local businesses was expressed as potential additional traffic by people who are in the neighborhood to visit the new development, rather than as an integral part of that development. The same focus was true when describing likely visitors; while the tastes of residents of the yet-to-be-built apartments and condos were mentioned several times, there was no mention whatever of serving or connecting with the existing Italian community.

That community was economically and culturally important for more than a century and they still patronize the 40-odd local Italian eateries that range from humble pizzerias to elegant restaurants. It would be worthy to celebrate their heritage with art and cultural celebrations that reflect their origins in a particular region of Italy. Links and cultural exchanges to that area might be explored and an archive might be made of reminiscences of those among us who remember when the Ischian dialect was heard in these streets. If properly done, a Historic Little Italy project and plaza could help recently arrived residents make connections between their own experiences and the brave people who left their homeland to make a living among their kin in California. Whether part of that district is co-designated as a Little Croatia or not, Croatians can be integrated into the narrative because to their contemporaries they were Italian too. It is a nuanced history and as such more challenging to reveal, but in my opinion including that community would be more rewarding and meaningful to those who visit with the desire to learn.

The location of any designated space to memorialize the historic communities is of more than academic interest, because the public can tell the difference between a genuine and manufactured tourist attractions and will respond accordingly. San Diego’s Little Italy project, which was mentioned as a model for this one, includes the 1925 Italian church,  a Victorian-era firehouse turned museum, the sites of a macaroni factory and tuna canneries and a clutch of restaurants that go back to 1950. The district boundaries were obviously chosen to include places of genuine civic and cultural importance and as an economic driver integrated with cultural education the project has been very successful. We can not say how the site for the San Pedro version was chosen, because requests for that information have been rebuffed.

Kvartuc’s assertion that “A Little Italy today is not what a Little Italy was 50 years ago” will be challenged by those who believe in meaningful connections between cultures and places. There was an Italian community in San Pedro 100 years ago, and their descendants live and work here now. However it appears that only one of them – Buscaino – has any say in how and where that heritage will be commemorated.