A national model of economic revitalization, standing amongst a city bursting at its seams, where the local shopkeeper will still ask where have you been and how is your family.
Where not even the traffic noise or airplanes flying overhead can drown out the sound of two men arguing over a bocce ball match at Amici Park.
It's Little Italy. And it's got a story to tell.
"This might be a hip, urban landscape now, but it's got an old history," said Anthony Davi, a native New Yorker of Sicilian descent, to a group of tourists and locals gathered on a balmy Saturday morning on India Street for the official Little Italy walking tour.
"At its heart (the story of Little Italy) is a thrilling tale. It has all the elements of a great novel."
If a great story it is, Davi is the great storyteller. The San Diego-based tour guide/documentary filmmaker/freelance writer has been unlocking the secrets of the neighborhood in his walking and bus tours for the past 10 years, one of the first ambassadors to get in on the local "cultural tourism" trend.
"Ammonini" ("let's go" (probably misspelled) in Sicilian), Davi says as he leads the group through back alleys, churches, schools and parks, stopping along the way to pass around old newspaper clippings and share stories about the roughly 52 blocks of San Diego on the harbor north of downtown. An Italian friend pokes his head out of Pete's Quality Meats and Deli to greet the tour group and make sure everyone knows he's single.
Davi shows the group a metal ring used to tie up horses that still sits on the curb outside Filippi's Cash and Carry Market. He tells the tale about the dead body found hanging from a tree behind Mimmo's Italian Village, allegedly a victim of a notorious organized crime family. He explains that during the prohibition years, basements became quite popular for bootlegging purposes, and many Italians sold grapes and became business partners with Mexican night clubs, who were still open for business.
These facts on the walking tour are not just educational and entertaining for tourists; locals alike love the learning. "It's worth every penny," said Gretchen Griswold, an East Village resident raised in Ocean Beach, who was on the tour with her sister, Gail Rich.
Legend has it the first Italians that came to Little Italy arrived sometime around the 1870's-'80s from San Francisco to start fishing businesses, Davi explains. The waters teemed with sardines, and soon the harbors were bustling with fleets of fishing boats. Italian families, mostly from Genoa and Sicily, made their living on the sea.
Little Italy's population boomed even more when the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 hit, and families devastated by the loss moved south to San Diego to rebuild their lives.
After sardine fishing subsided, Albacore tuna, "Chicken of the Sea," fishing became the new economic base for the neighborhood, along with working in the American Beauty pasta factory.
Times weren't always good for the neighborhood, though, Davi said. During the Depression era, when families found themselves under intense economic pressure, Washington Elementary School started a toy library to make sure that every child had something to play with. During World War II, when America was at war with Italy, Italians that were not naturalized citizens were forced to move away from the harbor so they couldn't act as spies, Davi said. Several young men from the neighborhood even lost their lives in the war. They are memorialized around a fountain at Piazza Basilone.
Little Italy down to this day is still in the middle of its own renaissance. After Interstate 5 bisected the neighborhood, a mass exodus of Italian families to other parts of the city occurred as they lost their homes to eminent domain statutes. For the next few decades, the neighborhood experienced a decline, until the early '90s when the area formed the Business Improvement District, the Little Italy Association, its Web site explains.
The Little Italy Association has been instrumental in bringing hundreds of millions of dollars in residential and retail redevelopment to Little Italy, as well as running large-scale public events year-round. They sponsor the annual Festa celebration, Carnevale, ArtWalk, and events such as the Torino Winter Olympics held earlier this year, a giant street festival in conjunction with NBC 7/39 to mark the beginning of the winter Olympic games. It was one of the largest Olympic celebrations outside the Old Country.
Like most of San Diego, a lot in Little Italy is changing, but a lot's still the same.
No, a ticket from Naples, Italy to San Diego doesn't still cost $35. But however much it costs, it's still well worth the money spent.
"We're always living in the middle of history, and now you're part of the story," Davi concludes.
For more information on tours, email email@example.com or visit www.learningannex.com. Though most of the tours are organized by agents, one Saturday a month an open walking tour is held and meets in front of Caffe Italia.