Once the humble home of immigrant fishermen, today San Diego's Little Italy is a sophisticated urban community. There have been dramatic changes — stylish condos, art galleries, chic eateries — but from the first whiff of espresso in the morning to the aroma of simmering marinara sauce at night, this is a neighborhood that has stayed true to its roots.
At the end of the 19th century, Italian and Portuguese immigrants thrived here as commercial fishermen; the area became known as the "tuna capital of the world."
But the tuna boom eventually fizzled, and the industry — and the jobs — dramatically shrank. The construction of Interstate 5, starting in the 1950s, cut through the community and displaced many families. Over the next few decades, the area declined, but even then a few Italian restaurants and Our Lady of the Rosary church kept the flame alive.
Now this neighborhood is in the midst of a renaissance, thanks to a private-public partnership formed in the 1990s.
This historic district covers about 50 square blocks with India Street as its center and home to most of the hip restaurants, shops and the landmark establishments from the early years.
There's plenty of curb appeal with sidewalk piazzas, fountains and hanging flower baskets. New residential development is within easy walking distance.
You can still hear conversations in Italian on street corners, at cafes and at Our Lady of the Rosary, built in 1925 and the spiritual heart of the community.
Mike Ciampa, a real estate agent for 92101 Residential, which sells primarily downtown San Diego properties, says, "My favorite places are the small local hangouts where you can always find someone you know."
"Both my home and office are in the neighborhood," Ciampa says. "We love the intimate feel of the area. We can walk wherever we need to be."
For almost 10 years, Anthony Davi, a San Diego-based tour guide and writer, has been taking people on walks that showcase the historic sites and culminate with lunch at a local restaurant. "I lived in Little Italy in the mid-1980s when the area wasn't so trendy," Davi says. "While much has changed from a redevelopment standpoint, much remains the same in Little Italy. There are more weddings than ever and daily Mass continues as it has since 1925 at the magnificent Catholic church."
The neighborhood merchants still speak in the dialects of Sicily, Davi says.
Good news, bad news
Little Italy is a major hub of the San Diego arts community, with many galleries, design and fashion boutiques.
But not everyone is pleased with certain aspects of the area's development. "Apartment building construction has dwarfed us and our neighbors," says Stacey Himmel, owner of India Ink, a stationery store. "We used to be able to see the sun set over the harbor, but now a building blocks the view."
Other problems include the scarcity of parking and finding housing to accommodate larger families. Much of the new construction is of one- and two-bedroom units. Amici Park, with its playground and bocce ball court, serves the entire neighborhood.
Condos are the big story here. The original smaller homes have been squeezed out in recent years by urban development. More than 2,000 condos, town houses and apartments have been built in the last decade with 700 slated in the next couple of years. Some development is mixed use: retail on the ground floor and residences above.
"Whether you are 60 or 20, the reason to live here is always the same," Ciampa says. "It's a small ethnic neighborhood in the middle of a big downtown."
As of mid-November, there were about 105 properties for sale in Little Italy, nearly all of them condos or town houses.
At the low end, there's a one-bathroom, 552-square-foot studio with city views listed for $285,000. For $1,799,900, there's a two-bedroom, two-bathroom, 2,150-square-foot condo with city views. Listed single-family houses include one with three bedrooms and 1 1/2 bathrooms in 1,132 square feet for $549,000 and a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,232-square-foot house for $1,960,000.
Children attend Washington Elementary, which scored 758 out of a possible 1,000 on the 2006 Academic Performance Growth Index. The middle school is Roosevelt Junior High School, which scored 638. The high school is San Diego High Educational Complex — one campus of six small schools that scored from 469 to 797.