On Thu., Jan. 30, a group of about 50 people met in Bloomfield to discuss what they would like to see out of the festival. Pittsburgh City Councilor Deb Gross (D-Highland Park) hosted the event, which included table discussions and opportunities for people to share their thoughts on Little Italy Days.
Virtually all participants were in agreement that Little Italy Days is a net positive for Bloomfield. People spoke about the benefits of bringing new faces to neighborhood businesses, the entertainment of the musical performances, and the connection it brings to Bloomfield’s Italian-American roots.
However, even the most staunch defenders of the festival recognized there are trade offs. The festival has grown exponentially in size over the years, and members say it often attracts crowds with drunk patrons who fill the streets with litter. Bob Mariani, former owner of Pleasure Bar on Liberty Avenue, spoke at the meeting about this trade off.
“It's well worth the inconvenience for three or four days,” said Mariani. “Nothing is worth your yards being used as a toilet, but we should give some discretion.”
The event is organized by Sal Richetti, who runs the festival through his for-profit events business. Richetti was invited to the discussion, but Gross says that he was out of town in Florida. Richetti reached out to City Paper and said he was not invited to the meeting until he got a phone call "late Tuesday from Councilwoman Deb Gross' office for the Thursday meeting."
Last August, Richetti said he was open to attending a community meeting, and he tells City Paper that he held one on Nov. 13. "It was well attended, and I [addressed] any concerns and was taking suggestions," says Richetti.
Many at the meeting praised Richetti for some of the changes he has made over the years, like improving detours and adding more trash cans. But several concerns were raised, including sidewalk accessibility during the festival, high prices for local businesses to rent booths, not enough things honoring Italian heritage, and still a proliferation of trash and litter. (When Richetti contacted CP, he said that "local businesses get substantial discounts if they would like to be a vendor in the streets, and they could be a vendor outside on the sidewalk for free.")
One participant at the meeting said the festival was “like a four-day long Kenny Chesney concert for Bloomfield,” referencing the mess made by the popular concert held at Heinz Field every year.
Several businesses close down during the festival because of the disturbance, including local restaurants. Many meeting attendees complained about large, out-of-area vendors that serve carnival food. One Liberty Avenue resident even mentioned that some vendors have asked to use her electricity during the festival.
Some people requested that Richetti create a community liaison position, so that Bloomfield residents and business owners can make requests in the run-up to the event.
A few residents also brought up how the festival is run as a for-profit enterprise and asked that it be organized through a nonprofit instead, so some community benefits can be laid out and made a permanent benefit of the festival.
“Maybe the money that comes in could go to the Bloomfield residents, to the community,” said Ken Kellers of Bloomfield. “Maybe we could get Christmas lights back for Liberty Avenue.”
But even some people sympathetic to Richetti wanted to see some changes to the festival. Many agreed Little Italy Days could have more things specifically for children, like bounce houses or magic shows. (Richetti tells CP that he does include a KidZone with "bounce houses and games for the kids and also stage performances for the kids.") Several residents also complained that dogs were a nuisance to the festival.
Gross thanked everyone for their input and promised to share the information gathered with Richetti, as well as with the city’s Special Events Committee that permits the festival.
“There have been things that we have requested that we have not gotten, but we are going to make sure that all of these things are heard,” said Gross. “This is work what makes Bloomfield such an awesome place to live, Bloomfielders do the work.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated at 8:35 p.m. to include comments from Sal Richetti.