All around the world, there are many examples of communities made up of large immigrants that have integrated really well into their new communities. One such example is Little Italy in San Diego.
The community has a strong sense of identity and pride in its history. It was founded by Italian immigrants and they started to settle in a San Diego’s area because it reminded them of home.
Where is Little Italy?
The Little Italy street sign, erected in 1999, on India Street between Date and Fir identifies the neighborhood that serves as the heart and soul of San Diego’s Italian American community.
More than a half-dozen annual festivals are hosted in Little Italy each year including celebrations of holidays, music and art including Carnivale (Mardi Gras), “Chalk La Strada,” Columbus Day Festa, ArtWalk, a Bocce Ball Tournament, and Easter celebrations.
India Street is the heart of the neighborhood with outdoor cafes, restaurants, galleries and specialty shops. Amici Park provides a playground for Washington Elementary School and a community park complete with a bocce ball court.
Larger than the Little Italy neighborhoods in San Francisco, St. Louis or New York — this San Diego historic waterfront district is making a comeback after years of setbacks.
Little Italy San Diego History
Italians, primarily from Genoa, Italy, and Sicily were drawn to California by the climate and the geographical similarity to their homeland.
Those who came to San Diego tended to form homogeneous communities like other immigrants did in many cities throughout the U.S. Quite a few of the earliest arrivals adopted the area around Kettner Boulevard, India, Columbia, and State Streets as their new home.
Many of the new arrivals had previously made their livelihood from fishing in Italy and it was natural for this industry to become their focus in their new country.
A natural harbor and year round Mediterranean climate eventually resulted in San Diego becoming the home base for the pacific coast tuna fishing fleet.
Italian immigrants who didn’t own or work on fishing boats often started seafood processing plants, seafood marketing businesses or Italian restaurants specializing in seafood. More than 40,000 people were employed directly or indirectly by the tuna industry in San Diego by the late seventies.
The nearby Maritime Museum San Diego is a place to learn more about San Diego’s seafaring experience.
Several events in U.S. and San Diego history had negative impacts on Italian fishermen including the U.S. involvement in WWII and then later, in the early 1950’s, stiff competition from a revitalized Japanese fishing fleet and foreign control of bait resources and coastal waters south of the U.S.
During WWII the tuna boats range was restricted, larger boats were requisitioned by the Navy and Italian residents’ legal status changed whenever they left the territorial limits of the U.S. — including while on a fishing boat. By 1959 the tuna clipper fleet shrank from 210 to 149 vessels.
In addition to the decline in the tuna industry, San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood was literally cut in two by the construction of Interstate 5 displacing many families to other parts of the city. Fortunately for San Diego many of the displaced families maintain businesses in Little Italy and return there to shop and worship.
Our Lady of the Rosary Church, an Italian National Parish at 1659 Columbia Street, was consecrated on November 15, 1925. The Parish Hall next to the Church was inaugurated in 1939.
Fausto Tasca decorated the ceiling and the walls of Our Lady of the Rosary Church with paintings depicting the mysteries of the Rosary, the twelve Apostles, a huge Crucifixion, and the Last Judgment. There are also statues of Our Lady, St. Anne, and St. Joseph by the famous Californian Sculptor Carlos Romanelli and several beautiful stained glass windows in the church.
The Italian Cultural Center promotes, celebrates, and provides education about Italian American culture.
The Little Italy Association and Little Italy Residents Association maintain websites with information about the neighborhood.
The Pioneer Hook & Ladder Firehouse Museum at 1572 Columbia Street in Little Italy displays 150 years of firefighting history from around the world. Housed in the historic 1906 San Diego Fire Station 6 building firefighting equipment, photographs and memorabilia give visitors a look into the past.