Chinatown and Little Italy are probably the most well-branded neighborhoods in the city. In a grid system where every corner store and subway entrance starts to look the same, sometimes you need some in-your-face visual cues to tell you where you are. And these two do just that.
The neighborhoods are very visually distinct: from the crowded Chinese signs and bright lanterns the light up Chinatown to the hard to miss sign that welcomes you to Little Italy. Geographically, the two neighborhoods are packed in tight, bleeding into each other so it’s impossible to discern where one ends and the other begins. Not to mention the blurred borders of LES and Two Bridges and Nolita. It’s one big cluttered landscape filled with activity and life and tourists and history and everything you love about the city and everything you hate too.
Little Italy is, for better or worse, a caricature of the Italian American history that is so prominent in this city. These days, the old school establishments and tourist traps meld into one pedestrian nightmare, spilling into the streets, blending in to each other like the same restaurant in 12 fonts. The proud sign welcoming you into the microneighborhood almost serving as a warning that you’ll have to crowd cut your way through the next two blocks. We all like the idea of Little Italy more than the execution, it’s a façade that tourists happily buy into like a false tradition while locals steer clear on most occasions. It serves its purpose for specific moments.
And then there is Chinatown. One of several Chinese enclaves in the five boroughs, and one of the most beloved neighborhoods in the city. Manhattan’s Chinatown is a classic tourist attraction. Ostentatiously branded with theatrically Chinese architectural embellishments and lanterns lighting up the narrow streets. And yet despite the infestation of gaudy souvenir shops selling your name on a keychain and I LOVE NEW YORK t-shirts, there is still an overwhelming sense of community, almost stubbornly so.
Hidden in the chaotic facades and loud signage is masked regional diversity, restaurants that to outsiders all look the same, offer the Chinese community a breadth of culinary traditions from various parts of China and in a way sits as a physical representation of a history of the diaspora. Street vendors and grocers splay out, making it a constant traffic jam, whether you’re on four wheels, two, or on foot. Manhattan Chinatown has a lot of good, cheap food. Some exist to serve tourists more, some cater more to the community, many many are caught up in local politics, but souvenir shop eyesores aside it is a place worth going to again and again as a core part of city life and the sensational imagination of city life.