The 10th edition of Italian Day—since its revival in 2010—will feature something very noticeable and very new. This Sunday (June 9), when hundreds of thousands of Vancouverites converge on Commercial Drive for the daylong celebration, they’ll be able to observe the Italian-style green, white, and red crosswalks at the intersections of Charles Street, East 1st Avenue, and East 4th Avenue. The northern (Charles) and southern crosswalks are eight blocks apart and mark the city’s official boundary for Little Italy, reinforcing the historical connections between this part of Vancouver and its thriving Italian community.
“I’m just very happy and proud of everyone that came together to make this happen,” Federico Fuoco, owner of Federico’s Supper Club, told the Georgia Straight by phone. “It’s long overdue, just to pay homage to those that came, the immigrants, who started businesses with nothing. Through sheer hard work and determination, they provided a service and a sense of community to the Italians that lived in the area back in the day.”
Fuoco, a director of the Commercial Drive Business Society (CDBS), credited designer Dragan Nikodijevic for playing an “instrumental” role in the avant-garde look of the crosswalks. They reflect the colours of the Italian flag but are not an exact replica.
Some people have asked Fuoco why la tre bandiere a colori—the three-colour flag—wasn’t painted across the Drive at the three intersections.
“Apparently, the laws of the nation are that you can’t walk or drive over a flag,” he explained. “It’s kind of disrespectful, but a lot of people don’t realize that. That’s why we came up with the design that we did.”
Fuoco, who grew up at East 2nd and Commercial Drive, said that there are “some 30- to 40-odd businesses owned by Italians or the next generation” in Vancouver’s Little Italy. This designation resulted from a motion in 2016 by NPA councillor Melissa De Genova, with the backing of the CDBS and Il Centro, a.k.a. the Italian Cultural Centre of Vancouver.
CDBS president Carmen D’Onofrio Jr. told the Straight by phone that the crosswalks are permanent and will maintain the identity of the area.
“The City of Vancouver recognized these eight blocks of Commercial Drive as Vancouver’s historic Little Italy, so we wanted to give some definition to the area and promote and expand upon that,” D’Onofrio said, “and it’s been really well received both by residents, Vancouverites, [and] tourists that are visiting the city.”
Commercial Drive has long been seen as the centre of Italian culture in Vancouver, but that wasn’t always the case. According to an article by historian John Atkin on the City of Vancouver website, Strathcona was Vancouver’s first “Little Italy” in the early 1900s. He noted that after the Second World War, the community dispersed and new Italian business districts developed on East Hastings Street between Lakewood and Renfrew streets and along Commercial Drive.
The Drive has also been the site for community celebrations, most notably during Italy’s World Cup soccer runs. Italian Day was one of the neighbourhood’s hallmarks from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.
“It got too big too fast, and it couldn’t be supported,” D’Onofrio said. “However, we were instrumental in bringing it back in 2010. And every year, it’s gotten bigger and better—and more organized and higher-profile. It’s now the largest cultural street festival in Vancouver.”
Il Centro vice president Randy Rinaldo said in a recent interview with the Straight that when he was growing up, it bothered him that other cities had a Little Italy while Vancouver didn’t. So he sought the blessing of community leaders—including D’Onofrio, former Il Centro president Luca Citton, former Il Centro executive director Mauro Vescera, and current Il Centro president Michael Cuccione—to create a Facebook page in 2016 to try to make this happen. It immediately generated a bunch of likes, which led to a meeting between Rinaldo and De Genova.
Rinaldo recalled that within two or three weeks, De Genova had prepared a motion. But the Vision Vancouver majority shuffled the idea off for discussion in the Grandview-Woodland planning process.
“Then Melissa did a second push right before Italian Day,” Rinaldo said. “At that point, I guess the rest of council realized the support that this had and we were able to extract it from the Grandview-Woodland community plan and get it through.”
On the day that Little Italy was proclaimed, Rinaldo’s wife went into labour. He still managed to be part of the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Commercial Drive in 2016 before rushing to the hospital in time for the birth of his second son.
“My wife knew how important it was for me to be there for this moment I’ve waited for since I was a child,” Rinaldo said with a laugh.
“I got to the hospital with 28 minutes to spare. So I cut the umbilical cord and the ribbon.”
His dream is to see Little Italy become like an Italian Disneyland with green, white, and red all over the place, including on fire hydrants and street signs. He, like Fuoco, also pines for Italian arches.
“I want it to be a real tourist attraction—a place not just for Italians but for all cultures to come and enjoy and have that Italian experience.”
When asked how people should feel when they visit Little Italy, Rinaldo responded “warm and fuzzy”.
“Italians are lovers, not fighters,” he quipped. “We want Commercial Drive to be a destination to bring your family or perhaps your significant other.”
With files from Carlito Pablo.