In The News


If You're Thinking of Living In/NoLIta;
Hotbed of Hipness in Old Neighborhood

25 January 2004
The New York Times - Article by Claire Wilson


The 10-day festivities surrounding the feast of San Gennaro, celebrating the patron saint of Naples, still takes up the whole length of Mulberry Street between East Houston Street and Canal Street every September, but for some of the blocks of the annual party, references to things Italian in the Manhattan neighborhood known as NoLIta are but a backward glance at the area's rich and storied past.

Once considered part of Little Italy, the dozen or so blocks that make up NoLIta, an acronym for North of Little Italy, are now the stomping grounds for a fashionable crowd that is younger, often wealthier and more international.

The availability of small spaces and relatively inexpensive commercial rents have turned the neighborhood of low-rise mostly residential buildings into a greenhouse for fledgling designers and spirited entrepreneurs. The resulting buzz has created a demand for luxury condominiums that are now springing up next to former tenements, where third-generation renters still pay about $200 a month for three rooms.

Laurent Dupal, the French-born owner of Ceci-Cela, a French pastry shop on Spring Street, was a pioneer when he opened in 1991. Neighboring businesses now include Cuban, Japanese and Thai as well as French restaurants, a branch of a Paris costume jewelry boutique, a shop that sells decorative goods from Turkey and a purveyor of famously expensive Florentine soaps and perfumes. NoLIta is evolving, Mr. Dupal said, but retains its charm.

''It has the easy welcoming atmosphere it has always had,'' said Mr. Dupal, who lives with his family in nearby SoHo. ''Spring and summer, we still have the barking dogs and the older Italians sitting out on the sidewalk. It's like a movie set.''

Chickie Magliato, a sales associate at Just Shades, a 40-year-old Spring Street lampshade emporium with roots on the Bowery, is part of the old guard but welcomes the changes she sees.

''The neighborhood has really come up,'' Mrs. Magliato said. ''It's safe, and everybody knows everybody else.''

Bordered by Houston Street to the north, Kenmare Street to the south, the Bowery on the east and Lafayette Street to the west, NoLIta is now a hotbed of hip shops and bars. But until recently, it was a teeming, less-than-desirable little pocket fringed by a thriving drug scene. One telling sign of change was the opening in 2002 of the Cafe Lebowitz, a restaurant named for the writer Fran Lebowitz, whose British-born owner, Brian McNally, has a well-known nose for sniffing out neighborhoods of the future.

The kind of glitterati who patronize Mr. McNally's other restaurants -- Indochine, Odeon, Canal Bar and 150 Wooster -- count among NoLIta's new residents and are typical of the genre of buyers that follows the cutting-edge art and entertainment scene.

Young professionals are also drawn to the area, which has convenient subway links to the downtown financial district and to Midtown through connections at Union Square.

Families likewise seem to be a growing part of the mix, despite a perceived lack of amenities for children downtown, according to Susannah Harris, owner of Wee Dance, a dancing school for children 3 to 8 on Lafayette Street. ''Most of my clients come from homes that are within walking distance,'' said Ms. Harris, who recently added Saturday classes to a busy schedule. ''That tells me that there are a lot of families down here.''

James Lansill, senior managing director of the Sunshine Group, a real estate firm that specializes in marketing new luxury residential projects, said changes in the neighborhood over the years have been fueled by its location at the heart of a greater downtown that is evolving at a rapid rate.

''This neighborhood is about fusion, the confluence of all the coolest neighborhoods in the city, like the East Village, SoHo, TriBeCa and Chinatown,'' said Mr. Lansill, the broker for Spring, a complex of new condominiums in a former bank building at 225 Lafayette Street at the corner of Spring Street. ''All those different sensibilities collide here in a very positive and energizing way.''

Almost all recent residential conversions are to condos, and full-service co-op buildings in the area are few. Prices are steep because of a dearth of commercial structures to convert in a neighborhood where demand is high. Former tenement buildings where a tub in the kitchen was once the norm account for much of the housing stock in NoLIta, and these can be difficult and not very profitable to renovate, brokers said.

