Trends: Go South, Young Homo

Gays — and the yuppies who follow their lead — are remaking Passyunk Avenue into a cosmopolitan hub bustling with designer coffee shops and chic boutiques. But the biggest surprise may be the reaction of South Philly’s old-timers

In the past few years, though, with so much affordable housing stock down here and Center City getting pricier by the day, the “grandmom houses” of South Philly have become what no one could have envisioned: hot property. “People are less afraid to go farther south now,” says realtor Trish Kelly, who has placed at least three dozen gay couples here in the past five years. “Though the real estate environment is slightly depressed, I believe this neighborhood is strong. But the people who grew up here and still live here are … well, a little confused with the world at the moment.”

The trend isn’t confusing at all to Kevin Gillen, a Penn research fellow and vice president of Econsult, an economics consulting firm. “This is the classic pattern,” says Gillen. “The artists and musicians are the first to take the risk in an emerging neighborhood. Then come the gay couples, who typically don’t have children and so don’t have the same worries about safety and school districts as young families.”

Indeed, gay migration has long been synonymous with trendsetting. And positive stereotypes about the gay intruders abound. They take care of their property and beautify the area, they’re entrepreneurial, they have disposable income and patronize local businesses, they promote community, they increase property values. And most importantly, they signal to the young families, yuppies and professionals that they should really come check this place out.

Capogiro’s Stephanie Reitano knew it. When developer Tony Goldman convinced Reitano and her husband to open a gelato shop at 13th and Sansom in 2002, in the heart of the city’s “gayborhood,” the dicey corner was no sure bet. “What was proven was, where gay people live, they spend money,” says Reitano. The risk paid off. Now she and her husband are trying their luck again — this time with a scoop-shop version of Capogiro on East Passyunk. “We have always loved this neighborhood,” says Reitano. “We’d go to Mr. Martino’s, Marra’s, and new places like Paradiso.”

“Now if only we could convince the old-timers to pay $4.87 for a small cup of ice cream,” muses Joseph Marino, co-chair of the East Passyunk Crossing Civic Association and the ’hood’s ersatz mayor, as he walks past the just-open gelateria. (Though Reitano says she has no trouble selling to the longtime locals, she often has to explain exactly what gelato is to the generation not born in Italy.) If anyone gets the old-guard-vs.-new-crowd dynamic, it’s Marino, who — as a lifetime resident, the music director at a local parish, and an openly gay man — embodies both of the cultures now melding in the heart of South Philly.