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

“I can’t read my book anymore,” says 80-year-old widow Mary Galanti Papola, who’s lived in the same home at 13th and Tasker her whole life, “because all the new neighbors come by and want to talk to me!” With regard to the “new people,” she says, “I think they’re pretty nice. They’re very Democratic. I can’t find one that I would say was nasty. And if they’re gay, that’s great. They upgrade the neighborhood.”

“There was a 70-year-old woman sweeping alongside a tattooed young man who had big plug earrings,” Joe Marino recalls of a recent neighborhood clean-up event. “Well, they became quick friends and started talking about the best way to grow basil in their yards. The point is, it’s true that South Philadelphians are not easily swayed, and they have the courage of their convictions. But when it comes to community, they’re not narrow-minded; they’re single-minded.”

Susan Patrone’s mother was in the self-checkout at the Acme, “in front of some big tattooed, pierced kid,” says Patrone. “She was a little nervous, intimidated. But when she left cash on the machine and started to walk away, he tapped her and said, ‘Here, you left this.’”

“You go out on the Avenue on a Friday night and you walk through the Cantina sidewalk — which is impossible because maybe it’s filled with hipsters — and there might be a family in front at Paradiso, and then Michael’s has a completely different crowd, and then you look across the street and see those old Italian men playing cards,” Stephanie Reitano says. “Philly should be thankful that this exists. You’re not gonna see this in Boston or New York. It’s a really cool time to be here.”

The Center City crowd is coming to check out teeny gastropub Lucky 13 because LaBan raved about it, suggesting that this ’hood could be one of the next restaurant rows. New businesses are staying open late to catch the foot traffic. The zoning laws are stringent enough to halt overdevelopment, which is good, because Marino will positively lose it if a Starbucks moves in.

Newcomers choose this place for its history, its sense of community, for saying “Hi” when you pass on the Avenue. “They want to be part of something authentic,” says Patrone, “and South Philly’s for real.”