In Danbury, CT, Italian families establish the city's first San Gennaro Festival in 2022
For the people of Danbury, CT the San Gennaro festival that took place last week was not only a story of tradition and heritage but also one of triumph. While festivals dedicated to the patron saint of Naples have existed in other American cities for generations, (Manhattan’s Little Italy is celebrating its 104th 11-day festival this week) Danbury’s five-day long celebration was its first ever.
The festival comes after more than two long years of preparations and setbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea came about in 2019 at the hands of Jim Galante, a long-time local of Neapolitan heritage, referred to fondly as the “quarterback” of the entire initiative. Galante worked in conjunction with his 36-year-old son Anthony “AJ” Galante and city officials to bring his dream to light this year. Despite the frustrations and months of preparations, the moment was a source of pride for Danbury’s Italian American population, a community that was able to witness a long-standing Italian tradition be instituted in their home for the first time.
“It was a huge, very proud weekend for us and a huge success,” says Danbury’s Mayor Dean Esposito, whose Italian roots can also be traced back to Naples. “The San Gennaro festival will be something that hopefully continues on for many, many years. This festival brought forth how proud we are to be Italian Americans.”
A CITY BUILT UP BY ITALIANS
The first Italians immigrated to the city in the late 1880s, making their living by working on railroad and public works projects. At the time, Danbury was considered the epicenter of the hat-making industry in the United States and many Italian immigrants contributed their efforts to the trade. Over time, as the Italian population in the city grew, they opened their own businesses such as barber shops, restaurants, and butcher shops.
Today, Danbury is incredibly ethnically diverse – it was ranked as the 10th most diverse city in the United States by a 2021 Wallethub study, a personal finance website. While the Italian population is not as numerous as it once was, the community still maintains a strong presence in the form of popular Italian restaurants, and now, thanks to the combined efforts of city officials and the Galante family, the San Gennaro festival.
The festival took place from Wednesday, September 7 to Sunday, September 11. The Galante family collaborated with a man who runs the San Gennaro festival in Yorktown, NY, a city approximately 26 miles southwest of Danbury, who helped guide them through the nuances of setting up a festival, including obtaining permits and sponsors.
Through him, the city was also able to secure the festive green, white and red archways and lights that structure the San Gennaro festival in the Bronx as well as the 96-year-old statue of the saint that resides in the Most Precious Blood Church on Baxter Street in Manhattan. This historic statue, which was originally carried through the streets of Little Italy in the early 20th century before it was “retired,” is also carried in Yorktown, NY. During its stay in Danbury, it remained on display throughout the entire festival. This interaction tied Danbury to Yorktown, the Bronx, and Manhattan, creating a network of Italian Americans not only dedicated to the celebration of Italian American culture in the area but also to the faith in the saint.
At 6 p.m on the opening night of the festival, the people of Danbury loaded the statue onto a trailer attached to a vehicle. A few locals, including Anthony “AJ” Galante, held the statue in place as they made the half-mile journey from St. Peter’s Church on Main Street to where the festival was held on Ives Street. The trailer, decorated in streamers and ribbons sporting the colors of the Italian flag, was followed by a procession of locals.
“I’ve always been huge on history, so to have something that’s nearly 100 years old, something with so much tradition behind it, was such an honor to have in my hometown. It was very humbling” explains Galante. Born and raised in Danbury, Galante remembers visiting the San Gennaro feast in Manhattan every year with his family as a child. He recalls touring the vendors, eating from the stalls, and going on the amusement rides with his sister, memories that now he and others can make in their own home during their city’s own festival.
THE FIRST FESTIVAL
Danbury hosted roughly 16 vendors from Connecticut and New York who sold everything from arancini, zeppole, and penne alla vodka to t-shirts, jewelry, and Italian memorabilia. There was also a wine and beer garden, musical performances including one from local band “The Zoo,” amusement rides, face painting for children, dunk tanks, laser light shows, and cannoli and meatball eating contests. The goal, Galante explains, was to make the festival as inclusive as possible so that all members of the community, regardless of their age or background, could enjoy themselves.
“I was extremely proud of it. I thought it was unbelievable. Everyone seemed to have an amazing time, so it just really motivates you to want to keep going and hopefully do something even better,” says Galante. “Just seeing people from all over, from different ethnic backgrounds enjoying the festival, especially since it was a first-time thing, and wanting another one next year, that’s the best compliment you can get.”
Roger Palanzo, the mayor’s chief of staff, estimates that the festival drew in more than 10,000 people. While there was a good crowd that visited during the first two days of the festival, attendance skyrocketed over the weekend. Vendors sold out their merchandise so quickly that they had to continually send out orders for more food to keep up with demand. “It was an event never before seen here in the city of Danbury as far as the amount of attraction and visitors,” he notes.
Very little advertising was done prior to the festival. The celebration was marketed a few times on local radio stations and an Instagram page was created to drive traffic, but the city was too focused on getting everything set up to give advertisement any more attention. Luckily, word of mouth was enough to spread the news. Next year, Galante says, the city will ramp up its social media presence in the hopes of drawing more vendors and visitors to the festival.
For Galante, one of the festival’s highlights was the amount of positive feedback he received from members of the community. According to him, there are many transplant New Yorkers living in Danbury who are unable to return home often. As the festival took place, Galante says that many of the elderly transplants came up to the organizers to thank them for their efforts and to share their memories of growing up in Little Italy and in the Bronx during the San Gennaro festivals. It was moments like these that made all the setbacks, headaches, and numerous preparations worth it for Galante. The festival not only brought a rich cultural tradition to the city but also strengthened bonds and ties within the community.
“I think whether you’re Italian or not, people in the area truly enjoyed a great celebration of culture,” says Galante. “You could see there was such a sense of pride that we were able to bring a traditional festival to the area.”
Asia London Palomba
Asia London Palomba is a trilingual freelance journalist from Rome, Italy, currently pursuing her master's in journalism at New York University (NYU). In the past, her work on culture, travel and history has been published in The Boston Globe, Atlas Obscura and The Christian Science Monitor. In her free time, Asia enjoys travelling home to Italy to spend time with family and friends, drinking Hugo Spritzes and making her nonna's homemade cavatelli.