‘This is Little Italy’ at the Elizabeth Street Garden, Seen Through the Eyes of Vinny Vella [PHOTOS]
Two powerful documentaries from two local filmmakers were presented at a free outdoor screening. Both films focused on life for the Italian-American community of Little Italy. The first, Paul Stone’s Mulberry, premiered as part of Tribeca Film Festival’s 2016 Documentary Shorts Program. The second was John Huba’s Hey Vinny, a feature that debuted theatrically in 2000.
Nearly 400 people showed up to the event, including the entire cast of old-timers from Mulberry, who sat front row watching themselves on screen. Director Paul Stone also spoke about the behind-the-scenes and his intentions for the film. Vinny Vella, who appears in both films, gave a heartwarming introduction to Hey Vinny.
Watching John Huba’s Hey Vinny more than fifteen years since it was filmed now feels like a documentary about an old neighborhood, as much as a portrait of its central character. While Vinny hasn’t changed, he’s returned to a Little Italy that has drastically so. Today, the film fits right in with a family of older New York documentaries like Los Sures (1983) and Gary Weis’ 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s (1979).
In the mid to late ’90s, Vinny and his neighbors ruled the block. (They had Fourth of July BBQ’s in the middle of the Elizabeth Street without city permits.) This was a time where few pedestrians went past Lafayette Street to shop or dine out. Before its upper crust conversion. Before being dubbed Nolita, Elizabeth St. resembled Sesame St., more than Soho, with its beat-up metal trash cans – kids running freely or bathing in blow-up pools on the sidewalk.
This is the walking tour illustrated in Hey Vinny. There isn’t a storefront or street corner that doesn’t spark a memory or illicit some story of a crime or a prank, that he pulled of in his hey-day.
However, he and his former neighbors were displaced years later in 2008, when a forced rehab left the building in HPD limbo for over 8 years; the last 3 were dedicated to construction…
As a whole, Hey Vinny is a story about perseverance and redemption: he eventually overcame his addictions; he no longer smokes or drinks. And if he gambles it’s with lottery scratch cards. On Sundays Vinny attends mass at Old St. Patrick’s. Plus, Vinny still gets a lot of play for his roles in Casino, Ghost Dog, and Sopranos. He likes to be recognized and hopes you’ll think of the neighborhood in the same way he does.
And just as Vinny and the old crew finally moved back in during April of 2016, a movie poster suddenly appeared on the storefront windows featuring Vinny sitting outside of Moe’s Albanese Butcher Shop in iconic black and white. The poster was for the TFF premiere of the documentary Mulberry, and it proved that Vinny was indeed back.In an era of moviemaking where content is king, Paul Stone’s Mulberry relies on visual storytelling instead of the traditional style of linear format akin to Ken Burns type documentaries. The expositional history of Little Italy Stone presents is regulated to white text on black screen, allowing the visuals to flow with the quality of sense memory. It appears to be part of a mini-movement in New York indie cinema circuit, in which a nostalgic niche has been carved out by films like The Last Arcade and Clayton D. Smith’s narrative short Off-Track Betty. All of these recent films share a desire to document a vanishing cityscape.
The old-school Italians featured here are apartment dwellers, shop owners, and local characters whose persistence presence draws ire from landlords and odd glances from uppity newcomers.
When the old-timers interviewed in Mulberry recant their time as kids running around the dirty streets with holes in their shoes and spending hot summer nights sleeping on fire escapes, they don’t do it with any hint of displeasure, or shame, but with a fondness for a simpler, cheaper time.The gentrification and mallification of the city are contemporary urban topics, but the director correctly steers clear of these arguments. Instead, Mulberry focuses on an unnerving fear that Little Italy could be destroyed, not by wrecking balls or bulldozers, but by the fact at some point, there won’t be anyone left with the same reverence for the past as people chronicled in the film.
Dom, Marie, Gina, Fat Carmine, Vinny Peanuts, and all the other life-time residents of Little Italy appear miscast as outsiders in one of the most expensive zip codes in the world. Still, they manage to persevere and remain hopeful that… some part of Little Italy will be preserved.
About the Author: Eddie Panta is an artist, screenwriter, and event coordinator volunteer at Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden. Eddie has been friends with Vinny Vella for over 20 years and has been nicknamed “Mickey” by Vinny because that was the name of guy who lived in Eddie’s apartment before he moved in, in 1996.