The Sicilian surge: When the French Quarter became ‘Little Palermo’
Starting in 1884 and continuing through to 1924, an estimated 290,000 Italian immigrants — a great deal of them from Sicily — arrived in New Orleans, fleeing economic and political turmoil. In short order, their indelible influence would be felt on the city. With the French Quarter no longer a fashionable address, many of the city’s more well-heeled residents moved Uptown, leaving the city’s newcomers to set up shop there and in surrounding neighborhoods. In fact, they did so literally: So many Italian-owned mom-and-pop corner groceries dotted the French Quarter, and so many Italian farmers sold their wares in the French Market, that the Quarter eventually became unofficially known as “Little Palermo,” after the Sicilian capital.
There’s no “Little Palermo” section of New Orleans anymore; people of Italian heritage are spread throughout the city’s neighborhoods and suburbs rather than being concentrated in any one area. But the Italian influence can be felt throughout the region, most notably on St. Joseph’s Day — March 19 — when altars are set up around town to honor the patron Saint of Sicily and the annual Irish-Italian parade takes to the streets.
- The tradition of annually building elaborate St. Joseph’s Altars dates back hundreds of years to Sicily, when the patron saint of the region is believed to have interceded in ending a famine. It’s unclear when the first such altars were built in New Orleans, although by the early 20th century, they were so big, and so ubiquitous, that the tradition began getting newspaper coverage.
- Today, St. Joseph’s Day is most closely associated with Italian-American communities, but his feast day was celebrated in historically Catholic New Orleans long before the influx of Italians, as he is also the patron saint of the Catholic Church. It didn’t hurt that the day falls on March 19, offering a chance to relax a bit amid the solemnity of Lent.
- The first generations of Italian immigrants in New Orleans found themselves on the receiving end of that most American of traditions: persecution of the outsider. Fear surrounding the emergence of the mafia in the United States only further tainted the image of law-abiding Italians in the city.
- Anti-Italian feelings in New Orleans peaked in 1891 when an angry mob stormed Parish Prison and lynched 11 Italians indicted in the assassination of police chief David Hennessy. That event, which was covered nationally, is recognized as the largest mass lynching in the country’s history.
- In 1978, leaders of the local Italian community built the Piazza d’Italia — a public park tucked away behind the Loews Hotel on Poydras Street — as an homage to the Italian immigrant experience in the city. In addition to being a community gathering place, the Piazza had a notable cameo in the opening of the locally shot film “The Big Easy.”
- The General Mills-owned Progresso Foods got its start in New Orleans, as an offshoot of a French Quarter grocery run by Sicilian immigrant Giuseppe Uddo.
- The American Italian Museum on South Peters Street, part of the American Italian Cultural Center, hosts a permanent collection chronicling the story and contributions of Italians in the Southeast region of the United States.
- Among prominent Italians in the city’s history are band leader Louis Prima; jazz musician Nick LaRocca, whose Original Dixieland Jazz Band is credited with making the first commercial jazz recording; and former mayors Robert Maestri and Vic Schiro.
New Orleanians love to tout the city’s multi-cultural foundation, and perhaps nowhere was it ever better encapsulated than in the French Quarter of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here was a neighborhood that was founded and named after the French, that exhibited the architecture of Spain, but which was filled with the faces and voices of Sicily. While those early Sicilian immigrants stood out as newcomers, over the past century-plus they and their traditions — including their food, music and celebrations — have been folded into the city’s broad cultural tableau, in the process becoming a vital part of the overall flavor of today’s New Orleans.