“The idea is to build an ‘AfricaTown,’ similar to Little Italy and Chinatown,” explained Charles Oliver in a recent issue of Reason magazine, referring to the vote by Detroit City Council to spend $30 million a year in public money to develop a blacks-only, race-based district of entrepreneurship in downtown Detroit.
“By a 7-2 vote,” reported Oliver, “the council has decreed that only black businessmen and investors can qualify for the money.” The concept of this black version of Little Italy originated in a $112,000 report commissioned by the council: “A Powernomics Economic Development Plan for Detroit’s Under-Served Majority Population.”
The plan is to create a black Little Italy, dubbed AfricaTown, funded in large part by taxpayers’ dollars and made up of black-owned businesses catering to a black clientele. The analogy to Little Italy, of course, doesn’t work. There’s nothing about the proposed development of AfricaTown that bears the least resemblance to how Little Italy happened.
The Italian immigrants first settled in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1850s, eight decades before the U.S. even had a minimum-wage law (i.e., 25 cents an hour in 1938) and long before the federal government got in the business of safety nets. The Italians, in short, came to Mulberry Street for an opportunity, not a handout.
What worked was hard work. Again, as Claghorn recounted: “The Italian fruit peddler bestows a considerable amount of his inherited racial art sense in ‘composing’ his wares to form an attractive picture; the Italian barber pays considerable attention to the attractiveness of his place; the Italian bootblack is not the little ragged urchin of yesterday with battered box and a shrill velocity of motion, but a well-kept looking individual anywhere from 15 to 30 years of age, with a regularly established place of business ranging from the throne-like arm chair and umbrella to the regular shop as well-kept as the barber’s.”
That’s how Italians got rich. It’s how America got rich. Or as historian John Steele Gordon explained it: “If America is famous for its get-up-and-go, it’s because we have ancestors who got up and came.”
Little Italy, in short, was successful because the spaghetti was good, not because someone got a handout from city council.