A CHRONIC shortage of properties to sell is pushing prices to unprecedented highs. Apartments at the 40-unit Spring have reached $1,065 per square foot, leapfrogging the neighborhood average of about $850 per square foot. Two-thousand-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath units are priced at $1.8 million to $2.2 million, according to Mr. Lansill. In the first three weeks on the market, 23 units went to contract.

''They are extremely expensive for what they are, but you are paying for the views,'' commented Ed Hickey, associate broker with SoHo-based Meisel Real Estate, noting that the 16-story building towers over neighboring structures. ''They are for wealthy young people who want a full-service building downtown.''

Renters have more to choose from, and prices are stable if not a bit cheaper than they had been, according to Mary Vetri, vice president of William B. May.

''There's more inventory and the prices are going to be that much more competitive,'' she said. ''The choice is greater.''

Newer two-bedroom, two-bath apartments rent for $5,500 a month and up, depending on amenities. Rent-stabilized apartments in tenement buildings are impossible to come by. The few that have been upgraded and gone off rent stabilization rent at prices that are a bit lower than for new properties, according to Siim Hanja, a vice president of Stribling Associates. ''These converted tenements are smaller spaces, so the numbers are tolerable,'' he says. ''It would be about $3,300 for 1,000 square feet.''

A rabbit warren of narrow streets and low-rise buildings, NoLIta does not lend itself to the kind of high-rise residential or hotel development that proliferates in other downtown neighborhoods.

The area's desirability waxed and waned over the years, mostly waned, as it moved from its origins as Peter Stuyvesant's farm or bouwerij, (hence the street named the Bowery) to being a gateway for European immigrants. The Irish were the first to arrive, followed by Italians, mostly from the south, who came in large numbers from the mid-19th century to the 1920's.

The Bowery was once a thriving commercial drag, but its heyday was brief. A period of steady decline started with the construction of the Third Avenue el in 1878, and before long, the drunks and derelicts that are associated with the Bowery arrived.

St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, founded by the Irish on Mulberry Street in 1809, remains a centerpiece of the community. The childhood parish of the film director Martin Scorsese and a backdrop in two of Francis Ford Coppola's ''Godfather'' films, it served as the official cathedral of the New York Archdiocese until the newer St. Patrick's opened on Fifth Avenue in 1879. Today, the church's 400 registered families are a mix of Italians and Hispanics, many from the Dominican Republic, as well as Chinese. A Mass is said in Spanish at St. Patrick's, while at the nearby Church of the Most Holy Crucifix, a Mass is said in Chinese, according to the Rev. Thomas Kallumady, who oversees both.

There is only one playground in the neighborhood, the De Salvia Playground on Mulberry Street. Children can also play after school at Public School 130 on Baxter Street, where the principal, Lily Woo, said 80 percent of fourth graders read at or above grade level and 94 percent perform at or above grade level in math.

The scores are something to be proud of, Ms. Woo said, considering that about 80 percent of the prekindergarten through fifth grade students come from homes where families do not speak English, many in Chinatown. Attendance rates are among the highest in the city, and there is an emphasis on performing arts. The school has programs in dance, choral singing and violin.

Tuition at the St. Patrick's School starts at $2,600 a year for one child, according to Maureen Burgio, the first lay principal of the Roman Catholic school. The school has 250 students, in prekindergarten through eighth grade, down from 500 a few years ago. It has a new computer room and library, and its fife and drum band has marched in parades down Fifth Avenue.

Shopping in and around NoLIta features street-level boutiques, a bit of a bazaarlike atmosphere and European-style specialty food stores. Shops like DiPalo's or Alleva, both selling Italian imports in Little Italy, are typical, and lovers of sweets can get their fill of Neapolitan cannoli, French millefeuilles or Chinese almond cookies at the many bakeries.

Sidewalks in front of Chinese shops on streets north and south of Canal Street are a tumble of boxes laden with fresh greens and iced fish, and on either Canal Street or Houston Street residents can buy everything from second hand sinks and bathtubs to colorful paper lanterns and rice in bulk.

Chain retailers are not to be found in NoLIta proper, not even a Starbucks. Those are a short walk away in SoHo, where Bloomingdale's will be opening an outpost on Broadway later this year.