How New York’s Little Italy and Chinatown Started

By Phineas Upham

New York’s Little Italy has been popularized throughout film history, and poplar lore. The two places have both served as gathering spaces for their respective racial communities, and both are not the only communities people have to feel a part of. The history of these two communities is linked in more ways than similarity.

Little Italy

Just three blocks, Little Italy was once its own Neapolitan village. A language developed that was exclusive to it, it had its own customs and even its own financial institutions. It wasn’t the largest Italian neighborhood for most of its existence, it was actually the poorest. It’s citizens began leaving right around the time that Chinatown started expanding to the South. There are newspaper articles from 40 or 50 years ago that talk about the lamentable state of a disappearing Little Italy.


Chinatown grew out of a smoke shop, in many ways. An immigrant named Ah Ken arrived to Manhattan in 1858, where he was most likely engaged in the trade of selling low-quality cigars for pennies. Rumors persist that his ability to rent rooms from his flat helped him earn extra money on the side, which gave him the capital he needed to found a cigar shop on Park Row. This was the beginning of Chinatown, which is neither the first nor the largest community of Chinese immigrants to New York.

Today’s Neighborhoods

Little Italy went through a slight rennaissence post 9/11, which led to the development of cafés and restaurants, in favor of housing. A few Italians still live in the area, but most have moved out as income levels went up. The neighborhood is a wonderful piece of history, but it’s cramped. Chinatown is currently experiencing gentrification head on, which is changing the diversity of the area’s population and affecting the affordability of housing.

Phineas Upham is an investor from NYC and SF. You may contact Phin on his Phineas Upham website or Facebook page.