For two decades, the blocks of Fresh Pond Road between Menahan Street and Palmetto Street have been blocked off for the Fresh Pond Road Italian Festival.
It will occur again this coming weekend, an event that includes some 60 vendors and a variety of rides that include carousels, slides and twisters.
A number of local DJs will be performing a mix of pop music and traditional Italian fare from a booth as well. In the past, vendors have offered Italian and Polish sausages, zeppole, crepes, Egyptian food, arepas, funnel cake and unique varieties of potato fries.
Run by the Federazione Italo-Americana di Brooklyn and Queens, a social club on Myrtle Ave, it began in 1996, originally as a larger four-day event, which lasted from Thursday afternoon to Sunday evening. After much debate, it has been shortened for the past three years, beginning now on 2:00pm Saturday and concluding on 9:00pm the next day.
Debate over the festival is as old as the festival itself. A lede in The New York Times in 1997 reads: ”It is just a street fair, supposedly an occasion for celebration. But an Italian-American street fair in Ridgewood has a way of bringing out the bad blood.”
Leading the opposition have been members of the Ridgewood Property Owners Civic Association, one of whom had told the Times at the time that “The fair promoters are incredibly arrogant and think they own the street.”
“It’s more than an inconvenience, it’s a dangerous situation,” says Paul Kerzner, the current Civic Association president. He estimates that some 5,000 people are affected by the closing off of Fresh Pond Road, an inconvenience many cannot bear. “If you’re going to have rules in a community, you can’t have this.”
Queens Community Board 5, which include a number of members of the Civic Association members, has attempted to block the event from happening since the very first year of its inception.
“But the Giuliani Administration just gave it to them anyway,” Gary Giordano, QCB 5’s district manager, remembers.
QCB 5 had paused their attempts to block the festival shortly after the Times story, but resumed their efforts four years ago. This February, the QCB 5 rejected the Federazione’s proposal yet again, and the two-day compromise was agreed to again by councilman Robert Holden and the office of Bill de Blasio.
Even at two days, Giordano believes the festival is not short enough. He cites the Myrtle Avenue Business Improvement District-hosted street festival (later this month, on the 23rd) and the Grand Avenue Festival (next month, on October 8th) as having the proper street festival length of precisely one afternoon, preferably ending at 6:00pm as both do.
Tony DiPiazza, a prominent Federazione member in 1997 and now its president, believes that the Italian Festival is an essential part of recognizing and celebrating Italian culture.
“We were the only Italian neighborhood that didn’t have one,” he told Bushwick Daily of the festival’s early days.
He estimates attendance at between 10,000 and 20,000, though he admits the number have gone down since the festival was forcibly shortened and, these days, the festival barely breaks even. “What can you do?” he asks.
Diana Dumitriu, an employee at the Ridgewood location of Twist It Top It, a frozen yogurt shop near the Festival’s DJ stage, has worked no fewer than five Italian Festivals. On some of the last hot days of summer, business triples.
“The line goes out the door,” she said. “The old people, they don’t like it. It’s too much noise. But the kids love it.”
Cover photo courtesy of Kody Gautier